'The Doyle and Debbie Show'

That hillbilly vaudevillian flair

Jenny Littleton as Debbie and Bruce Arnston as Doyle
Jenny Littleton as Debbie and Bruce Arnston as Doyle

Doyle Mayfield is to country music what Nigel Tufnel is to heavy metal: an entire musical genre's clichés, banalities, and worst impulses wrapped in one oafishly clueless package. Created by Nashville writer-musician Bruce Arntson, Mayfield is cast from the mold of old-school Grand Ole Opry leading lights like Porter Wagoner and Bill Anderson, albeit of much, much dimmer wattage. His was a barely-cracked-the-regional-charts career derailed by alcohol and more poor personal choices than Music City has honky-tonks. But this Nashville washout is by Gawd determined to make a comeback with a new partner (the third Debbie), and The Doyle and Debbie Show is that misbegotten attempt, presented in all its awkwardness and open desperation. It's hilarious in the manner of Spinal Tap's tour in the mockumentary and just as spot-on in satirizing a musical genre's styles and sensibilities (or lack thereof). A hit in Nashville for three years now, the comedy made its Austin debut last month, and, as you might expect in the city that birthed Esther's Follies and Greater Tuna, it fit right in. With The Doyle and Debbie Show back for two more weeks at the Long Center, the Chronicle asked Arntson about his country comedy sensation.

Austin Chronicle: Your song parodies nail the musical styles of different country artists so specifically. Was that a challenge for you?

Bruce Arntson: I don't listen to country music when left to my own devices, but I've lived in Nashville for 30 years, and I grew up in rural Minnesota, where country music was big, so I recognized all the niches over the years, whether it's the old guard like George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] or the country rock that came in in the Seventies and Eighties or now the country pop ballads by singers like Martina McBride. I like all genres of music, but I think mimicking those styles came pretty easily because of my proximity to it in Nashville.

AC: Do you count yourself among the Music Row musicians?

BA: A lot of them are friends, and I've worked with a lot of them in varying capacities. Basically everybody that played on the tracks [that accompany Doyle and Debbie in the show] are sought-after session players. They knew what I was going for, and I would give them free license to be as cliché-ridden as they could be, so they had a lot of fun. It's like casting really good actors; it makes you look like a good director.

AC: Do different people have different ideas of who Doyle is based on?

BA: Oh yeah. We've had a handful of Opry stars or musicians who played on the Grand Ole Opry say, "I know exactly who you were doing." A lot of folks think Porter Wagoner, which is true. There's some Porter Wagoner in my character. And Bill Anderson. And Jim Ed Brown, who's a little more obscure. They all had that old hillbilly vaudevillian flair, that old-time presentational approach to show biz, very formal and yet very country. And along with that professionalism was this amateurishness, this naivete, that's just charming as hell.

AC: Was it strange bringing the show to Austin?

BA: We've been doing it for three years, and almost from the start people would say: "You've got to go to Austin. Austin is the perfect place for you guys." I had never been, but I have a lot of musician friends who live there or play there, so I had the suspicion that it would be like going home. And even more receptive than Nashville, 'cause it's my notion that Austin loves making fun of Nashville country. So what better place to go?

The Doyle and Debbie Show runs July 9-19, Thursday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 5, 9pm; Sunday, 3pm; with added show Sunday, July 19, 7pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre of the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.

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The Doyle and Debbie Show, Bruce Arntson, Esther's Follies, Greater Tuna, Grand Ole Opry, Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson

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