Saturday, January 22, 2005

Strait Country

There is little to be said for most country music these days. George Strait is the shining exception.

Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band brought a pure country music show to Thompson Boling Arena Friday night and played to a packed house. It was a true country music fan's delight.

Opening with "The Fireman," Strait launched into a nearly two hour set of pretty love songs and rodeo tunes, up-tempo cuts and a little Western Swing. There was little interplay between songs and no theatrics.

Strait doesn't need it because unlike most modern country artists, he is actually talented, letting his music speak for itself.

His sound hasn't changed much since his first hit, "Unwound," was released in 1981. And that's been the secret to his success. Twenty-four years later, Strait has earned 51 number one hits, more than anyone in country music history.

Highlights of the night included Terry Stafford's classic rodeo tear-jerker "Amarillo By Morning," the gentle "Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa" and an inspired cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Strait peppered his show with several country classics, including Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "Milk Cow Blues."

If audience reaction is any judge, pure country music still has an eager audience.

Strait got a big hand for his late 1990s hit, "Murder on Music Row," a song about the ruination of traditional country music by profit-minded Nashville record producers who sold the music's roots out in favor of a thinly disguised pop sound.

"They thought no one would buy them old drinkin' and cheatin' songs," the song says.

After all these years, though, George Strait is still singing them --- still selling albums and packing arenas. One gets the sense that his music will be around long after all of the wanna bes have faded into the sunset.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Remembrance of songs passed...

Have you ever heard a song and suddenly been transported to another place in time?

That happened to me last night while watching Peter Bogdanovich's 1990 film, "Texasville," which I recently purchased on DVD. The sequel to 1971's "The Last Picture Show," the movie is set in the fictional Anarene, Texas, in 1984, and updates the viewer on the lives of Duane, Sonny, Jacy and the rest of the small town's citizens. As is Bogdanovich's custom, all of the music used in the film is diegetic, or in other words, one can see the source of the music in the actual film.

Most of the songs were blasting from car radios in the film, most being country and rock songs that would have been popular in '84. One of them, an old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song called "Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)" took me back to childhood. Hearing the song, I was suddenly six years old again, driving down the road with my Dad, listening to the song on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cassette he had just bought.

As the Dirt Band was singing about living life in plain dirt fashion, my mind drifted back over the last 21 years, marveling at how quickly time passes. The film itself was about the passing of time, about the various ways life ends up disappointing. It was difficult not to get depressed.

After all, it doesn't seem right for me to be able to hear a song, remember it and realize it was a hit 21 years ago...

The same thing happened earlier today, when a friend e-mailed about an old Vern Gosdin song I hadn't thought about in roughly the same number of years called "Way Down Deep." Who knows why the sudden remembrance of things past, particularly music, can suddenly bring back happy and bittersweet thoughts and feelings, but it nevertheless does.

It is probably not too healthy to be this nostalgic, but God, it feels good. Ending a Friday afternoon listening to Charlie Rich sing about taking it on home, life somehow, despite its disappointments, seems like it for once has fallen right into place.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The President and the King

Two of the 20th Century's most influential figures celebrated birthdays over the weekend. Pop icon Elvis Presley would have been 70 years old Jan. 8. Former president Richard Nixon would have turned 92 today. Presley died of a heart attack in August 1977. Nixon passed away following complications from a stroke in April 1994.

Two seemingly polar opposite figures saw their respective careers rise, fall and then rise again from the 1950s to the 1970s. And of course the duo's famous December 1970 meeting has become something of legend, having even spawned a hilarious 1997 Showtime TV movie spoof.

Elvis' 70th birthday got big play in the media. A local oldies station played his music throughout the weekend. I heard "Little Sister" and "Kentucky Rain" as I was driving around town yesterday. Several TV stations dug out several of Presley's movies to air in tribute. The Town of Farragut even brought in a special exhibit on The King.

Nixon's birthday came and went without so much as a mention in the local media. Which isn't really much of a surprise, sadly. I consider myself something of a Nixon buff and only remembered it offhandedly, as I was watching Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts easily dispose of Jake Plummer and the Denver Broncos earlier this afternoon. Nixon loved football and would no doubt have been watching were he still with us. Elvis, too.

