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Traveling show brings old-time country stylings

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Deep in the Ozark Mountain town of Branson, Missouri, music fans can take a time warp to the old-timey heyday of country music.

Venues such as the Little Opry Theatre and the Boxcar Willie Theatre feature tributes to the by-gone days of country music.

Mandolin, fiddle and banjo are more common than drum sets and electric bass guitars. Rhinestone suits and cowboy hats are the fashion statements of choice.

The heartland harmonies and country-fried twang of Branson are coming to Johnson County. The Historic Artcraft Theatre in downtown Franklin will host a performance by Branson on the Road, musicians who performed on the country music mecca’s main strip for more than 20 years.

Together, they blend the showmanship of classic country with comedy zingers, spangled costumes and musical accents from bluegrass to rockabilly to gospel.

“What we’re doing is rare nowadays,” said Debbie Horton, co-host, singer and guitarist for the group. “It harks back to the old vaudeville, the jamborees, the barn-dance type of shows. It’s a part of Americana that’s fading.”

Branson on the Road is a musical collaboration between Horton, Donnie Wright, Brian Capps and Forrest Herzog.

The group became ambassadors for Branson’s heritage, complete with the blessing of city leaders to use its name.

Blending age-old 19th century traditional songs with the classics from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the group aims to provide entertainment for music fans of any age.

Sometimes that’s Johnny Cash; other times it can include songs that are so engrained in the bluegrass and gospel culture that no one knows who wrote the music.

“A lot of the songs we do are from the Americana catalog of music stretching back to the 1800s,” Horton said.

Horton, who was a huge Johnny Cash fan and once played guitar for him during a concert, has been involved in show business for most of her life. She went from country music DJ to a sales and marketing executive to a host of her own show in Branson.

She and Wright, her husband, created a traveling show based on the unique family-friendly entertainment, for which Branson had become famous.

“We thought that it would be wonderful to take the Branson show experience all over the country,” Horton said.

The goal is to touch people in a way that other concerts can’t do.

“To be an entertainer is so much more than just being a good singer or a good guitarist,” Horton said. “If you entertain people, you touch their hearts and their souls, and they walk away happy.”

The show falls in line with the new vision theater leaders have for the Artcraft.

In the past two years, the Artcraft has brought in a traveling vaudeville act, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed in the community theater in June.

An attached house has been refurbished as a dressing room and performer lounge. A screen that mechanically lifts and drops, as well as a new sound system, has allowed the theater to transition easily from movies to shows.

“The first decade here was to make sure we had the theater up and running and stabilized,” said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage, which operates the Artcraft Theatre. “We’re on track with the movies and the crowds. The next component was to add in more live programming.”

Franklin is well-positioned between major entertainment centers such as Chicago; Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky, to work into the traveling schedules of groups such as Branson on the Road, Shilts said.

Even acts slated to perform in Indianapolis could slot the Artcraft.

“What we’re going to try to do is not offer all of the acts you can see in Indy. We want to bring in acts from other states or far away, to catch them on tour as they pass through Indiana,” Shilts said.

From Branson on the Road’s point of view, the Artcraft Theatre fits directly into the tone and atmosphere the group is trying to cultivate, Horton said.

A sense of nostalgia hangs over the whole place, and it has remained a family-friendly institution in the city for more than 90 years.

“From the first thing we do on stage to the last note we play, we’re focused on being a happy, family-friendly time,” Horton said.

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