There is an old bank on south Boulder Highway that has been converted to a country music dinner theater venue. That’s one way to describe the place, anyway. Here’s another that feels more accurate: It is a portal to another dimension — one that's strange and innocent, gentle and unfailingly polite, improbably cheerful and guileless. The venue is the Firelight Barn, and the five-member band that plays there is Mama’s Wranglers. But it’s not just a band. Oh, no. Mama’s Wranglers is a close-knit musical family (Toni, Tess, Grayden, Mickinzie, and Skyler) that performs classic country songs as the audience enjoys pulled-pork sandwiches and coleslaw. Between spirited gusts of fiddling, yodeling, and clogging, the Wranglers tell corny jokes and rib each other good-naturedly the way gleamy-teethed siblings in family sitcoms do. They do all this, of course, in cowboy hats and matching frilly black-and-red outfits, looking like servers at a Red Lobster in Abilene.
Wait. Was that a snarky thing to say? I hope not. I would feel bad. Because the Mama’s Wranglers show is so wholesome. It’s so wholesome — so eerily, implacably wholesome — and so free from even the faintest residue of irony that at the end of the night, I said to them, tipsy with bafflement, “I feel like I’ve stepped into another world.”
It doesn’t necessarily seem that otherworldly by the light of biographical facts. Formerly relying on a tour circuit of RV parks, senior centers, state fairs, and civic group gatherings, Mama’s Wranglers opened their standalone venue in October, and Toni Jackson — the literal and figurative mama — hopes to grow a thriving country music dinner theater business at their new Henderson home. On Friday night, the modest audience included a handful of seniors and a contingent of jean-clad country fans who were all too giddily willing to follow 18-year-old Skyler’s exhortations to stand up and playfully pantomime along to the chorus of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” (Skyler’s main superpower is yodeling — I profess to know nothing about yodeling, but to my ear, hers is supple and forthright — and the show begins in earnest when brother Grayden lures the “lost” Skyler to the stage with his own comically croaky, sub-par yodeling that nonetheless serves as a kind of siren song or homing beacon.) The Firelight Barn has also begun offering lunch matinee shows, and Jackson is diligently trying to line up arrangements with bus tours and senior groups. It’s a family business through and through; in addition to performing music, they hustle T-shirts, fudge, pictures, and other items. The food is catered, but the Wranglers serve it up and also take drink orders — and yes, they do it with a kind of unstinting cheer that suggests there’s nothing else in the universe they’d rather be doing.
But what did strike me as otherworldy is the inexorable, irony-proof earnestness of it all, their vigorous, reassuring shared optimism, a trait that’s usually the province of glowy-eyed kindergarten teachers or kind pediatric dentists. It touches everything from the Firelight Barn's decor (imagine the set of a Western-themed children’s show, complete with facades for the jail and the sheriff’s office) to the performance itself. I suspect only Mama’s Wranglers can make a mashup medley of “Ring of Fire” and “Whiskey River” sound as upbeat as though it were performed by the Teletubbies. Other songs, from “9 to 5” to “Lean on Me,” managed to somehow ooze sunshine as well. Even “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” the squirmy Merle Haggard tune that could be a MAGA battle cry (“If you don't love it, leave it/ Let this song that I'm singin' be a warnin’/ When you're runnin' down our country, hoss/ You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me”) is rendered as sunny, perfectly reasonable patriotism when Mickinzie takes the mic. And the jokes are fantastically hokey groaners, but I found it hard to groan without some sense of begrudging respect for the tensile strength of spirit it takes to deliver such cornball lines with pleasure, even joy. Even the printed program has a certain quaint je ne sais parish newsletter vibe going. Maybe it’s the page dedicated to the Mama’s Wranglers word-search.
“We’re the real thing,” Mickinzie, 24, tells me after the show. “We’ve been playing together our entire lives, and this is what we bring.”
“And we really do get along,” says Skyler. “There are occasionally times when I want to strangle Grayden, but otherwise …” (They all laugh at the standard-issue sibling rib.)
This kind of says it all: Once upon a time, they tell me, Mama’s Wranglers was flirting with a reality TV show. “They were in our house for three days following us around,” Toni recalls. “And so they got to see everything, you know -- where we live, what we eat, everything. And after they took everything back to the producer, they came back to us and they said, you know, we really love your family, but you're just too kind. You have to, like, cause a lot more drama. Like, you have to yell at your kids. And I’m, like, ‘Sorry, I’m not that person.’”
See. Now, is the music good? Is the show worth $24? It’s all transcendently okay, almost tuned to a key of sing-song simplicity so as to maximize their appeal to seniors who need to re-up on their patriotic nostalgia. In other words, I suspect fans go for more than just the music.
“They’re amazing,” says Mark Prime, a Henderson resident who sees Mama’s Wranglers twice a month. “I love the music, the dancing, the harmonies. I like that it’s patriotic and faith-based music. It’s a very comfortable place to come to.” He’s on to something: It does remind you of the goings-on in a quaint, small-town, storefront church, and it's one of the most heartwarmingly strange things I've ever seen in Las Vegas.