It is a shame that Nixon is still treated as a pariah because of Watergate and the other scandals that plagued his administration. He was by no means perfect, but it is unfair to judge anyone by one chapter of their lives. And Nixon, after all, is such a fascinating story.

His journey remains inspiring, if for no other reason than the "never say die" attitude that was so much a part of his life. Even after his August 1974 resignation, Nixon refused to simply relegate himself to the history pages. He wrote nine books after his presidency ended and stayed very much in the mix of things, albeit from the Elbas of San Clemente and then Saddle River, New Jersey.

There is some comfort in the fact that if a guy like Richard Nixon can survive and rise again from a defeat, the rest of us surely can.

Or maybe not. Nixon's iron butt is a trait few of us can claim to have.

Presley remains very much with us, although sadly much of it is caricature. Most of those impersonators don't do the man justice and even few diehard Presley fans really know much of his catalog beyond "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog," which is a true shame.

The world seems a bit smaller without such personalities. The likes of Nick and Jessica, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Bono and Sting just can't measure up to the phenonmenons that were Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.

Both left us just when we needed them most. Pop music and politics have never been quite the same.

Happy birthday, fellas.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Last Picture Show

I love Larry McMurtry's work.

More than any other American writer of the latter half of the 20th Century, McMurtry has captured the emptiness of the human experience and the passing of eras with such clarity and beauty that it has become a near art form. "Lonesome Dove," McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, may in fact be the best piece of American fiction written since 1950. It is by far the most enjoyable novel I have ever read.

McMurtry is also adept at telling coming of age stories, and nowhere is this more effectively the case than in his 1966 classic, "The Last Picture Show." Based on his own experiences growing up in tiny Archer City, Texas, the story focuses on the coming of age of two teenagers, Duane Jackson and Sonny Crawford, and the duplicitous nature of small town life in the 1950s.

Peter Bogdanovich adapted the novel into a 1971 movie and the result is without question that director's best work. Not only does the film literally bring the book to life, it also serves in many ways as a tribute to the passing of the Golden Age of moviemaking. Appropriately enough, the film screened when the town of Anarene's picture show closes down (hence the book and film's title), is Howard Hawks' "Red River." Talk about a bygone era.

"Nobody comes to picture shows anymore," a character says at the end of the film. "They got baseball in the summer and TV all the time..."

By 1971, U.S. box office attendance had plummeted to its lowest point in the history of the medium. The character might as well have been speaking about the early 1970s as much as she was about the mid 1950s.

I saw the film version of the McMurtry novel on TV last night. It remains very much a classic. The film spawned a 1990 sequel, "Texasville," which itself was based on McMurtry's book sequel to his novel. While not near as emotionally powerful as the original film, it is something of a lost classic and probably deserves a reevaluation.

McMurtry has released a new novel called "Loop Group." When I spotted a review on the cover of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, I was ecstatic. There's no greater feeling in the world to a bibliophile than hearing that your favorite author has released a new novel.

Then I began to read the description and my heart sank. McMurtry's latest work isn't a western. It isn't even a "Last Picture Show" type story. It's about two aging women taking a road trip through Texas. And about middle-aged women and their sex lives.


Oh, well. Shouldn't complain too much, I don't' guess. McMurtry recently completed an ambitious four part western saga called "The Berrybender Narratives." I received the fourth novel for Christmas and given that I haven't read any of them yet, that should keep me busy for a few weeks. Plus, after viewing 45 minutes of "Picture Show" last night, it might be time to reread that novel again.

One can't get enough of good prose, after all.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

'Beyond the Sea' is a rare jewel

"Memories are like moonbeams," Bobby Darin says in "Beyond the Sea," Kevin Spacey’s charming new biopic about the late crooner. "We do with them what we want."

