Newly In Love With Country, Musicians Put On A Kansas City Version Of The Grand Ol' Opry

Jan 18, 2018

Imagine a lamp-lit honky-tonk band weaving those joyfully depressing cheatin’ songs, with round-robin vocalists taking just the right tune for each voice. Imagine an audience whooping and pushing them forward from their seats on wooden benches and random household chairs, or just standing.

Then imagine it’s 2017, not 1957. And some people didn’t have to imagine, because they were there. The first Fool’s Gold Country Revue hit the ground running last May in the old-timey Greenwood Social Hall, a renovated church on the city’s West Side. Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices, an all-star line-up of local musicians united by a love of honky-tonk music, are the house band for shows, which just keep getting bigger.

“The idea behind the Fool’s Gold Revue is something like the Louisiana Hayride or the Grand Ole Opry or The Porter Wagoner Show, just like it was done back in the day,” says Hanson, a veteran of local bands like The Hellcat Trio and the Grand Marquis.

A few years ago, a local show like Fool’s Gold seemed impossible. Now, though, there’s a burgeoning country music scene in town, says Poor Choices guitarist and show organizer Beau Bledsoe.

Bledsoe is best known for his Ensemble Ibérica, a group dedicated to the acoustic music of Spain and Portugal. Improbably, the idea for the country-music revue came from that group.

For one of Ensemble Iberica’s performances, Bledsoe had employed fiddle player Betse Ellis and banjo player Clarke Wyatt to play some medieval cantigas from Spain, and he enjoyed working with them.

“During rehearsals,” Bledsoe remembers, “we said ‘We should try to do a theater show of country music some time.’”

Hanson’s connection to honky-tonk came through a different musical door, but one also connected to Bledsoe.

“I’ve known Beau for more than 25 years. I called him up about two years ago, and I wanted to take flamenco lessons,” he says. “One day Beau showed up with a Telecaster” — the guitar of choice for that distinct country guitar sound — “and says ‘Check out what I bought.’ He started playing that honky-tonk stuff, like Merle Haggard and whatnot.”

Hanson jumped on it.

“I said ‘You want to do a country and western band?’ The Poor Choices were born.”

The first show sold out quickly, and the second one was successful too.

This weekend’s third version features guests like local country stalwart Rex Hobart, who, with The Misery Boys and Rex Hobart’s Honky-Tonk Standards, deserves a lot of credit for bringing honky-tonk back to the Kansas City scene. Ellis and Wyatt will be back, and local vocalist Havilah Bruders will bring to life songs like Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

“It’s not what we’re known for, but we really do love playing these old country songs,” says Bledsoe. “To me, country music kind of ends in the mid-‘70s. That’s what my grandma was really listening to on country radio — George Jones and Hank Williams.”

Part of Bledsoe’s enthusiasm for this familiar music has to do with where he is in his own life. “I’ve had kids in the last few years. You want to sing to your kids,” he says.

“These are the tunes I know,” Bledsoe insists, laughing. “I’m from Arkansas, and I grew up with this stuff, and that drew me back into it.”

Same goes for John Currey and Michael McClintock, the Poor Choices’ drummer and bassist, respectively.

“John Currey and I were playing in a Cuban act, but he grew up in East Texas with this stuff, too,” Bledsoe says. “(Cubanisms leader) Michael McClintock is from Neosho, Missouri. We all have similar backgrounds, and we just love the music.”

Pedal steel master Marco Pascolini rounds out the Poor Choices, and for this show, contemporary jazz bassist Bill McKemy will handle the low end.

The venue this time, Musical Heritage Theater’s “black box” stage at Crown Center, will feel a little less downhome than the Greenwood Social Hall, but Bledsoe says it’ll make up for that with sound quality.

“For a country show, that theater works really well,” he says. “It sounds really good for acoustic music. You can play pretty soft, and you can hear everything.”

The key to the Revue’s success is that even though the musicians come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds, they play country music with respect and reverence — and talent.

Most importantly, as Hanson says, “It’s a blast. It’s supposed to work that way, right?”

The Fool’s Gold Country Revue Vol. 3, 8 p.m. Friday, January 19 at The Musical Theater Heritage Theater at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd, Suite 301, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.