Junkies go back to church
The Cowboy Junkies invited such friends as Vic Chesnutt, Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams to Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity to help them revisit the music of an album that was seminal for so many, and which is, holy cow, marking its 20th anniversary this year. That’s what you see in Cowboy Junkies: Trinity Revisited (Zoe/Latent), a combo-release of DVD video and CD audio which captures the band and its guests re-recording The Trinity Session in full and in sequence.
There’s some irony, of a practically traditional rock ‘n’ roll sort, in the fact that the original album was celebrated for being a single-mike, D.I.Y. $100 recording of stripped-down, often mopey takes on country tunes and balladry through a Velvet Underground-informed lens. This production is laid-back still, but pretty elaborate, shot in High Definition and sounding fine. The guest stars add a bit of juice and gravel to the consistently languid proceedings — a good idea, if you ask me. There’s a documentary on the making of the new session included.
“Legendary,” an overused and abused description, does apply to the not-quite-country/not-quite-blues and often barely recalled Emmett Miller — the man Bob Wills, no less, called the greatest singer of them all. You can actually see the man, as he was, unadorned in middle age circa 1951, and also performing in a minstrel comedy sketch — in blackface — with the DVD release of the one B-movie he appeared in (Yes Sir, Mr. Bones!) as half of producer/film re-discoverer Kit Parker’s double-feature DVD Showtime USA Volume 2 (VCI Entertainment). The other feature on the disc is one of the best of the California western swing king Spade Cooley’s musicals, Square Dance Jubilee, so you can’t go wrong.
But be aware, corked-up blackface minstrelsy, in all of its double-edged complication, is on display in Yes Sir, with both remarkably engaging showmanship in the musical numbers, and the unavoidable repugnance of the racist stance that lies behind this embarrassing, invigorating display of American show business roots. (For the record, there are nearly as many African-American as white performers in the film, Scatman Crothers among them.) Miller never quite sings for us, but the swooping voice-break yodel of his “Lovesick Blues” is demonstrated anyhow, mid-joke.
The disc is available alone or as part of the four-DVD Showtime USA Jubilee Collection, with more nostalgic B-movie variety and vaudeville and cowboy musicals throughout, featuring performers remarkable and, sometimes, revealingly generic. An interesting sidelight: Many of the B-movie musicals in the set, out of the Poverty Row Lippert studio, were produced by a young Murray Lerner, later the filmmaker who documented Newport Folk in Festival as well as The Who Live At The Isle Of Wight. We’ve all got to start somewhere.
Produced not very many years later than the Miller film, but coming from a musical world decades beyond it in sensibility, was a series of 52 country music star-studded programs shot as peacetime Cold War army recruitment TV shows over four seasons from 1957-61, and now released as four individual DVDs by Bear Family, Country Style U.S.A. Seasons 1-4. You’ll see a great lineup of ’50s country stars singing “Stay A Little Longer”, since this was the show’s theme song, and catch some wondrous recruitment ads, particularly for late 1950s women, who were expected, apparently, to be enticed by WAC fashions. (That’s for Women’s Army Corps, not latter-day slang, nor Western Athletic Conference.)
Among the performances in this set, which is an excellent complement to the Time-Life Opry shows described last issue, are first-rate sets filmed in black-and-white by Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Roy Acuff, Jim Reeves, Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Anita Carter, the Jordanaires, Patsy Cline, and Don Gibson — often of their best-recalled songs, otherwise unseen. Especially welcome are the appearances in these shows of some of the A-Team guitar players rarely seen on camera at all: Hank Garland wailing on “Sugarfoot Rag” (Volume 4) and backing Floyd Tillman on “Slippin’ Around” (Season 3), and Grady Martin backing Bobby Lord (Season 2). All of the discs are worthwhile, though the first three seasons offer varied hosts while the last settles down with Faron Young in the role every show.
The Live From Austin TX DVDs from the PBS television show “Austin City Limits” are coming out with such frequency on New West that a few of special interest here slipped through the cracks at the end of last year. You should be aware of the new offering out there featuring Kinky Friedman; the scabrous, sometimes touching show from November 1975 was the only episode ever that PBS decided was too scary to air at the time. There’s also a very good Doug Sahm show shot only few days later which highlights the man’s blues, rock and country sides, including an excellent “At The Crossroads”. Buck Owens shows up in 1988, in comeback/renewed fine form, and with a guest appearance by Dwight Yoakam. And Tift Merritt has a full show from the Good Hearted Man tour period, from 2005.
Last Train Home Live At Iota (Red Beet/String Theory) captures, very well, a typically varied and smart performance by the veteran, versatile bi-capital Washington and Nashville-based alt-country band, in a show marking their tenth anniversary at an Arlington, Virginia, nightclub. Lead singer and songwriter Eric Brace produced and edited this polished multi-camera video, along with director Craig Havighurst; the result is quite a sterling example of what indie bands and filmmakers can do together. As the band — in its horn-augmented, full-sized D.C. version — blasts and coos its way through Brace’s originals old and new, plus their trademark covers of classics from Tom T, Hall, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and Dylan, the cameras, like the guitars, steel, horns and keyboards (Jen Gunderman), are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. It’s alive for you.
The Wreckers Way Back Home: Live From New York City (Warners) captures a Bowery Ballroom show which demonstrates that the Michelle Branch-Jessica Harp duo has gotten credit for breaking down perceived alternative/mainstream country barriers because they actually do. These sights and sounds make the case.
In the always tricky realm of musical bio-documentaries, there are a couple of good ones. Outstanding is Everybody Needs Somebody: Solomon Burke (Snapper Music/Claptrap). It’s U.K.-made, and perhaps has a slightly higher percentage of British talking heads (and sensibility) than strictly makes sense, but they’ve done their homework and their job. We’re brought home to the always interesting, amusing, hustling Burke himself, who guides us as he returns to his early haunts in his native west Philadelphia neighborhood, working its way through an extraordinary life and career. And, yes, there are performances, both of an older vintage and from his more recent resurgence.
Blues, Rags and Hollers: The Koerner, Ray & Glover Story (MVDvisual) shows us everything we might want to know about the rambunctious white blues boys who came from the same Minnesota scene as Bob Dylan and had fun with the form before it was encouraged. It’s long but often charming.
And Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death…And Insects (A&E Home Video) catches the famously eccentric and roots rock-friendly punk-era troubadour being eccentric and roots-rock friendly. There’s a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, and a session with Peter Buck and Venus 3. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings make a guest appearance, as does Nick Lowe. What’s so funny about sex, food, death, and insects?