Honor Thy Music
“We have so many fine pickers and singers on the show that there’s not gonna be much time for talkin’, which is just as well.” Those sentiments, uttered by a Grand Ole Opry host introducing Johnny Cash’s powder-keg smokin’ performance of “Big River” on the show in 1962, encapsulate the show’s enduring appeal. If the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Opry before all the Opryland ostentatiousness, is the mothership and motherchurch of country music, it is because this television show keeps calling country musicians and fans on home, week after week. The Opry’s always been big on music, short on filler.
Opry Video Classics is a must-have for serious country fans. Spanning 120 performances from the ‘50s to the -70s, this eight-disc DVD box set hits all the genre’s high notes: George Jones and Tammy Wynette singing their heart-wrenching duets, and expressing their real-life drama from their trainwreck of a marriage; Willie Nelson warbling placid ballads in his straightlaced suits and clean-cut hair from the early days before he let the wild Willie loose; Waylon Jennings tearing through a medley of his rock-tinged country and shaking the rafters of a staid Opry that was a little worried about this longhaired singer and his Outlaw Country movement of the ‘70s.
You can find all the classic performances you’d ever want to see here, all in one place. It’s a “guitar-pull” feast. Many of these performances haven’t been available before on DVD. Most of them are knock-outs, like Cash and June Carter’s playful rendition of “Jackson” in 1968, circa Cash’s prison album years. The audience’s energy, as when they yelp and holler for that hit duet, also adds to the jolt of these numbers. A few of the discs might also help you brush up on your country history.
Organized thematically, some of the DVDs fill in the blanks of the genre’s history. While many recent fans may not recognize the selections on Songs That Topped the Charts, the disc lets some less famous Opry stars have their due. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame and the Legends DVDs focus on the heavy-hitters. While you get a lot of the same superstars over and over here (Patsy Cline, Jones, Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Cash, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton), that’s not a bad thing. Parton’s perfect pitch will never lead you astray. Nor will Lynn’s voice cracking with emotion. Or Conway Twitty laying down the buttery delivery, slicker than his helmet of hair, catting around in his country trash lothario persona.
The best of the undiscovered country comes on the Queens of Country DVD and the Pioneers disc. Trailblazers like The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, Tex Ritter, Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs embody the genre’s roots. The women show you how far it has come. For a while now, music critics have been preaching the gospel of adding women back into the picture of country music history. This DVD makes that history visible in the most compelling way possible. From country sweetheart Kitty Wells to tragic balladeer Patsy Cline, all the way through throaty Connie Smith and up to the sparkling Parton, the collection of performances lets you trace a line of women’s music over those two decades. Don’t ignore these uppity women, or Parton, laying down “Jolene”, or Lynn belting out “You Ain’t Woman Enough” will wake you up fast.
While some of the Love Songs DVD might risk sending you into a sugar coma, the selections on Duets are undeniable. Passionate, engaging, musically tight but emotionally dysfunctional, many of these famous pairings bring drama to spare. Avuncular host of the DVD series Marty Stuart introduces the disc, as he does each one, with some history and context, courtesy of the fabulous Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (and their intrepid historians), which co-sponsored this release with Time Life. The context he offers proves invaluable.
On that DVD alone, Stuart describes the George and Tammy relationship as a soap opera, as the two songs from them bookend their relationship. “The Ceremony” reenacts their wedding vows as a musical event, with a super wacky staging of as wedding scene, replete with a minister reading vows. Meanwhile, “We’re Gonna Hold On”, as Stuart says, is a song Jones wrote about them trying to preserve their relationship. In that performance, George and Tammy, in matching brown and white outfits with mega mutton chops for Jones, strain a bit, grabbing desperately at the music, his timbre as always harkening to gospel, as they draw out the “hold on” chorus and sing to each other with deep emotion.
Stuart offers us another beginning and ending with the Porter-Dolly duets. As he notes, their 1967 rendition of “Holding On to Nothing” happened not long after she joined Porter’s show, while their 1973 version of “If Teardrops Were Pennies” came when her solo career began to take off and the writing was on the wall. The earlier piece captures Dolly in a more timid mode. They have her stand on a platform to reach Porter’s height, and he plays the courtly gentleman in his incandescent rhinetone Nudie suits to her “girl singer” role.
In contrast, the second performance finds her more confident and assertive in her stage presence and interactions with Porter, him looking tense in his yellow pompadour. She’s jacked her hair to Jesus and her career into the stratosphere and she won’t stop for the old boys’ network in Nashville. The crowd hollers in delight after their flawless duet, the “his” and “hers” harmonies blending effortlessly.
To go along with Stuart’s helpful but not onerous introductions, each disc also includes several bonus interviews, many with Porter. In addition to some starry-eyed reminiscing, we get some juicy bits in this bonus footage, such as Porter explaining how Roy Acuff told him he was smart to have a girl singer, because “you please everyone thataway” (i.e., the men buy tickets to hear the girl singers).
In another interview, he delivers the perfect country boy Opry dream: he worked the fields as a kid while pretending to be on the Opry, singing with the stars. When a friend teased him for talking to himself in the fields and said “you’ll be lookin’ these two mules in the rear end when you’re 75”, and “you’re as near to the Grand Ole Opry as you’ll ever be”, Porter just laughed and went on to prove him wrong.
From the cornfields and his makeshift tree-stump stage to the height of country fame, Porter carried his rural background and the genre’s foundational agrarian, proletarian values with him. In other fits of cornpone humor, singer Jan Howard recounts meeting Johnny Cash in Los Angeles in 1957. She went to his house for a barbeque, and when he tried to convince her three young boys that they were eating the pet goats he had just shown them, she concluded: “What a weirdo.”
Opry Video Classics gives you a priceless slice of performance history and helps fill in the contexts. All of this footage helps to flesh out classic country, and amidst the flash of banjos and rhinestones, what shines the brightest is the seamless musicianship and the emotional connection to the audience. Come back to the mothership, ya’ll.