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SUMMER ARTS PREVIEW

At Indian Ranch, 75 years of honky-tonk history

A life-size carving of musician Charlie Daniels greets visitors to the Samuel Slater's restaurant at Indian Ranch in Webster. The late country star played at Indian Ranch 29 summers in a row.
A life-size carving of musician Charlie Daniels greets visitors to the Samuel Slater's restaurant at Indian Ranch in Webster. The late country star played at Indian Ranch 29 summers in a row.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

WEBSTER — For a while there in the late 1970s, it seemed as though all of America was singing along with “Take This Job and Shove It.”

A few summers after Johnny Paycheck had his biggest hit, Jake Sadowsky hired the outlaw country singer to headline his outdoor stage, Indian Ranch. Sadowsky had been running the lakeside venue in this small town south of Worcester since the mid-1950s. On the day of the show he got a call: The band couldn’t find their singer, who’d gone out on a bender the night before. Sadowsky took the stage and told the crowd — many of them members of a women’s motorcycle club, he says — that the band would play, but he’d also refund everyone’s money.

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After the show he asked around about suing Paycheck. A local lawyer told him he could get $25,000 for the no-show, but there was a catch: They wouldn’t be able to serve the musician court papers until he returned to Massachusetts.

“There’s only one [jerk] in Massachusetts who’ll hire him,” Sadowsky said, “and that’s me.”

About two decades later, Sadowsky hired Paycheck again. The singer wasn’t well. Within months, he would be dead from emphysema. But he managed to put on a great show.

He took the job, and nailed it.

“It was amazing how he did it,” Sadowsky recalls. “I could have cried.” He didn’t have the heart to bring up the money, he says.

This summer marks the 75th year that Indian Ranch will bring live music to one of the country-est places in New England, about an hour’s drive from Boston, Springfield, Hartford, and Providence. Beginning on July 24 (as of this writing), the amphitheater has shows booked every weekend through mid-October, including country stars Marty Stuart (July 31) and Justin Moore (Aug. 7) and an ABBA tribute concert (Aug. 13).

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Though it’s still a hidden gem for many music fans, Indian Ranch long ago staked its claim as a contender for the title “Nashville of the North.” An impressive list of country’s finest stars have played the rustic stage by the lake, including Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, and Charley Pride. Charlie Daniels played the place 29 summers in a row. About a decade ago, they named the access road after him.

A vintage ad for Indian Ranch.
A vintage ad for Indian Ranch.Courtesy of Jake Sadowsky

In the early 2000s, Sadowsky retired after running Indian Ranch for nearly 50 years. He sold it to Chris Robert, a computer executive looking for a retirement project of his own. For the past 15 years or so, Robert’s daughter, Suzette Raun Coppola, has managed the property, which includes the amphitheater (with seating for about 3,000), a seasonal campground, and a restaurant built in 2018. There’s also a vintage replica paddlewheel boat, which cruises the lake in summer.

(About that lake: It’s said to have the longest place name in the United States. Drawn from an Algonquian saying about how rival tribes should share its fishing rights, it runs to 45 letters, of which the abbreviated nickname Chaubunagungamaug consists of the last 17. Locals just call it Webster Lake.)

In recent years Coppola, working with Cambridge-based Kendall Booking, has broadened the scope of the Ranch’s concert calendar. In addition to perennial favorites such as Jamey Johnson and the Mavericks (both of whom are scheduled to return this summer), Indian Ranch has upcoming shows scheduled with Ziggy Marley, Tower of Power, and several classic-rock tribute bands.

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It’s a long way from Major Mudd, Rex Trailer, and Bozo the Clown. For years, the stars of those Boston kids’ shows were big attractions at the Ranch. Sadowsky and his Boston-based booking agent, Abe Ford, often presented a full afternoon of old-fashioned variety acts: jugglers, magicians, dancing bears. Audience members sat on telephone pole seats covered with wood planks. In the early years, Sadowsky says, admission was 75 cents, 50 cents for kids. Later, after the fee went up to $5, he kept the kids’ tickets priced at two quarters.

An undated photo of a summer crowd at Indian Ranch.
An undated photo of a summer crowd at Indian Ranch.Handout

The vaudeville-in-the-pines format dates back to the Ranch’s original owner. In 1946, an eccentric local named Ernest Wallis began presenting shows on the deck of his dry-docked paddlewheeler. (Robert’s own paddlewheeler is a nod to the man who started the Ranch.) For a few summers he’d run cruises on the lake, but that proved unsuccessful. Seeking another way to turn his property into a business, Wallis hired George Mahoney as a concert promoter.

Mahoney was one-half of George and Dixie, a showbiz country and western act who had a popular program on WNAC. (Mahoney, one newspaper noted, hailed from “the rolling plains of Cambridge.”)

For the better part of a decade, Mahoney brought comedians, entertainers, and country and western bands to Webster. At the time, there were honky tonks across New England, from Trader Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury to the Lone Star Ranch in Reeds Ferry, N.H. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was even a country bar in Boston’s Park Square — Frank Segalini’s Hillbilly Ranch.

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“I think [Indian Ranch] was the largest country music venue in the north,” says Sadowsky. “We outlived them all.”

Some say Wallis had Native American blood, which would explain the Indian Ranch name. Sadowsky, who is in his 80s and full of memories, calls his predecessor “an old swamp Yankee.”

Sadowsky’s father, Izzy, owned a jewelry store in Webster. He bought Wallis’s lakeside parcel in 1955 for $32,000, Sadowsky says — $200 down. Jake, an apprentice watchmaker, gave up his career plans to run the venue.

In the late 1970s Sadowsky hired a singer named Boxcar Willie for a Memorial Day fund-raiser. Willie, who played the part of a singing hobo onstage, was a hit with the crowd, so Sadowsky asked him to come back and headline the following summer. They agreed on a $750 fee.

Within months, Boxcar Willie was a very big, if highly unlikely, star. He appeared on “The Gong Show” and sold his albums by mail order, with a ubiquitous TV commercial. A record crowd showed up to greet him in Webster, says longtime employee Dean Fuller — about 6,000 fans, standing room only.

These days, Indian Ranch hosts its shows as it always has — on weekend afternoons, beginning at 1 p.m. First-time performers often want to double-check: “Are you sure you have the time right?”

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“It works so well, there hasn’t been any reason to change,” says Coppola.

Suzette Raun Coppola, manager of Indian Ranch.
Suzette Raun Coppola, manager of Indian Ranch.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Her family has made other changes, however. Where Sadowsky and his brother Archie once personally tended the barbecue, the new restaurant, Samuel Slater’s, is a sprawling, two-story facility, with two large banquet rooms on the ground floor and an outdoor deck overlooking the lake.

Inside, a life-size carving of Charlie Daniels playing his fiddle greets visitors at the hostess station, overlooking a display case filled with autographed guitars and glossy photos.

So far, no one has asked Coppola to consider changing the name of Indian Ranch. Her own family has Native American blood, she says. Her mother’s grandfather was Ojibwe.

“To me, it represents strength and bravery,” she says. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

The Ranch has seen plenty of changes over three-quarters of a century. But in an age of concert conglomerates and corporate sponsorships, it’s still an intimate, low-key throwback to simpler times.

“I went to see Jimmy Buffett at Gillette [Stadium], and I was literally in the last seat,” Coppola says. At Indian Ranch, “every seat is a good seat.”

A schedule of Indian Ranch shows and ticket information can be found at indianranch.com/concerts.

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.