On Radio Shed, there would be a programme on the Eras of Elvis which would propose, in order of importance: the Memphis rockabilly as discovered by Sun; the Nashville cat picking up a few tricks from Chet Atkins at RCA; then, some way below those standards on the whole, the films and concerts and the increasingly lackadaisical or bombastic studio work.
We were reminded of Elvis’s original genius by a most enjoyable documentary by Jeremy Marre, first shown BBC4 7.11.14 – The Heart Of Country: How Nashville Became Music City. At the very least it amounted to a great concert and we’d buy it if they did it in DVD.
The Shed has had its hearts broken before by nods to country music which essentially recycle the same material. Marre obviously took a good look at the archives and came up with some great buried material, as well as new interviews, to illustrate his story of a city which went roughly the same way as Elvis but carried on getting worse for longer.
Marre’s story started with the boom in barn dances for radio, with feet doing the drums, which launched the Grand Old Opry in the 1940s. Next thing, city people started hearing the words and, according to one veteran southern musician, were amazed to discover that those hillbillies could be smart and funny too.
Another session man recalled the Nashville production boom as a scene which ran on universal amphetamines, known as Old Yellers.
We could have done with a bit more context for some of the clips. We were a bit baffled by what looked like footage of George Jones being arrested, for one thing. Was he doing a replay for a film crew at some point, or how was it ever got? The Shed is on the case. Meanwhile, like the director and us, you might settle for a clip of George doing Things Have Gone To Pieces (shortly before it all did) …
Who could be as sharp and yet as soulful as George Jones at his best? Step forward as a contender, from this film, Waylon Jennings, doing Nashville Bum from his 1966 debut Nashville Rebel. Hear it and want more …
It’s a great track but the main interest was in the look of the young Waylon, sharp as the ace of diamonds, in a mod suit, just before he hit his 30s and relaxed into his later role as the paunchy bear of the so-called Outlaw Movement – from which Nashville stole the hat idea and dropped the musicians.
In the film’s exposition of the battle for the soul of Nashville, capitalism was represented by Eddie Arnold, smooth as a nut in best Italian tailoring, saying: “I don’t care if it was real country or fake country. I was just trying to sell records. The rule is you have to win, or else you go bust.”
Willie Nelson, for the people, said the money talks system was all very well in theory but the people who ran it were hopeless at understanding anyone else, including the customers.
The sheds of England cheered that.
In the end came Brad Paisley performing This Is Country Music. The BBC allowed this libel to speak for itself but did also play, also without comment, Murder Down On Music Row, the famous hat-act protest song, well-reprised here by a female band, Della Mae, which we need to follow up.
On the way to Brad Paisley, the film shed a little light on the mysterious pomp of Garth Brooks and explained him as a performance artist who knew how to work a crowd, whatever you thought of his records.
It also reminded us of the good stuff that kept happening in spite of everything.
It quoted one of Steve Earle’s many nice lines, about Nashville’s “great credibility scare”; had the man himself tell us that great country and great rock and roll were the same thing; and played him playing Guitar Town.
It played a clip of Too Many Mornings sung by Cash and Dylan at their best. All the Dylan & Cash sessions are worth having and The Shed is hoping for some new finds on the official full Basement Tapes now being released … check back here later.
Somebody said that Christianity was “the red thread” through country and Ricky Skaggs announced himself as “a musicionary”. Then we got him doing Highway 40 Blues, which was another good choice.
Elsewhere in a packed hour and a half, Charlie Pride made us sniff with his pride in his part in it all. He said he never got a “hoot call” when he was singing, but we saw a clip of whites walking out of the Ryman when he sang there.
Even the inevitable Dolly Parton clip was a nice one – a duet with Porter Wagoner on Holding Onto Nothing, from the point where they decided to Do The Right Thing.
We can’t remember who unexpectedly sang We’ll Gather Lilacs In The Spring Again, or why, but it was lovely, darling.
A Nashville pub singer called Pork McElhinney did a so-so audition but The Shed wants him on the shelves anyway.
Two good quiz questions arising …
When Kitty Wells sang It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, to what song was she responding? Answer is Wild Side Of Life, by Hank Thompson.
What advertisement used the famous clip of Bob Dylan dropping cards bearing words from Subterranean Homesick Blues? Answer is one of a series for Maxell Tapes.
Next week: Filling a gas lighter.