Various Artists: The Best Of Hootenanny [DVD]

Leigh H. Edwards

Any DVD collection that can show you the roots of popular music forms like country music and the blues, played by some of the key musicians in the genres, is well worth the price of admission.

Various Artists

The Best Of Hootenanny

Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA rating: N/A
Contributors: Jack Linkletter (host), Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Herbie Mann, Woody Allen, Billy Cosby (as themselves)
US Release Date: 2007-01-16

The 1963 performances gracefully captured on the DVD, The Best of Hootenanny, are a product of the '60s folk revival. But they stun even today with their urgency. Acts ranging from The Carter Family to Johnny Cash take the stage to flash their fingers across their guitar strings and lift their voices in songs everyone already knows. Their aw-shucks, clean-cut demeanor is misleading. These performers were there taking part in the early stirrings of the '60s counter-culture revolution.

The folk revivals of the early part of the decade soon gave way to infamous rock festivals. By the latter part of the decade, West Coast rock was protesting Vietnam and the British invasion had brought blues-influenced rock back home from its grand tour abroad, the oddest sort of boomerang export-import. But here, Dylan hadn't yet gone electric. And rafts of performers were out there thumping on the folk circuit, from Greenwich Village to California, playing their hearts out in the earnest belief that folk culture is the lifeblood of the country and that by turning to that wellspring passionately, they could achieve their own sense of truth and authenticity, they could embrace the popular in a way that the authoritarianism of Cold War culture could not.

Hootenanny was a weekly folk music concert broadcast on television, and these performances come from April 1963. Host Jack Linkletter, son of TV's Art Linkletter, led an eclectic crew of folk artists but also gospel, jazz, and country singers as well as some intrepid comedians. The vibe is like the old barn dance, the kind staged in classic country music via radio and later TV broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry or of Town Hall Party. The old-school vibe is only amplified by the nature of the televised image here -- it's on kinescopes, films made from a television monitor.

All of the acts here are united by their use of the folk idiom and by their attempt to spark a love of folk culture in young audiences. Judging from the rapt and earnest faces of their cheering fans, the musicians hit their mark. In three discs that span six different performance nights, the DVD includes footage of the show as it criss-crosses college campuses around the country, from UCLA to the University of Florida, from the University of Pittsburgh to SMU.

As with many artifacts from the '60s, the footage is weirder and wilder than our nostalgic accounts of the era can do justice to. The sheer range and juxtaposition of performers is staggering. For example, the New Christy Minstrels follow Woody Allen, Judy Collins leads into The Clara Ward Gospel Singers, and Herbie Mann and His Sextet give way to The Southern Methodist University Ensemble singing, of course, "Kumbayah". One evening opens with the young folk group The Travelers Three kicking into the "Hootenanny Saturday Night" theme song, lulling the audience into polished reveries. Yet later that same night, Bill Cosby breaks up the folk music with a bit where he's tweaking UCLA football. Using his patented silly voices and slapstick, Cosby insists "football can be combined with history" since it's a lot like war; he goes on to imagine "the redcoats and the settlers" tossing a coin to see who gets to kick off in the Revolutionary War.

In a show broadcast from the University of Florida, Johnny Cash, circa the drug years, comes out, not to be denied, and nearly busts up the decorousness of the proceedings with a disheveled version of Harlan Howard's "Busted" and a heart-felt run through "Five Feet High and Rising", his song about the flood that swamped his childhood home in Arkansas. As the microphone jumps during his first number, Cash jokingly growls "excuse me, mic, I'm busted." He sings with authority about the trials and tribulations facing the rural poor. The roughness of his delivery is followed by two smooth, melodic folk numbers delivered by Leon Bibb, a black folk singer Cash introduces by saying he saw Bibb in "Greenwitch (sic) village." As Cash tells the white UF college students in the audience about Bibb, calling him "one of our top favorites for about five years" and "one of the finest, most versatile entertainers," you get a sense of their determination to have these concerts cross '60s racial barriers -- and of the necessity of Cash making that case.

Bibb sings "Adieu Madras" and "Little Boxes", the latter delivering a knock-out punch critique of bad housing for the poor and conformity for the rich. Later in that show, Josh White, Jr., a second generation black folk singer, delivers a very smooth version of the traditional murder ballad, "Delia's Gone". As the audience sings along with folk contentedness, joining in their knowledge of a musical fable, one can't help but think of Cash's '90s version of the same song that takes this kind of folk tradition and roughens it up, making the song a bitter, jangling, Southern gothic lament rather than a rousing folk sing-along.

Any DVD collection that can show you the roots of popular music forms like country music and the blues, played by some of the key musicians in the genres, is well worth the price of admission. The original Carter Family, of course, popularized country music as it began being marketed to a mass audience during the '20s, the same period when blues records were being marketed. One of the later incarnations of the Carter Family, Mother Maybelle and her daughters, pop up here singing "Fair and Tender Ladies", while Doc Watson gives us "Deep River Blues". Representing pioneers in another folk music form with rural roots, Flatt & Scruggs come out for "Reuben" and "Hot Corn, Cold Corn", gracing us with bluegrass in all its hot-picking glory.

Our musical sounds send us around the world to land us with our rich American culture mixture, with Celtic- and African-derived musical forms taking us into Appalachia and the Delta. Much like Murray Lerner's later documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, Festival (1967), this series gives us a window onto how folk music in the '60s was a form of social protest, communal identity, idealism, proof of American popular culture's continuity even in the midst of discontinuities, and of its profound endurance.


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still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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