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"Doyle & Debbie" meet Conan O'Brien

A Conversation with Bruce Arntson (continued)

PM: And I see that the record was recorded and co-produced by your drummer and longtime cohort, one of the really unique Nashville cats, Kirby Shelstad.

BA: Yeah, he's my best friend.

PM: Really?

BA: Yeah, we grew up in Minnesota together before we came here.

PM: Amazing!

BA: Yeah.

PM: Minnesota.

BA: Yeah.

PM: He's a very multifaceted person and musician.

BA: Oh, he's incredible, absolutely. Everything I've ever done has been either with or filtered through Kirby musically, absolutely. He's been there from the start.

PM: His girlfriend Sandy is an old friend of mine, as well.

BA: Oh, okay.

PM: And they're just really amazing people. And I've seen him play with the group Otto as well. And wow, that's an amazing group. Have you seen that?

BA: I have. It's great. Anything Jim Hoke does is amazing.

PM: Right, exactly.

BA: Yeah. But Kirby fits into all genres. He loves all genres, as do I, and that's another reason why we get along so well is because we just don't discriminate from one thing to the next.

PM: And people who aren't from there don't understand the way Minnesotans are tied.

BA: Yes.

PM: There's a real bond there.

BA: That's probably true, yeah.

PM: I know my singer songwriter friends Sally Barris and Kami Lyle used to talk about that, too, and they would get together and talk like the people in Fargo do. [laughter]

BA: There's a Minnesota Mafia here, that's what we call them, that even though we don't necessarily hang together or have a breakfast club, we have a secret handshake.

PM: [laughs] Are there any other members I might not be aware of that come to mind?

BA: Well, yeah, Michael Johnson, "Bluer Than Blue," yeah.

PM: Yeah, wow. [One of the greats, simply.]

BA: He's a classic Minnesotan, he's just a sweetheart of a guy.

PM: He's a great cat.

BA: And John Vezner. [Another great songwriter, and the husband of Kathy Mattea.]

PM: Really? Vezner, too, wow.

BA: Mike Klute. [Among other successes, the producer of Diamond Rio.]

PM: I know him, yeah, sure.

BA: He's actually a Fargo North Dakota boy, but it's all the same, basically.

PM: Right. Holy jeez, that's interesting stuff. I love all the pockets of Nashville, the regional pockets, like the North Carolina people and as you say, the Minnesotans. It's really amazing, you can know this town by those pockets from whence people came.

BA: Yes, there's a Texas contingency, they all know each other and hang together: Gary Nicholson, Delbert McClinton and Rodney Crowell, and that whole gang. [And many more, in this town.]

PM: I hear that you and Kirby used to do some soundtrack stuff together. Since I'm scoring this cartoon with our mutual friend Dan Spomer at the moment [my engineer, Bruce's live sound person] I'd be interested in hearing about any of that. What are your soundtrack days about?

BA: Well, it started with the Ernest franchise.

PM: Wow.

BA: And they got a CBS Saturday morning show back during the time of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. And so I was brought on as a writer.

PM: A comedy writer.

BA: Yeah. And then they asked me--one of the directors was my other really close friend, Coke Sams. He's got a film and video company that's been around a long time called Ruckus Films. Each show had a theme, and he asked if I would write a little song for it. And I was also in the ensemble cast, which did multiple characters, recurring characters. And he asked if I would write a little song for each segment that was appropriate for the theme. The show was called Hey Vern, it's Ernest. It was on CBS.

Actually, I'm pretty proud of that show. It was an Emmy Award winning show, even though we only got to do one season. It was really good--which I can't say about much of the Ernest stuff that I worked on. But that actually turned out really well. By virtue of having done the songs, then they asked if I would score it. I knew there wasn't a hell of a lot involved with that, so I said, "Sure." It's kind of like scoring little cartoons--I mean single instruments, like a marimba or something at a time. It wasn't anything elaborate or orchestrated.

So I said, "Sure." And Kirby and I, that was our first experience with video sync. And then by that time Disney was franchising their movies, and so now their budgets were big, and they asked if I could score a feature film, and I lied and said, "Yes." And then Kirby and I just dove in to learn this. We bought a bunch of equipment and worked with an engineer, Rick Shurmer, who was our sync master. Because in those days it was a very persnickety thing. It's gotten way easier now.

