Roughly half a dozen years ago, bumper stickers began showing up around Nashville bearing the block-lettered slogan "Whine Whine Twang Twang." There were a number of ways to read the phrase. It almost seemed like country haters' scornful shorthand for what they characterized as hillbillies singing through their noses and crying in their beers. Then again, the slogan could be spotted on cars that also bore stickers from such decidedly pro-twang outposts as Ernest Tubb Record Shop. And at least one person was curious enough about the provenance of the phrase to consult the texting search engine ChaCha, which identified The Doyle and Debbie Show as its source.
Those stickers were the first pieces of merch the country-tweaking duo sold, and "Whine Whine Twang Twang" was the title of the hard-country boogie that set their show's tone, not only caricaturing a country sound with that punchy, repetitive phrase, but summing up a country song storyline in eight monosyllabic words: "Cheat, cheat, guilt pang / Shoot, shoot, bang, bang."
Doyle and Debbie never failed to get laughs when they stepped up to their microphones and delivered the song in emphatically earnest, jabbing drawls. It just so happened that Bruce Arnston, the brilliant kook of a writer-actor who plays Doyle Mayfield, made the indie film Existo and scored much of the Ernest P. Worrell franchise, co-penned the tune with Pam Tillis, the sharp '90s country star whose father Mel Tillis has always been the more recognized jokester of the family.
"I'm not sure if that's a point of pride to her or not," says Arnston of the younger Tillis' "Whine Whine" co-writing credit. "Nonetheless, I foisted it back on her."
A certain kind of person — one with ample pre-Garth country savvy and a sprightly, satirical mind — would be proud to claim the nearly two dozen songs and snippets and absurd theatrical script that Arnston created, and that he and seriously comedically gifted singer-actor Jenny Littleton (aka Debbie Purdy or, minus the voluminous teased wig, Sally Bowles in last year's Tennessee Repertory Theater production of Cabaret) have brought to life with panache over the past eight years. They dip a toe into heartrending countrypolitan dueting with "When You're Screwin' Other Women (Think of Me)." "I Ain't No Homo" is Arnston's robust romp through honky-tonk blues, and he summons the motormouth spirit of Roger Miller during the sung-spoken number "Blue Stretch Pants." Littleton, in turn, has a showcase for her torchy, Patsy Cline-esque finesse in the acronym-riddled "ABC's of Love."
Doyle and Debbie keep the over-the-top musical references to '50s, '60s and '70s country coming, even as they artfully gesture toward retrograde performing dynamics (a male singer with a wounded ego, who constantly belittles his fetching younger, greener female partner) beneath their down-home, vaudevillian patter. With this show, the parody works both ways; they send up country entertainers' habit of repurposing age-old shtick and letting audiences feel like they're in on the jokes, just as they send up the tradition of country outsiders dismissing the genre wholesale with shallow, class-based stereotypes. It wouldn't work at all, and certainly not at a bastion of bluegrass authenticity like The Station Inn — where Doyle and Debbie built considerable buzz in the late Aughts and reclaimed their 7 p.m. Tuesday slot just last month — if the music lacked a certain degree of knowledge, skill and affectionate attention to detail.
"JT [Gray], the owner of The Station Inn, is a hardcore bluegrass guy, and he's in this not as a businessman, but as a lover of music," says Arnston, seated at one of the bar's cafeteria-style tables during off hours. "So he really had no reason to take us in, even if we were a huge hit before we came in, which we weren't.
"He likes it because we're musically knowing, as do the musicians and songwriters that come and enjoy us," Arnston continues. "We kinda have an insider's take on it. So even though it's funny, it's funny, I think, on different levels. You don't have to be a country fan. But if you're entrenched in the music biz, you're gonna get a few more jokes than the normal tourist off the street."
As Doyle counts down the obscure, regional near-hits he's had with previous Debbies, the only sideman he and Debbie 3.0 can afford — bumbling DJ/instrumentalist Buddy Apple (played by Matt Carlton) — presses play on a laptop and strums along on guitar. It's meant to be a humorously humble live setup. Thing is, the backing tracks are undeniably first-rate.
"I came here to do music 30-some years ago," explains Arnston. "So just by, you know, hanging in there this long, I know a lot of those great players just from rubbing shoulders, if not from hanging and playing with them. Those guys, they consider it a lark to come and play some silly music with Bruce for the afternoon."
Besides one-offs, a trio of Conan O'Brien appearances and recent engagements at Zanies across town, Doyle and Debbie have held down theater residencies in Austin, Denver and Chicago, and perhaps not surprisingly, received the bulk of their press coverage from theater critics.
"It's odd that obviously it is a theater piece, a 90-minute musical comedy," notes Arnston. "But we're perceived much differently as a music act, and we've discovered that kinda by accident, as we've done more traditional black-box theaters versus a music club. It just works better in a music club environment. I don't know if it somehow oddly legitimizes us and lulls the audience into a false sense of security or what."