The Twisted Side of Twang
Spring Fever? Something in the air has allowed a pile of new roots video DVDs from the twisted end of the Twang Continuum to escape all at once — mainly, it seems, from California. The most mind-boggling of the offerings from the bizarre bazaar didn’t, of course, even mean to be that.
Foremost is the release of the forgotten 1962 B-movie Five Minutes To Live starring Johnny Cash as an ex-con killer from Hoboken (go figure) sucked into in a California bank heist by suave bowling alley manager Merle Travis. Cash eventually threatens the life of little Ronnie Howard, apparently out west on a field trip from Mayberry. With all of the usual fine packaging and notations of a Bear Family video release, there’s a bonus trailer included for this $1.98 feature under its more-to-the-point original title: Door-To-Door Maniac. Johnny doesn’t act half badly, actually, as scenery-chewing cop killer performances go. Learn for yourself why Mother Maybelle busted out laughing whenever she saw her son-in-law in screen roles like this one.
A second, shorter, Bear release, The Night Rider, brings back a color 1959 TV pilot from what would have been a heck of a series idea, really — making one-shot TV episodes based on hit saga songs. This one was built around Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, with Johnny and guitar master mentor Merle Travis (again) singing around the campfire, and other nice western bits. It’s an entertaining curiosity.
Curiouser is another entry in Bear’s growing series of DVDs from the famed 1950s Compton, California, country TV series At Town Hall Party, this one featuring Jenks “Tex” Carman. Tex was a sort of precursor of cowpunk. He specialized in cowboy and Indian songs and unique hybrids such as “Hillbilly Hula”, all accompanied by primitive self-taught Hawaiian guitar that tends to throw off even the ace backup musicians the show always provided. His vocals have a scrappy northern nasality that would have been right at home on the Sgt. Bilko show, or a taxicab in Brooklyn. That’s country. This man was a beloved figure in his day; Deke Dickerson’s notes explain why.
That one might just put you in the right mood for The Cramps Live At Napa State Mental Hospital (Music Video Distributors), a truly lo-fi video of a 1978 free performance by the shockabilly kings in one place where the audience would potentially be stranger than they were. Ominously close, blankly enthusiastic (and apparently, uh, fully committed) inmates of the asylum provide spontaneous hoedown dancing. The Cramps themselves are in terrific punk rockabilly form, thrashing through the likes of “Human Fly” and their updates on “The Way I Walk” and “Twist And Shout”. Copyright info seems to stay onscreen through the entire show, but if that bothers you, this probably isn’t for you anyway. Fans will love it.
Speaking of asylums, Austin’s favorite deadpan rag, blues and old-timey party band makes it to DVD with Asylum Street Spankers: Sideshow Fez (Buffalo/Spanks-A-Lot). With its strong visual element, this acoustic goodtime outfit is a natural for video. They’re captured here in an amusing, varied summer 2003 show in Portland, Oregon. The recent emphasis of the veteran band, after some personnel changes, is on insinuating acoustic blues from de facto leader Wammo, and some fine original honky-tonk balladeering of a certain tone from Christina Marrs (“If You Love Me, You’ll Sleep On The Wet Spot”). The nine-piece band still gets in the likes of “The Mess Around”, “Some Of These Days You’re Gonna Miss Me Honey”, and even “The Hokey-Pokey”. A bonus documentary follows their 2003 tour of Japan, including an in-store at Tower Records Tokyo. They go over well there, it seems — even when it sounds like Betty Boop is back on Japanese radio.
Also from the more laid-back party side of Texas comes the quirky documentary film Growin’ A Beard (Aspyr), which follows a highly competitive squared-off, moustacheless, leprechaun-style beard-growing contest that precedes St. Patrick’s Day, annually, in the little town of Shamrock, Texas. Much local color along what’s left of Route 66 is captured, augmented by the fuss that ensues when an “outsider” from Austin shows up to take on the regular local contestants. The soundtrack music is from the Gourds, and in an unusual bit of packaging, the soundtrack CD is included with the DVD. Watching hair grow may not strike everyone as quite so funny as the film seems to think it is, but it has its charming moments — and a bonus mini-film, “How Not To Make A Documentary”.
An indisputably excellent, no-joke, three-hour plus multi-part documentary series — genuinely Irish — is Out Of Ireland (Eagle Vision). This miniseries, little-seen in the U.S., is not one more history of the Celt folk scene there, but a history of Irish rock, from snoozy “show bands” of the 1950s unknown outside of Ireland, through the era of Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher, and on to Sinead O’Connor, U2, Bob Geldof and the Pogues. It’s informative, often touching, and loaded with music you’ll want to hear and see.
From the same territory comes The Saw Doctors In Concert: Live In Galway (Shamtown), a good bit of which chronicles one of the Irish pop band’s trips to New York. A 50-minute documentary on the band’s story accompanies the 80-minute concert.
Back in the States, we’re starting to see the increasing release of collections of country videos of the first-generation 1980s vintage. Some folks find nostalgic value in ’80s rock videos, which so often seem dated visually and embarrassingly spic & span in band presentations; I only rarely do.
But there is a certain nostalgia easy to find in ’80s country videos, which still nodded much more often toward country (or western) imagery than many CMT-ers bother with today. You can spot some of that in Ronnie Milsap: Golden Video Hits (Lightyear), which compiles videos from the bluesy country star such as “She Loves My Car” and “Lost In The Fifties Tonight”. As with some Waylon Jennings videos of the same vintage we talked about here a few columns back, these work best when Milsap is actually in the videos — which you can’t count on all the time!
Laid-back country singer Don Williams is ably chronicled in two new DVDs: Don Williams Dvd Hits Collection, which compiles videos for “Good Ole Boys Like Me”, “Lay Down Beside Me” “Till The Rivers All Run Dry” and eleven others; and a documentary, Don Williams: Into Africa, which captures many of the same songs performed live during his first tour to a continent on which he’s immensely popular.
The enormous 20th Century Masters CD line now has a DVD cousin; like the audio volumes, it will offer a short but to-the-point collection of hits by major artists of all stripes, including edgier country. First of these out, I’m pleased to say, is The Best Of The Mavericks (MCA Nashville Chronicles), featuring their five key videos up to “Dance The Night Away”, with “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down”, featuring Flaco Jimenez, a standout. The band looks brash, ready, and it’s altogether an appealing video set. Expect to see a collection of 1980s Steve Earle videos released soon from the same source.
Two classy new blues releases of note, both from Vestapol: Elizabeth Cotton In Concert and Muddy Waters In Concert, 1971. In multiple TV documentaries from 1968, 1979 and 1980, Cotton’s much-copied and studied picking style is presented; she’s still in good health and voice through these airings, so you can see and hear “Freight Train” and “Shake Sugaree” and even “Wreck Of The Old 97” in good form. The well-connected but often clueless folkie Laura Weber, who first taught rudimentary guitar and then presented many fine acoustic acts on PBS in the late ’60s, makes a surprise return in the 1969 interview.
As for the Waters set, it’s from a period not much captured, with Pinetop Perkins on piano and Muddy still standing and playing guitar, running through the hits in color. There’s plenty of footage of this giant around, but he’s in excellent vocal form here, and the camera stays up close and personal. You can’t go wrong.