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Almost Home: Veteran performer with local ties brings holiday show to Luverne

"Almost Home: An American Holiday Concert" features a cast of talented musicians including Dawnl McArthur (center), who began performing at an early age in Branson, Mo.

PINE RIVER -- Doug Spartz has fond memories of playing with bands during the early days of rock 'n' roll at a number of southwest Minnesota venues: The Hollyhock Ballroom in Hatfield; the Coliseum in Worthington; the Ritz in Lismore, to name a few. Later, as a member of Sparky and the Time Pirates -- a kitschy themed old-time rock 'n' roll group -- he also remembers entertaining at the Long Branch Saloon in Worthington.

But the Willmar native forged a closer connection to this region when he married Cindy Hudson, a 1974 graduate of Worthington High School, the daughter of former Daily Globe editor Lew Hudson and his wife, Irma. The Hudsons now live in Baxter and the Spartzes in Pine River, but it will be a return to her roots for Cindy when she and Doug bring "Almost Home: An American Holiday Concert" to Luverne on Friday.

"Having grown up in Worthington, this will be a homecoming of sorts for me and a chance to see family and friends that are still in the area," said Cindy, who left the area in the mid-1980s and finally settled near her folks in Brainerd after short stints in Colorado and California.

Cindy entered the music business when she went to work for Doug in 1992. But for Doug, music has been a lifelong passion, starting as a teen in Willmar.

"We had the first rock 'n' roll band around that area," he said about the early days of the genre. "Then I got a little older and went to St. Cloud with The Embers -- it was the same group, just more polished."

The 1970s and '80s were the best for a musician as far as being paid, but the '60s, according to Doug, were a lot more fun.

"We actually were learning our craft on stage," he recalled. "You literally could be fired every night and still have a job, because there were so many places where you could go and play too loud and be terrible and still go down the road to another roadhouse, another armory, another ballroom."

Over the years, Doug utilized his talents in and outside the music business, playing in his first Grand Ol' Opry tour at age 21 and in many other bands -- including cutting an album with famed radio personality Wolfman Jack -- before he got sidetracked.

"I was one of so many young folks who got in a religious cult," he explained about one of the odder chapters of his life. "As we were driving back and forth to gigs, we'd listen to the radio, and Garner Ted Armstrong and Herbert W. Armstrong had a church, the Worldwide Church of God, and their whole premise was that it was the religion of no religion. It was very appealing to people my age. ... There were lots and lots of entertainers in this organization. They've gone the way of the dodo bird now, but that took several years out of my life."

When Cindy came on the scene in 1992, Doug was working with Sparky and the Time Pirates, and she helped promote the group and managed a couple of other bands.

"Doug's first wife was diagnosed with cancer a couple years into that, and he wasn't going to tour any more, so I went back to school and got a degree as a medical secretary, and I worked in nursing homes, which was something I swore I would never do," Cindy explained. "But the first place that called me was the Good Samaritan home in Brainerd, and I did it because it was a good offer. So I worked in the Alzheimer's wing, and I loved it, found out some stuff about myself that I didn't know I had in me.

"Years later, Doug's wife, Carol, passed away in 2001," Cindy continued. "She was a wonderful woman. Then I'd heard that Doug's dog had died, so when I found this dog listed on the bulletin board in the supermarket, I decided to see if he'd gotten another dog. The dog stayed, and eventually I stayed. One thing led to another, and we got married in 2008."

In the interim, Doug had thrown his energies into organizing the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame and Mid-America Hall of Fame.

"But I really missed performing, so I wrote a pot of songs and headed south, and oddly enough, at my advanced age, the first album yielded the first Billboard-charting single I've ever had in my life," said Doug, who'd found a new niche in Americana music.

The song, "Name on the Wall," a tribute to veterans, was picked up by XM Satellite radio, which created a buzz in the industry.

"It was not supposed to happen," Doug said. "Since the mid-'80s, the music industry is so tightly controlled that it's impossible for an independent artist like me to pierce that. But 'Name on the Wall' pierced it -- unbelievably lucky. The phone started ringing from various people trying to get their hands in there, and I was not prepared to deal with that. It happened so fast and quickly; it really came and left before it even started."

The buzz was difficult to sustain, and Doug suffered his own health issues -- a bout with colon cancer and heart issues -- that further curtailed his musical activities.

But he overcame the health problems, and today he and Cindy are running their new musical endeavors out of a 350-seat theater recently constructed near Pine River. Last weekend, they began touring for the "Almost Home" show with a cast of musicians that Doug says "are to die for."

"Most of the reason for that is our responsibilities within the two halls of fame," he said about the plethora of talented musicians he has encountered over the years.

Doug and Cindy both sing the praises of vocalist Dawnl McArthur, who cut her teeth as a child star in the music halls of Branson, Mo., and is now part of "Almost Home."

"Never have I worked with anyone who can sing like her," said Doug. "It's just remarkable. There's no way anyone could work hard enough to achieve what she has at such a young age. She has perfect pitch and a range that's got to be three and a half octaves."

Using a Branson-style, variety show format, "Almost Home" features a wide variety of music, including many beloved Christmas classics as well as selections from Doug's original "Deer Camp" musicals, "Name on the Wall" and even "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."

"Our shows are squeakingly clean," Doug noted.

Doug laments the changes in the music industry, but he and Cindy are trying to make the most of the opportunities that they have and create a new showcase for the region's fine musicians.

"We're giving it our best shot," he said.

Scheduled in conjunction with Luverne's Winterfest celebration, Doug Spartz & Friends will take the stage for "Almost Home" at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Palace Theater. Tickets are available by calling (218) 536-0589, or the Carnegie Cultural Center, (507) 283-8294.

For more information, go to www.greatnorthshowproviders.comor

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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