Do Look Back at Flatt & Scruggs
If you’ve ever seen any of the charged, lovable Flatt & Scruggs TV shows of the mid-1950s and ’60s any time since they aired, it must have been in occasional screenings at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which holds 36 of them in its archives. Or maybe in much-degraded and truncated pass-around copies; the half-hour shows are legendary and revealing enough to have been bootlegged. On March 27, Best Of The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show, Volumes 1 and 2 — separate DVDs, each containing two uncut half-hour shows from 1961-’62 (Martha White commercials included) — are being released by Shanachie, in cooperation with the Country Hall.
Each show contains gasp-inducing banjo from Earl Scruggs; hits such as “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”; gospel quartets; instrumental, vocal and even comedy contributions from the great Foggy Mountain Boys (Josh Graves on dobro, Curly Seckler on guitar, Paul Warren on fiddle and Jake Tullock on bass); and Lester Flatt’s always-charming MCing.
Friends stop in, too — Hilo Brown on the first volume, Maybelle Carter (picking “Wildwood Flower”) on the second. As much as anything, it’s the very visible camaraderie in this band, and their own good-natured pleasure in performing, that makes them the all-time favorite act to come out of bluegrass for so many. Additional episodes are projected, beginning later in the year; I’d encourage this project’s makers to continue expanding on these long-unseen treasures.
Bob Dylan, a label stablemate whose songs Flatt & Scruggs often recorded in their last years (not without controversy), was, of course, the subject of D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking “fly on the wall” tour documentary released 40 years ago this year. It’s now out on a two-disc DVD set — Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, ’65 Tour Deluxe Edition (Docurama) — that adds a full new bonus hour and much “making of” audio commentary.
Considered a documentary milestone for its “direct cinema” approach — a variation on the cinema verite style where the subject isn’t (at least apparently) actively engaged or interviewed by the filmmaker, just captured along the way — Don’t Look Back nevertheless was edited to focus on Dylan’s already retro, last acoustic troubadour tour. The unused footage that now emerges shows him working up electric Bob songs at the piano, performing numbers onstage not included before, and commenting from time to time on the filming process.
Pennebaker has edited all of this new material together in the style of the old, as virtually a finished second film. Selecting the director’s commentary track on the original film reveals much about the then-new portable, quiet film equipment that had to be designed — invented, really — to make the film possible. The onstage, backstage, face-the-press stuff of the film has been copied so often since, you can forget how fresh it all was; this new edition goes a long way toward bringing that freshness back.
We get a really sweet look back at one of the most lasting and original (and probably mislabeled) of the many “new Dylans” who followed Bob’s emergence in John Prine: Live On Soundstage 1980 (Shout! Factory/Oh Boy). Prine is captured in fine form, lookin’ good with the mane of hair and healthy mustache, for the most part fronting an energetic and supple rock band, with Todd Snider lookalike John Burns on lead guitar (and along for some offstage acoustic duets as well, including the timeless “Paradise”).
The electric set features key older Prine songs (“Hello In There”, “Angel From Montgomery”) and new ones of that moment, from the Bruised Orange and Pink Cadillac records. The surprise of the show is the appearance of Sun rockabilly icon Billy Lee Riley, who joins the band for “My Girl Is Red Hot”. Prine also takes us on quick tour of his hometown, Maywood, Illinois, including the scene of his song “The Accident”.
At about the same time as this Prine appearance on PBS, major TV networks were looking to a couple of blonde country stars to keep the sagging, soon-to-be-dead musical variety show format alive. By sheer coincidence, a couple of two-DVD sets from that genre are being released just now: Dolly Parton & Friends (MPI Home Video) and Best Of Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters Show (Time-Life).
Mandrell seems to be getting much renewed attention lately, with a tribute CD, new TV salutes and such. These shows, from 1980-’82, have a lot of hit-and-miss comedy and banter, plus musical guests including Ray Charles, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash, Glen Campbell, and Dolly — though not necessarily, shall we say, at peak points in their careers on these nights.
But there’s some good stuff too: Mandrell’s own soul-tinged singing on some of her hits, harmonies with her sisters, her very good pedal steel work in a duet on “Bonaparte’s Retreat” with Glen Campbell in his guitar ace mode. The high point is when Mandrell’s instrumental mentors take turns playing with her, including Merle Travis, Gordon Terry and Joe Maphis, with whom she’d worked as a kid in the 1950s “Town Hall Party” shows. (There’s a nice black-and-white clip of her as the child pedal steel whiz on the show back in the day.)
Dolly’s show, shot in Nashville circa 1976, finds her contemplating the crossover to come, not very long after she’d left the Porter Wagoner Show. Of particular interest is the episode in which Dolly brings out Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, ten years before the Trio album got made, to trade traditional country songs and recent hits. They’re all transparently glad to be there and notably young. Pre-Hollywood Dolly sings her own country compositions with elegant simplicity, while also delivering “Drift Away” in duet with Anne Murray, plus R&B-tinged turns on “Knock Three Times” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and even “The Battle Of New Orleans”.
There are also some mind-boggling blunders. An otherwise decent, serious interpretation of “My Funny Valentine” is slightly marred by the fact that Dolly sings it to a bloodhound while dressed as Little Bo Peep. Apparently nobody told her that Elvis only sang to a hound dog on TV because they made him do it. Stranger still is a duet in which Parton emotes “Feelings” intercut with a recitation of the alleged poetry from a warm and fuzzy Rod McKuen.
You might have figured that TV-appearance anthologies of hit Motown groups had long since been out on DVD, but it hasn’t been the case. In the style of last year’s Definitive Performances Marvin Gaye release (you can choose to listen to the vocals sans instrumentation), there are three worthy new sets from Universal/Motown: The Temptations: Get Ready, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and The Supremes: Reflections. All three have more than a dozen performances of the groups’ hits from the day — the best ones spectacular, the least workaday lip-synched appearances. Best moment: the Miracles in a very early, raw show at the Apollo, with Smokey still letting loose like Jackie Wilson.
Watch also for Nashville’s western swing favorites The Time Jumpers: Jumpin’ Time (Crosswind), a two-hour Station Inn show; and, if you’re inclined toward arty literary games with your roots-rock balladry, for The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook (Kill Rock Stars DVD) featuring a live show, interviews and videos.