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Better than Branson

Published: Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 11:00 a.m. CDT

Mary and I had a wonderful experience last weekend, along with a sorrowful regret. We didn’t know Southern Iowa had it’s own “better than Branson” country music theater, but when we obtained front row seats, we jumped at the chance to attend.

It turns out that Willis and Faye Dickerson have been running this establishment for 40 years, and this was to be their last performance. Wouldn’t you know it. Willis is 80 (they both look 65), and Faye is two years behind him.

They met in high school, in Unionville, Mo. The teacher made Willis sit beside Faye for talking. They’ve been married and talking for 60 years now. It’s time for them to retire. They are putting their 300-seat theater, which they built on eight acres, one mile north of the Lake Rathbun Dam, up for sale, and staying put on their 800 acre farm at Unionville. 

Oh, they will help out anyone who comes along. The Rathbun Country Music Theater has been performing to sell-out crowds of loyal followers for 40 years, and the Dickersons would like to see that tradition continue.

You see, it’s all one big happy family, with the musicians and their families, and the huge Dickerson family. As the Lovin Spoonful puts it, “All their friends play music, and they ain’t uptight, if one of the kids will.”

Mary and I were absolutely blown away by the talent, enthusiasm and quality of musicians at the Rathbun Country Music Theater. I was stunned when Willis, on lead guitar, and his dozen-or-so-musicians, opened with my favorite country-western ballad of all time, “Highway 40 Blues.”

Until the closing piece, “Happy Trails to You,” Willis’ troop kept us, and the packed theater, mesmerized with one tear jerker or foot stomper after another. Not only were there theater goers openly weeping, but also the musicians.

This was to be their last performance together. All of the musicians and all of their families were brought up on stage for one last farewell.

Drat! How had I not heard of this place? It’s Southern Iowa’s best kept secret!

But the Dickersons will live on. There are CDs, of course, and a website: www.countrymusictheater.com. The Dickersons’ email address is willisdickerson@gmail.com.

The rest of the group isn’t retiring. They all of have their own gigs. It just took the Dickerson glue to bring them together.

At the risk of leaving out some of the musicians, I’ll mention just a few that stood out for me: Lonnie (Lonzo) Erwin, sax and guitar. Lonzo performed the crowd favorite, “Oh Danny Boy,” all the verses, in a rich, deep baritone that brought tears and a standing ovation.

Peggy (Sue) Wardenburg on piano and guitar did a great Connie Smith, “Once a Day.”  Steve Head on fiddle, with his old “unknowns,” was a crowd favorite. You gotta have a fiddle in the band. David Pitt on guitar and piano did Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley on the piano better than Lewis or Presely combined.

Mitchell Dickerson, grandson of Willis and Faye, is an up-and-coming, make-the-devil-pay-his-due fiddle player. Of course, Grandpa Willis, on lead guitar, is a Nashville-class musician. Faye Dickerson, a musician herself, is the business end. Together, they have put together a mean music machine.

I’ve got a feeling I’ll be hearing Willis Dickerson again. He’ll be around playing here and there — in church, guest appearances, helping out the would-be owners of the Rathbun Country Western Theater get started; or, no doubt, in heaven — county music heaven.

Jesus likes a little pickin’, too.

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