From Hank Senior to Junior Samples
There’s likely to be only one documentary, ever, that will have access to all of the available film footage of Hank Williams, plus cooperation and touching, revealing commentary from his family, surviving bandmates and associates. The film is Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues, from director Morgan Neville, co-produced with its writer, Colin Escott, Hank’s best biographer. A shortened version is being shown on the PBS American Masters series; this very special and highly recommended DVD, out on the Mercury Chronicles/Universal label, offers a 30-minutes-longer director’s cut, additional interviews, and a Hank photo collection.
There have been enough gifted yet sliding, self-destructive performers and writers in American roots music that the challenge of how best to show their life stories is continual. This film never forgets, for all of its detail (often new and revealing detail) about Hank’s life, that the reason we’re interested in the details, however gritty, is the talent, and the relation of Williams’ life to the timelessly riveting music that came from it.
It’s one thing to hear that Hank’s tough mother actually ran a cat house, and that she was using his singing, when he was 12, to attract potential customers for the girls. It’s another to see how this led to the emphasis on the deeply lonely in his music. The film neither romanticizes Williams’ habits — which it both details and, to the degree possible, explains — nor gets so caught up in the dark side of the story that it forgets this was a working, creative, often funny young man who also recorded virtual sermons as Luke The Drifter and liked to make a buck.
The talent of the filmmakers is revealed even (or especially) in the handling of the inevitable “fill-in/make-do” footage used for scenes without visuals — a microphone, that last Cadillac ride out on a winding road. Even those will hold your attention throughout.
The context of Williams’ life and music are all here, along with as much Hank performing footage as the public has ever been able to see outside the Country Music Hall Of Fame — including the extraordinary Hank and Anita Carter duet on “I Can’t Help It”, which the museum long ran continuously in-house to define country music. Even for those who catch the broadcast version, this is one DVD that’s a must-have.
From the wonderfully sublime to the wonderfully ridiculous: The wait is over for the many country music fans who’ve wanted to see the best of the 23 years of “Hee Haw” episodes available in clean form and searchable (to get right to the classic musical performances, for instance) on DVD. The Hee Haw Collection (Time-Life Video) has scheduled eleven initial discs to be hitting stores over the coming year, beginning with the premiere episode featuring Charley Pride doing Hank songs and a first Loretta Lynn appearance.
We’ve seen six of the discs, and they’re full of treasures — including absolutely prime Merle Haggard (“I Take A Lot Of Pride”), Dolly Parton (“Love Is Like A Butterfly”), Loretta (“Fist City”), Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter, Tammy Wynette & George Jones, pre-accident Hank Jr., and Buck Owens & the Buckaroos performing everything from their current hits to bluegrass or unmitigated rock ‘n’ roll. All but the first DVD (which adds extra comedy bits to that premiere episode) will carry two whole “Hee Haw” hours. For those who don’t want to wait for the store releases, the whole deal is already available online at www.heehaw.com.
For those somehow unaware, it needs to be said that these are mainly comedy shows, unabashedly corny country comedy shows, patterned after Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In”, complete with fast blackout sketches and one-liners. The jokes were not new then, and they’re not any worse for wear now. For me, it was an often hilarious and unusual taste of country performers getting to send up their own stereotyping, with glee.
But the highlights are still going to be the music; when the laughs stop, the very fine music’s no joke. And, oh, I wouldn’t be holding my breath for a “best music from ‘Hee Haw'” series if I were you.
The DVD of the Ruth Oxenberg/Rob Schumer documentary Bluegrass Journey (www.bluegrassjourney.com) has some things going for it — mainly, fine uncut performances by the Del McCoury Band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and others. This film also means to be an overview and introduction to bluegrass today, but it’s too limited and its point-of-view is quirky to really do that job. There’s a particular taste for the jammy post-Newgrass end of the spectrum, or else someone fell in love with Chris Thile, because there are more long excursions by Nickel Creel or Thile and Jerry Douglas, for instance, than any other music here.
Most of the film was shot at a New York State festival, and so it comes as something of a shock, when the IBMA awards in Kentucky are shown, that this music is somehow southern-connected or has anything to do with country music! Indeed, there’s room for a new-agey wedding in screaming purple, but hardly a passing mention that maybe 40% of bluegrass is in that straight Christian gospel mode (quartets included). Bluegrass Journey is a picture of bluegrass, but not everyone’s, and not so rounded.
Kris Kristofferson: Breakthrough (Oh Boy Records) brings to DVD a documentary on the singer-songwriter’s music and political activism that was originally released at the time of his Third World Warrior and Repossessed albums of the late ’80s. Much of the film is nonetheless taken up by a live concert; Kris was in good voice (on the Kris scale) at this time, and his band the Borderlords included the likes of Billy Swan and Stephen Bruton, so there’s a good show involved, with political songs of that moment and a few of the Kristofferson classics.
When it comes to articulating the reasons for his own political involvement, from Vietnam to El Salvador and out around the world, this is one performer who has no difficulty saying what he means, or bringing in thoughts from William Blake actually relevant to the discussion. The film itself, however, steps in to supply, way too often, stock footage of MLK or the Kennedys, war in general (it’s hell, you know), and other superfluous “march of time” imagery that has dated badly as a visual concept.
Some other recent DVD releases of note:
For rockabilly fans, there are semi-hidden treats amidst the latest round of full-episode, by-the-date volumes of Bear Family’s 1950s California Town Hall Party shows. Town Hall Party, November 29, 1958 features six full numbers by Wanda Jackson, as rockin’ as you might expect, but also honky-tonkin’. And Town Hall Party, June 6, 1959 offers another much-desired video rarity, six numbers from Carl Perkins, incendiary guitar and all, back in the day.
Advance warnings: The Nashville Film Festival, in late April, held up its reputation as a growing home for the viewing of important music films. Among those I caught there to be anticipated in theaters, on TV or via DVD, as they emerge, were the following:
* Festival Express chronicles a forgotten 1970 cross-Canada rock fest and has the best footage of The Band as working rockers caught on film, plus a healthy and exuberant Janis Joplin; no nostalgia, plenty of touching music.
* The Station Inn gives full life to the story of the venerable Nashville bluegrass nightclub, and the community of musicians who have made it their prime base for decades.
* Desperate Man Blues lets us spend time with idiosyncratic record collector Joe Bussard, the man who compiled last year’s remarkable compilation Down In The Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove Of Vintage 78s.
* Portrait Of Billy Joe lets us spend no doubt more valuable time with legendary Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, an provides an intimate and invaluable profile of the man and his music.