Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The greatest country song of all time

On this date in 1980, George Jones hit No. 1 with what is generally considered to be the greatest country song of all time, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

And there's a funny story behind the song. Jones didn't want to record it.

The Possum's career had hit something of a snag when he came across Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock's weeper about a man who loved a woman who didn't love him back -- until it killed him. Jones' producer at Epic Records, Billy Sherrill, loved the song and just knew it would be a smash. Jones wasn't so sure.

Sherrill kept after him, going so far as to make a monetary bet with the Possum. Jones finally recorded it, snarling as he walked out of the studio, "Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch!"

It proved to be Jones' first No. 1 hit in six years and served as a "comeback" single. Jones won a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Country Male Performance. The song also took home the Academy of Country Music's Single of the Year and Song of the Year. It also helped Jones win the CMA's Best Male Vocalist of the Year for 1980 and 1981.

Oh, and yep, Jones paid his bet.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, June 27, 2011

Screening a classic movie at a classic venue

Yesterday Jenn and I headed downtown to see a classic movie, Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," the way it should be seen -- on the big screen -- at Knoxville's 1920s movie palace, the Tennessee Theatre.

I loved the fact that the Tennessee showed this 1959 film via 35mm print. I was a little confused that the projectionist had to keep realigning the film every time the reel needed changing. But I'll take it. Classic movies should always be seen in 35mm. Too often theaters are using digital prints these days, like when we went to see "To Kill A Mockingbird" in Maryville earlier in the year.

My friend Dean Harned ran into one of his former students in the lobby. He'd taken Dean's film studies class at Gibbs High and said the two movies he enjoyed most that Dean showed that semester were "Citizen Kane" and "Dr. No." I think Dean had inspired him to become a movie usher at the majestic Tennessee.

"North by Northwest" isn't my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film -- I like "Shadow of a Doubt," "Rope," "Dial M for Murder," "Vertigo" and "Rear Window" much better -- but I can think of a 1,000 worse ways to spend a rainy Sunday than with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint chasing after James Mason and Martin Landau.

Outside, we ran into my friend and fellow scribe Lola Alapo. Lola says that she finally got power restored to her house in the aftermath of last week's storms. She was ducking into the Regal Riviera to "see something that doesn't make me have to think."

We ducked into the Downtown Grill after the show. Shock of all shocks, they actually had the State Street Stout in stock. So, I enjoyed a sampler while downing a burger.

Classic movie at the classic venue. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 26, 2011

GREAT blog

Don't miss what has become a daily read for me, writer Ken Levine's fantastic blog, which can be found here.

Named one of the best blogs of 2011 by Time magazine, Ken's daily musings will make you laugh just as hard as his scripts did for classic shows like "M*A*S*H," "Cheers" and "Frasier." Usually working with his writing partner David Isaacs, Levine co-wrote some of the best episodes of "M*A*S*H" and the duo later served as executive story editors for television's best (and only) situation tragedy. Yes, they also had a hand in the promising debacle "AfterMASH."

But, they also had a hand in creating that classic episode of "Cheers" called "Breaking Out is Hard to Do," in which Frasier and Lilith's kid finally speaks his first word.

In his spare time, Levine fills in on Seattle Mariners TV coverage as a play-by-play announcer. I think he's got my dream job -- writer of classic sitcoms, creator of an award-winning blog, baseball announcer, possessor of one fantastic wit.

Levine is also the author of a book I just bought for a whopping $2.99 on Amazon's Kindle store called "Where the Hell Am I? Trips that I've Survived."

Don't miss this blog. Ken will make you appreciate even more than you already do the days when sitcoms were intelligent and witty and TV networks actually shelled out a few dollars for good writing.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Woody, 'Scoop' and 'Midnight in Paris'

Sorry I haven't ducked in for awhile. Things have been kinda crazy.

Gotta tell you about a couple of films I've seen lately. Good stuff. Lots of fun.

A couple of Saturdays ago, my friend Matt Shelton and I caught the delightful new Woody Allen film "Midnight in Paris," starring Owen Wilson as Gil, a shameless dreamer in love with 1920s Paris. The ever-fetching Rachel McAdams plays his bitch of a fiancee Inez (sorry, but there's no other way to say it) who is most concerned with becoming a member of upper class California society.

I don't want to give much away, because the film's plot is basically a spoiler, but this has to be the best flick I've seen in several years. Whatever else you might think about him -- and God knows there's plenty to think -- Woody Allen makes consistently smart movies. Even the obnoxious people sitting around us at Downtown West (one guy showed up late and actually shined a flashlight into our faces) couldn't ruin it.

If you want to go see that rare film that won't require mental flossing after screening it, run don't walk to your nearest multiplex for "Midnight in Paris." And if you love old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of what that means, or majored in English or creative writing in college, you'll really love it.

