Hank Thompson / Domino Kings – Broiler Festival (Crane, MO)
Down in the Missouri Ozarks, the residents of Crane mark the end of summer with the Broiler Festival. A holdover from the days when locals earned their living in the processed chicken industry, the celebration has been a Crane tradition for 50 years. Today the poultry plants are long gone, but during the last weekend of August, folks from all over Stone County head to Crane Community Park and line up outside a smoking, 100-foot-long structure for iced teas and chicken dinners.
Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Crane (pop. 1,390) is only a half-hour drive from Branson, Missouri, a city that spent the last decade sprawling into a folksier version of Las Vegas: no gambling but lots more country music. But the hills of Stone County and its neighboring Ozark communities have far older country music stories to tell. Gospel songwriter Albert Brumley lived in these hills; his son, Buckaroo pedal steel man Tom Brumley, still resides in the area.
Porter Wagoner and Jan Howard were both raised a couple of counties over in West Plains. Country singers Leroy Van Dyke and Ferlin Huskey, and producer Bob Ferguson, came from down this way. Red Foley broadcast his Ozark Jubilee program from just up the highway in Springfield.
Through the years, Broiler Fest fans have witnessed performances by Foley, Stonewall Jackson, Charlie Walker and Merle Travis, among others. This year’s attraction was Hank Thompson.
Visitors to the festival spend the late afternoon wandering the town’s tree-filled park. The youngsters clamber aboard Tilt-a-Whirls and other carnival rides, but the older folk (almost 25 percent of the county’s population is over 62) are content to stroll about the bucolic setting, checking out the craft booths and listening in at the gospel tent, maybe purchasing chances to win a heifer or a new shotgun.
As evening approaches, a hundred or so grown-ups leave the young to their grab-ass and funnel cakes and walk across the road to Tootie Parsons Memorial Stadium (“Home of the Crane High School Pirates”), where they sit in bleachers behind the backstop or unfold lawn chairs around the edges of the dirt infield. The Domino Kings, Thompson’s backing band for the night as well as the opening act, set up right in front of the pitcher’s mound.
Like cult band the Morells (a.k.a. the Skeletons), the Domino Kings are from Springfield, but their record label, Slewfoot, is headquartered right here in Crane. Label head Dale Wiley has set up a storefront on Main Street, next-door to an antique shop and across from the diner. Playing a hot mix of rockabilly and C&W, the Domino Kings are a first-rate bar band, and their originals tonight work territory this crowd is on friendly terms with. Drummer Les Gallier smacks a spare kit and even sparer time, save for the occasional rock ‘n’ roll turnaround, while bassist/singer Brian Capps slaps energetic doghouse bass and one-man-show guitarist/vocalist Steve Newman crams each song with as many twangy runs as he can manage. Recently expanded from a trio to a quartet — Steve’s cousin Jim Ginnings now plays acoustic rhythm guitar — the Kings save their best moment for last, a searing barnburner called “Next Time” that’s scheduled for their upcoming album.
By now it’s dark and the crowd’s excited. One lady proudly passes around a framed and autographed photo of Thompson; she says the singer signed it for her after a Cain’s Ballroom show in 1963, and she hopes he’ll sign it anew tonight.
Soon enough, Hank strides across the infield to a standing ovation, takes his place on a stool at center stage, and immediately launches into “Oklahoma Hills”. Even at his prime in the 1950s, Thompson was a vocalist of greater charm than voice. Now, nine days shy of his 76th birthday, he remains a delightful singer. On what must be his 10,000th versions of “Humpty Dumpty Heart” and “Rub A Dub”, his singing still sounds as eager as if a long-lost friend had just surprised him on the street.
At first, the Kings — whose only rehearsal has been playing along to a tape Thompson sent — look at each other questioningly, trying to keep up. But, augmented by pedal steel player Dave Coontz and fiddler Bruce Hoffman, they swing more and more confidently as the set progresses. Except for “The Wild Side Of Life”, during which Thompson informs Coontz ahead of time that he wants a steel break, there are no solos tonight, and few fills. It’s just Hank Thompson and a swell rhythm section, playing hit after hit after hit.
Thompson says, “I’ll play a couple more here, we’ll watch some fireworks and then I’ll be glad to sign any autographs you like.” Then he and the Domino Kings play a “Six Pack To Go” that sounds exactly like the record. Beneath ballpark lights and a half moon, one small child dances a spastic little gig. She’s trying her best to mirror the smiling older couples who two-step in front of home plate.