Bio documentaries come and go, but there’s a new DVD just out that’s special, and it focuses on a unique performer and writer. Roger Miller: King Of The Road (White Star DVD) contains enough performance footage from the 1960s through the early ’90s, hilarious interview clips, and touching commentary by narrator Waylon Jennings as well as Glen Campbell, Sheb Wooley and Minnie Pearl, to leave fans of mainstream and alternative country alike teary-eyed. A clip from the old Porter Wagoner Show alone is enough to see Miller at his most wackily disruptive. What emerges, in a film put together in 1995 as a memorial, is an involving portrait of a man Nashville could accept as charmingly “crazy,” even as he came up with songs as timeless, and far-flung, as “Do Wacka Do” and “Lock, Stock, And Teardrops”.
A surprise end-of-year DVD release from Bear Family, with the mysterious generic title American Folk & Country Music, turns out to be quite a wonderful historic prize, with some amazing footage. It’s taken from a quality B&W videotape of a 1966 German TV broadcast hosted by the New Lost City Ramblers, with Tracy Schwarz sometimes emceeing in broken German. It’s probably enough to say that it contains prime performances from the Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys (with Carter Stanley in pretty good shape) of “Rank Stranger” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, since footage of this classic act is so limited (and I’ve never even seen this video referred to). Other performers include the very high, very lonesome Roscoe Holcomb, and old-time country vaudevillian Cousin Emmy playing fiddle and banjo and dancing. In fact, this whole crew accompanies square dances at the end, dancing along, and backing the “Baden Baden Breakdowners.” Priceless stuff.
Also on the historic side, Vestapol has a significant new entry: Legends Of Western Swing offers not only vintage performances by western swing guitar stalwarts Junior Barnard of Bob Wills’ Playboys and Zeke Campbell of the Lightcrust Doughboys, but latter-day appearances by the great Eldon Shamblin, with enough close-ups for guitarists to pick up the approach. Fans would want this just to see Bob Wills performing the likes of “Stay A Little Longer”, with Tommy Duncan on vocals.
Halloween At Town Hall Party makes for amusing and interesting viewing even out of season. It’s a change-up entry in Bear Family’s reissue program of material from the celebrated 1950 TV show out of Compton, California; instead of focusing on famed performers, it shows a whole episode intact, from October 31, 1959. We get the harmonious Browns in what can only be called proto-folk-rock mode (from “Party Doll” to “Scarlet Ribbons” to “Worried Man”), some ace Joe Maphis guitar, Skeets McDonald hopped up honky-tonk, and a Tex Ritter cowboy song. Everyone has shown up for the holiday in Halloween costumes, so you’ll sometimes have to figure out who you’re seeing!
Eagle Vision video has begun a new reissue series of late 1970s and early ’80s country TV specials produced by hands from Opryland USA (but not of the Opry) before cable TV made seeing the stars more everyday. The style tends toward the slick, but the musical content is nonetheless potent. The sweetest of the three is Conway Twitty: On The Mississippi, which took the late great eroticizer of twang up the mighty river on a paddle-wheeler (like his daddy piloted), with stops in towns where he grew up, right in the Delta. Twitty brings along a few friends, which means we get duets with Loretta, fine rockabilly with Jerry Lee Lewis, and perhaps most striking, a quiet, acoustic, sit-down song-trading sequence with Tammy Wynette, including even a bit of Conway & Tammy dueting. All of these performers have solo turns too, slightly past their very prime but still riveting, and Conway’s fellow Mississipian Charley Pride joins in as well.
Pride also shows up, with his signature “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”, on the early ’80s-born A Tribute To Chet Atkins, which turns into something like a history of RCA Records country. In addition to Chet bio and banter, there’s prime Roger Miller, Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare (Senior!), the late Don Gibson (“Oh Lonesome Me”), Ray Stevens, Jim Stafford, and Tom T. Hall (singing about Clayton Delaney) — plus Atkins’ guitar, of course, at one point in tandem with such other Nashville Sound aces as Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer and Jethro Burns.
You may have seen the third entry in this series, Johnny Cash: A Concert Behind Prison Walls, on TV lately. The title could be slightly misleading; this is not Folsom or San Quentin, but the Tennessee State Correctional Facility, and they’ve had time to set up a glitzy show stage for the event. Johnny leads a revue, with numbers that include “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “A Boy Named Sue”, but the disc’s credits should really be shared equally with Linda Ronstadt, who delivers “Desperado”, “You’re No Good” and “Love Has No Pride” very much in her prime; you’ll be reminded why she was the queen of the barefoot singers.
Those more current attractively “brazen” women, the Dixie Chicks, are back with their second DVD of 2003, Top Of The World Tour Live, (Columbia Music Video/Open Wide), a considerably stronger video than An Evening With The Dixie Chicks. Director Sophie Muller shows a keen sense of the music: The camera’s where it needs to be, and the performances, from unspecified shows along the way, are simply first-rate. Watch for the number in which their clothes change every few seconds as different performances are cut in — all while staying in sync with one live audio track! The Chicks may stick with their promise not to “market to country” anymore, but they need to keep playing it — like this — even if they call it rock ‘n’ roll.
On that rock side, there are several new entries of interest. Paul Westerberg has been one of the most influential rock influences in alt-country, and his new DVD, Come Feel Me Tremble (Image), captures his current shows and some of his lifestyle in one of his stronger performing periods since the Replacements years. Its mere existence will entice fans who’ve waited for something like this a long time. Performances of tunes old and new are stripped down to the point that they probably won’t win new fans, but established ones will find this arresting.
Marshall Crenshaw: Live From The Stone Pony (King Biscuit) captures one of the power-pop vet’s charming latter-day shows at the legendary club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hits you want to see him do (“Someday, Someway”, “Cynical Girl”, “Whenver You’re On My Mind”, etc.) are all on tap.
And on Tony Joe White In Concert (Inakustik), the lowdown swamp master delivers his hits (“Polk Sald Annie”, “Rainy Night In Georgia”, etc.) in a 1992 appearance on the German “ohne filter/pure music” series, in which stars just step up and play. The visuals, consequently, can be a bit static — but you don’t get to see Tony Joe very often at all.
A couple of fine blues releases joined 2003’s Year Of The Blues onslaught at the very end. Freddie King: Live In Europe (Image) captures the most frenetic of the axe aces named King in fine form in unreleased 1973-74 shows. Most significant, however, is The Howlin’ Wolf Story (Bluebird), which includes all known footage of the most electrifying blues singer of them all. It’s the first full-length bio of the big man ever done; highlights include extraordinary performances in a German TV studio in the early ’60s (where would we be without German TV?), his appearance on “Shindig” with the Rolling Stones, and considerable backstage and interview footage. The portrait itself is fascinating and valuable throughout; the Wolf emerges as a savvy and quite serious professional, bandleader, and family man who saved all of that rock-‘n’-roll-birthing ferocity for the shows. His story is very different from Muddy Waters’, and the details of their relationship is one of the things you’ll hear about here. A must for anyone with any interest in the blues, or musical excitement.