Various Artists: A Tribute to Robert Altman’s Nashville

Various Artists
A Tribute to Robert Altman's Nashville

“Let me point out two things. Number One: All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And Number Two: We can do something about it.”

“You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.”
— from Robert Altman’s Nashville

In my opinion, Robert Altman’s benchmark 1975 film Nashville is the quintessential American movie. His tale of a tumultuous weekend in Music City, with over 20 major characters, skewers both politics and the music business, while at the same time telling stories of ordinary people caught up in a turbulent period, with darkly comic undertones. It’s about common American people, their preoccupation with fame, and their struggle to achieve true happiness during such shallow times; it’s also about politicians obsessed with celebrity, and celebrities obsessed with politics. Plus, there’s an hour’s worth of some very good music crammed into the film’s two-and-a-half hours. The film is so complex, that if you asked another person what its central themes are, he or she would probably say something completely different. That’s what makes Nashville so watchable; you pick up new insights with every repeated viewing, and it gets better the more you see it. It’s funny how, in the months since September 11th, with all the soul searching done by the media, nobody bothered to mention this movie and its merits. This movie wasn’t lost on some Canadian artists, however, and thanks to country artist Carolyn Mark and her large crew of friends (including a couple of Americans), we’re reminded of how spectacular a film this is.

Released by Canada’s coolest indie record label, Mint Records (home of Mark, Neko Case, and the New Pornographers among others), A Tribute to Robert Altman’s Nashville is great fun to listen to. Mark and cohorts get together and have a geeky blast reliving the movie, in a similar way that some people sing along to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or, heaven help us, The Sound of Music. Altman, prior to filming, had his actors write their own songs, with the lyrics to every song being crucial to the story, and A Tribute to Nashville, with its plethora of talent, shows how infectious, sardonic, and heartfelt many of the songs still are (I can’t forget to mention the neat parody of the original soundtrack album cover).

The film’s cheesiest songs are the ones sung by William Gibson’s slimy character Haven Hamilton. A thinly veiled version of Hank Snow, the shallow Hamilton sang equally shallow songs. Dave Gowans tackles the vocals on the nauseating Bicentennial tune “200 Years” (which foreshadows Lee Greenwood’s real-life, smarmy Gulf War anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.”), while Dave Lang sings “Keep a Goin'” and the hilariously melodramatic “For the Sake of the Children”, a sanctimonious tale about a man leaving his lover for his family (“Cause Jimmy’s been wishin’ / That I’d take him fishin’ / His Little League pitchin’ / Is something to see”). Both Gowans and Lang do a good job imitating the pompous Hamilton, putting more emphasis on the smarm, as they ham it up.

Alt-country treasure Neko Case makes an appearance, and needless to say, her two contributions to the album are among its most memorable moments. Case and fellow Corn Sister Carolyn Mark duet on the fun, laid-back “Oh These Troubled Times”, but Case’s best moment is as Connie White (played in the movie by Karen Black) on the track “Rolling Stone”. As she belts out the opening line, “You walked me sweet Joshua / Down the country lane,” Case nails this song perfectly, completely blowing away Black’s performance in the film. This lady steals every album she makes a guest appearance on, and only makes us wish she’d release a new solo album sooner.

Some of the best songs from Nashville are the ones written and sung by Ronee Blakley, who played the fragile Loretta Lynn figure Barbara Jean. Chicago-based Kelly Hogan’s take on Blakley’s gorgeous ballad “Dues” is another highlight. Hogan’s dead-on rendition is filled with emotion, and equals Blakley’s own stunning performance. Mark herself tackles two other Blakley tunes and does an excellent job, both on the stirring Barbara Jean swan song “My Idaho Home”, and the Barbara Jean-Haven Hamilton duet “One, I Love You”, with Dave Lang reprising his Hamilton character. Dottie Cormier also contributes an energetic version of Blakley’s effervescent “Tapedeck in His Tractor”.

The song that most people likely remember from Nashville is Robert Carradine’s Oscar-winning tune “I’m Easy”. It’s a simple, beautiful song, but deep down, it’s shallow and narcissistic, reflecting Carradine’s womanizing cad Tom Frank. Singer Tolan McNeil delivers a straightforward performance on this album, and it’s good, but it falls short of Carradine’s restrained, yet intense version in the movie. There was something about the way he stared at Lily Tomlin in that crowded club while he played. . . .

Sadies vocalist Dallas Good is very good as the character Tommy Brown, singing “Bluebird”, as is Sylvia Kenny on “Since You’ve Been Gone” (written by Gary Busey, before he was replaced by Allan Nicholls), who even knows exactly when to clear her throat in the song (an important part of the performance in the movie). Cindy Wolfe has the thankless task of singing “I Never Get Enough”, sung in the movie by Gwen Welles’ tone-deaf character Sueleen Gaye. Wolfe sings in tune, but makes her performance hokey enough to be just as effective, and ultimately more enjoyable than Welles’ intentionally awful performance. Neko Case’s fellow New Pornographer Carl Newman also contributes his trademark lisp to the Connie White tune “Memphis”.

An added bonus is the inclusion of three speeches by fictional politician Hal Philip Walker, read here by Steve Lange. The only gripe I have with the album is Lang’s imitation of a Southern politician; his Canadian accent exposes itself glaringly when he pronounces “house” and “about”, a dead giveaway, and something yours truly (a Canadian in my own right) found distracting (a hint to those not familiar: we Canadians pronounce our “ou”‘s as if we’re ashamed of our teeth).

The album clocks in at an economical 47 minutes, and diehard fans of the movie might have preferred a few more reenactments of famous scenes, such as the comically surrealistic monologues that Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal character did (“Oh cars, are you trying to tell me something?”), but that’s nitpicking. This CD is all about the music, and is guaranteed to greatly please anyone who loved the movie. For fans of Neko Case, Carolyn Mark, and Kelly Hogan, it’s rewarding listening, since all three artists are in fine form on the disc. Finally, for anyone who has never seen Robert Altman’s greatest film, hopefully A Tribute to Robert Altman’s Nashville will make them curious enough to go and discover this movie for themselves. If nothing else, the contagious melody of “It Don’t Worry Me” will remain in their head for days.

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