PM: Right. I can't imagine how they were syncing to video in those days on kind of the smaller level.

BA: It was a nightmare, and it was a constant hassle. But nonetheless we started scoring. And then these were for like 60-piece orchestral scores.

PM: Holy shit!

BA: 45 minutes of orchestral music. [laughs]

PM: Had you ever done anything resembling that?

BA: It was a really quick and fun learning experience. I mean, we had lots of pressure, there were time constraints because in post production they have the sound stage scheduled out in Berkeley or L.A., wherever, it has to be there on this date, and the edit keeps moving closer and closer towards you, but the date for the sound stage doesn't move away from you. So you get crunched in there probably more than anybody. And this is a common complaint of film composers, but that's why they pay them so much money, too, if you can compose really quickly. So we did a handful of those orchestral scores and got a little better at it each time. And in the meantime, Kirby started scoring documentaries and things. And then I quit pursuing it. I pursued it for a while after the Ernest franchise died. But really what I found out was that I'd have to basically move out to L.A. if I really wanted to keep doing big scores, because every time I would try to get an agent, that's what they would say, "Well, get out here."

PM: "You got to be here," right. Just like Nashville. You got to be here.

BA: Yeah, exactly. You don't pitch country songs from anywhere else. And I had a son here, and blah, blah, blah, all kinds of attachments and friends, and I just didn't want to do that. So I sort of switched gears and started writing scripts and screenplays. But yeah, Kirby and I had a ball and made a ton of money. And we still get foreign residuals off of Ernest every year.

PM: Unbelievable.

BA: Yeah, it was really fun.

PM: So yeah, some other time I'd love to hear more about your screen writing adventures and all that. I mean, there are so many things you've done, I mean, who knew?

I know that Doyle & Debbie were on Conan recently. I was watching, but fell asleep, damn it, and woke up when you were waving goodnight from the couch.


PM: How did the show go?

BA: It went great. I'll send you a link to our portion.

PM: Oh, fantastic.

BA: There are several places on the internet that show Conan episodes, but I found one that will just have our little segment. But yeah, it went great. I tried to come up with a representative pastiche of Doyle & Debbie, rather than just sing a song or two. And so there's a little bit of shtick, and you kind of get the sense of the characters as much as you can in five, six minutes. But it was great. They treated us wonderfully.

PM: Wow. So what's it like when you do that show, when you do Conan? In your case, for instance, did you talk with him before or after at all? Is it like that?

BA: No, we didn't. I didn't meet him until he came over and shook our hands during the show. But beforehand they did have a rehearsal. And it's primarily for the cameras to find out what we're doing so they know what they're going to do. And so we got to run it a couple of times, which got a lot of the butterflies out. And they treat you really--I mean, they're all very aware of the pressure that particularly people who haven't been on the show before must be feeling, and so they're very sensitive. And the place itself, it's the old NBC Studios. It's been there for--30 Rockefeller Plaza, it's been there forever. And so it has this well-worn, as welcoming of a vibe as you can get from an institution like that. It's not pristine glass and steel and intimidating. So that part is good. And then just everybody is just geared up to help you and make you feel comfortable. So yeah. We were scared shitless, nonetheless, but it still was as much fun as they could make it. And now it seems like they will be asking us back in a while, so now next time we'll hopefully be able to go tit-for-tat with him a little bit and sit on the couch a little longer.

PM: Wow. And during that same weekend didn't you also do some kind of a big gig at BB Kings in the city for booking agents and industry types and such?

BA: Yep, we did. And that's just now starting to bear some fruit.

PM: Wow.

BA: Because we've not made very many trips--we've only been out of Nashville twice.

PM: It's amazing.

BA: The New York thing was one of them. So it's still going to be a trick for our agency to--we work with Bobby Cudd at Paradigm.

PM: One of my favorite Nashville people. He's a great dude.

BA: Yeah, he absolutely is.

PM: He's always handling whoever is really cool and cutting edge, right at that moment, Bobby Cudd has always got them.

BA: Yep, I know it. Lyle Lovett, and--

PM: Yeah. Robinella, whoever it is at the moment, he's on the case.

BA: Yeah, he is. And he's just a sweetheart of a guy, and just so disarmingly honest for anybody, let alone an agent, that it's really hard to believe. [laughs]    continue


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