Woody has been on something of a roll of late. I watched "Match Point" when I was laid up with kidney stones back in '06 and also loved Woody's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," both starring that lovely Scarlett Johansson, a couple of summers later.

Tonight I'm catching up with "Scoop," released in between those two, again starring Scarlett, this time as a budding reporter visiting London, who stumbles into what might be the scoop of the title when a dead reporter (Ian McShane) tells her the identity of a serial killer while she's in the midst of a magic act perpetuated by Woody's Sidney Waterman. Off to hunt the guy, Scarlett subsequently falls in love with him -- the aristocratic Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).

I love Woody's hilarious one-liners ("I was born into the Hebrew persuasion but when I got older I converted to narcissism") and engaging characters.

Perfect way to unwind after work on a Saturday night.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, June 03, 2011

Larry McMurtry, 'Lonesome Dove' and a quixotic trip to Texas

Years ago, back when my biggest concerns were final exams and which film to watch on Friday night, I picked up a whopper of a novel called "Lonesome Dove." And, well, life has never been the same.

Larry McMurtry's sprawling, nearly 1,000-page western saga was such that he managed to both demystify and romanticize the American cowboy of our national imagination. Or, at least the last great cattle drive.

At its heart, that book is the story of the bonds that hold together two unlikely buddies, former Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call.

And here's a funny story about the fleeting moments of fame. McMurtry won a Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1985. While staying at a hotel on a book tour, the management put up on the marquee "Welcome Larry McMurtry, Author of 'Terms of Endearment.'" He glanced back up at the marquee as he was leaving, the day after he'd won the Pulitzer. It now read: "Fried chicken dinner, $3.99."

McMurtry's fame exploded in 1989 when "Lonesome Dove" was made into a highly successful TV miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. But he was already a prolific novelist by then, having written, among other things, "Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show" and "Horseman, Pass By," all of which were made into successful motion pictures.

I had something of a religious experience when I first read "The Last Picture Show" and subsequently saw the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich film. I then quickly devoured the other two books McMurtry had written about Thalia at that time ("Texasville" and "Duane's Depressed").

Somebody called the cinematic adaptation of "The Last Picture Show" "the best American film since 'Citizen Kane.'" It's difficult for me to disagree.

I was so taken by it all that I set off on a quixotic quest to meet McMurtry during the summer of 2004. We eventually made our way to the tiny town of Archer City, Texas, where art met real life in a way that still causes chills to run up the back of my spine.

I'd never been there before, but, then again, yes I had -- through McMurtry's work and by watching "Picture Show," which was filmed there. As we made our way from Wichita Falls into Archer City, I started describing the town for my friend Drew Weaver.

"Now, if the books are any indication, the courthouse will be here, and the war memorial will be there, and the Dairy Queen will be here and the picture show will be over here, with a hole in the wall."

Sure enough, there it all was, one stoplight and everything, just as McMurtry had described. It was a delicious moment.

Alas, McMurtry wasn't lurking among the volumes in his huge antiquarian bookstore that takes up much of "downtown" Archer City. All we found was a bored clerk who never even looked up, a fantastic Barry Goldwater political poster from 1964 ("In Your Heart, You Know He's Right") and a pristine first edition of James Reston Jr.'s biography of former Texas governor John Connally that I left sitting on the shelf, a regret I hold to this day.

We thought about stopping at the Dairy Queen that figures so prominently in "Texasville," the one in which McMurtry sat while reading Walter Benjamin. But, I wanted to beat the Dallas/Ft. Worth rush hour traffic (fat chance), so we headed on.

I have to tell you one other aside about "Texasville." I made the mistake of rewatching the 1990 film version, which reunites much of the cast from "Picture Show," up at the lake the night after my 10 year high school reunion. Big mistake.

In the movie, Duane (the ever-likable Jeff "The Dude" Bridges) had gotten old, broke and fat. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) had lost his mind. Coming on the heels of surfacing memories I hadn't thought about in more than a decade, the film hit me smack dab in the gut. I felt old and depressed.

McMurtry has concluded the "Picture Show" saga with two other novels, "Rhino Ranch" and "When the Light Goes." I read and liked them both, but was sad to see Duane meet his fate. As all good writers do, McMurtry had made Duane a flesh-and-blood character. I felt like I'd lost a good friend.

Larry McMurtry is 75 years old today. My hat is off to him. His books aren't as good as they used to be (his latest memoir on Hollywood felt rushed and was in desperate need of an editor), but several of his earlier works are treasures I keep close to the vest and remember on rainy days. If all you know of him is the TV version of "Lonesome Dove," he's worth a closer look.

Labels: ,