And, indeed, the film uses a subjective (and selective) point of view to tell the troubled singer’s story, alternating between reality – the actual movie narrative – and a "movie within a movie" plot device, in which the older Darin (Spacey) tells his life’s story alongside the actor "playing" the younger Darin (William Ullrich). The approach is distracting and somewhat confusing, but it is one of the few missteps in an otherwise fantastic film.

"Beyond the Sea" highlights the rise and fall of the popular late 50s/early 60s singer, who briefly became a teen idol with hits like "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover" before suddenly shifting gears and gaining even greater success performing big band-style standards such as "Mack the Knife." Darin’s popularity in the early 1960s was such that he was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Grammy, married actress Sandra Dee (played to perfection in the film by Kate Bosworth) and performed to packed audiences at clubs like the Copacabana.

The film’s depiction of Darin’s struggles (his estrangement from Sandra Dee, his declining recording career) seems a bit trite, if only because we’ve seen the same story countless times through the lives of pop singers like Elvis and Sinatra. Given the fact that Darin, while a talented entertainer, never approached the popular success of either of those two legends, one is tempted to wonder why Spacey bothered making the film at all.

But herein lies the genius of the movie. Not only does Spacey deliver a stunning performance as Bobby Darin, he recounts a rarely told tragic story that contains plot twists that would otherwise seem clichéd, but in Spacey’s hands become fresh and relevant.

Spacey’s singing is the highlight of this film. More up-tempo songs such as "Mack the Knife" and "That’s All" are performed with such skill that one can’t believe one is not hearing Darin’s actual songs on the soundtrack. It is almost as if Spacey, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Darin anyway, was born to play this role.

Spacey also directed and co-wrote the film, which leads the viewer to believe that telling this story must have become something of an obsession for the multi-talented actor. The fact that this film succeeds on so many levels is due solely to his dedication to the project.

Watching this film is like discovering a rare jewel. Darin was indeed a talented performer, but in Spacey’s sympathetic portrayal, he becomes something more — a mentally troubled and physically ill soul who, realizing he was living on borrowed time because of a life-threatening illness, knew he had to quickly make his mark on the world before the final curtain call. That Darin’s star shown so brilliantly but briefly only adds to the emotional impact of this heartbreaking, bittersweet story.

One need not be a Bobby Darin fan to enjoy "Beyond the Sea." Spacey’s performance (most especially his singing) is worth the price of admission alone. If he does not win an Academy Award for this effort, there is no justice left in the land of illusion that is Hollywood.

The film is a loving ode to one of America’s most talented and least understood pop singers and proves, if nothing else, that there still are a few multi-talented performers lurking around the movie business these days.

"Beyond the Sea" is now playing at Regal Downtown West. It is rated PG-13 for adult language and a scene of sensuality.

Feeling anachronistic as 2005 dawns

Well, I guess it's time to get this blog fired back up. It's been way too long.

Here's hoping 2005 becomes the best year for all of us. The previous one, as usual, was full of ups and downs, but it's always nice to turn the page, to wipe the slate clean.

Sitting here on a rainy Thursday morning listening to Don Williams sing that love is on a roll (thank you, John Prine), it's difficult, however, not to give in to those nostalgic feelings that tend to make me feel anachronistic.

I came into the office this morning having heard Kenny Rogers' late 60's ditty, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" on the country music station out of Maryville. Our receptionist, who, it must be said, knows a lot of music because of her interest in singing and such and her dad's background in music, had never heard it.


I came back to the office and put in a Don Williams CD, listening to his smooth, pure country sound. It makes me wonder where all the good singers have gone. Now, country music anyway is all about swinging from ropes and sounding as much like pop music as one possibly can. To hell with that.

Sometimes I think about Jimmy Buffett's classic soul searcher, "A Pirate Looks At 40," and relate to its theme of being born out of one's time. All of my favorite TV programs were canceled years ago. Most of my favorite singers are either dead or are retired. My favorite movies tend more often than not to be in black and white.

But somehow, I take comfort in all that. For after all, the worst thing a person can set out to be is just like everyone else.

Here's to anyone who feels like you somehow don't quite belong. It's a heck of a place to be.