Grand Ole, indeed
Since the coming in the mid-’80s of regular cablecasts of parts of the weekly shows, it’s been more commonplace to see stars old and new in video performances from the Grand Ole Opry. Before that, it was a special, limited treat — but not unknown. Beginning in 1955, the Opry and several broadcast outlets (Nashville’s WSM-TV most often) produced a number of short-lived series featuring stars of the fabled radiocast in the weeks they appeared — usually not live onstage, but often taped at the Ryman in prime studio conditions. Time-Life has just released, for the first time ever, Opry Video Classics, a collection of seven full DVDs, each with fifteen uninterrupted performances, and offered as individual, themed collections (Hall Of Fame, Honky-Tonk Heroes, Love Songs, those sorts of things), or as a boxed set.
This stuff is nothing short of a treasure trove, loaded with pristine black-and-white and (later on) color performances culled from such series as “Purina Grand Ole Opry” in the ’50s and “Pet Milk” and “National Life Grand Ole Opry” in the ’60s. They’ve essentially gone unseen since broadcast, but for momentary glimpses of some footage in documentaries.
Among the performers rarely seen on video from their prime at all, and collected here in fine style, are the Louvin Brothers, the Carlisles, George Morgan, Charlie Walker, Johnny Rodriguez, Cowboy Copas, Henson Cargill, Ernie Ashworth, Sammi Smith, Don Gibson, David Houston and Justin Tubb. And, of course, there are performances from the key regular-cast members — Acuff and Tubb, Lynn and Wynette and Cline, Wagoner and Snow and Monroe and…well, those were the days.
As far as performance level goes, I’d say this, as someone who’s been privileged to see a lot of filmed performances from those years: When there have been multiple versions of these classic songs and performers, these tend to be the best available, the most realized. And that includes even some cases where a Ray Price or Carl Smith may have done the number on the rightly celebrated and filmed Gannaway “Country Music Show” performances — with which these should not be confused.
Especially strong individual DVDs in the set, if you want or need to choose, include Pioneers, Legends, Queens Of Country (the women are all spotlighted, for once), and Duets (with rare combos such as June Carter & Don Gibson and Skeeter Davis & Bobby Bare, as well as Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy and so on at their peak). Marty Stuart offers brief introductions to each set and, in a bonus that’s really a bonus, each disc adds Opry memory interviews at the end with such longtime stars Jean Shepard, Jimmy Dickens, and, most poignantly now, the late Porter Wagoner. It’s really good that they released this stuff.
Some of that elusive, inclusive, “glad just to be here” Opry-style camaraderie shows up in a very different context on the new, utterly charming, cross-generational DVD, Back To Back: Young At Heart Chorus And Drunk Stuntmen. This one captures a 2004 show at home in Massachusetts, in which the infectious, rocking, alt-country vaudevillian Stuntmen are teamed with the generally seventysomething Young At Heart Chorus — a group that has received attention around the world for their knowing choral readings of songs by the likes of Sonic Youth.
The matchup, which includes soulful duets between members of the two bands, jumping revival-like anthems, and sly wisecracks from performers older and younger, is glued together by the addition of a hot horn section. It is startling to see how much any sense of indie posturing or striving for the cool just peels away when the stage is shared with amazingly hip grandmas and grandpas. Nothing but making music, shaking some ageless booty and having fun performing together remains on the premises, and the audience and viewer is pulled into the frolic. It’s also very interesting to see the sometimes world-weary contemporary lyrics come from the life-experienced; makes a whole new lot of sense.
Singer-songwriters who stand and strum in a single mood and expect to have grabbing video emerge could take a lesson from Patty Griffin Live From Artists Den (ATO), a terrific recent show and video performance from a singer who knows how to mix things up and offer something to watch, along with songs that have long since proven to be top drawer. Griffin’s physical expressiveness in performance offers variety to begin with, but she brings in some strings when she needs to, and a band that includes Ian McLagan on piano at other times. It’s all set at the eye-catching, moodily lit Angel Orensanz Center, a simply gorgeous one-time synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side. The songs span her career, with an emphasis, reasonably, on newer ones.
For one (literally) incendiary show skyrocketing a little-known genius to the stratosphere, few match what’s captured in The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live At Monterey (Universal Music). Some of this performance has been available as part of the Monterey Pop film for decades, of course, but this is the whole show, including the totality of the eight numbers Hendrix performed, “Killing Floor” and “Purple Haze” among them. A brief documentary sets the scene and includes interviews with Experience cohorts Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. Fascinating if technically crude video footage from an early U.K. show is a bonus.
Some of the Anglo blues guitar guys Jimi was gleefully surpassing at the time, and others from back home whose legacy he was glad to further, are still on hand in the two-disc DVD edition of Crossroads: Eric Clapton Guitar Festival 2007 (Rhino), an annual guitar-slinger homecoming that benefits a center in Antigua for musicians in recovery from substance issues. Among those featured are Johnny Winter, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, Los Lobos and Steve Winwood (this is an aging crew!), plus such legends as Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Hubert Sumlin. Some of the livelier moments come from expected sources — B.B. radiating his way through “Rock Me Baby” along with Hubert Sumlin, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan, for instance. Some of the best guitar moments come from the country side, with Vince Gill in blues mode and acoustic Willie in acoustic Willie mode.
Two acoustic blues guitar masters who may be less famous than the rockers Clapton invites, but are more than worthy of close attention, have their own new ones out on the Vestapol DVD label: Guitar Artistry Of Paul Geremia: 6 And 12 String Blues and Guitar Artistry Of Rory Block: Country Blues Guitar. Geremia specializes in subtle, fluid fingerpicking, especially but not exclusively in the arenas of Pink Anderson and Lead Belly, and sings with a voice at least as serviceable as Ry Cooder’s. Block is a more dramatic singer, and she has a distinctive, ascending slash attack that can sound like slide without the socket wrench she otherwise uses for one. The songs are better-known picks from the Robert Johnson/Son House/John Hurt bags.
As good a chance to see what all the rebel yelling was about back in the day as we’re likely to see is available on he new DVD/CD combo The Marshall Tucker Band: Carolina Dreams Tour ’77 (Shout! Factory). The original band, with Toy Caldwell, is intact at this point. Though it’s a far from technically perfect videotaping, it does show what this not-entirely-unhippy southern-rock band — which pushed country, blues and jazzy flute into the likes of “Take The Highway” and “Heard It In A Love Song” — was all about.
Finally, kids videos that adults can like too are rare, so if you need one, check out Ellabration: A Tribute To Ella Jenkins Live (Smithsonian Folkwys). Classic children’s songs are taken up by Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey In The Rock, and others.