Roots Watch: When You’re Looking at Country
Last column, I alerted you to the new Shanachie DVD release You Are There, since released, which puts some of the hard-to-find and legitimately collected filmed performances of traditionalist country artists such as the Louvin Brothers and Sam & Kirk McGee on one disc. Those performances were culled from the 92 half hours of what remain, without a doubt, the greatest collection of classic country film ever put in the can and televised—the full color films shot in Nashville by movie producer Al Gannaway circa 1954-56 and televised in 143 local television markets at the time, and again and again later, as Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, Stars of Country Music or just The Country Show, depending on a working contract or lack thereof with the Opry.
The original Gannaway films’ content has now been acquired by Larry Black’s Gabriel Entertainment, the same outfit that puts out the casual get-together Country Family Reunion videos and TV shows. (They have an excellent all-star Simply Bluegrass DVD set of those just out, for example.) Their new expansively-titled DVD set, Country’s Family Reunion Presents Golden Years: Grand Ole Opry Stars of the Fifties, collects 30 of the Gannaway episodes on 10 DVD discs. At its best, this digital transfer from 1960s-era videotape of the films delivers the most stunning looking and sounding versions of the material that have been available. Another plus, for those who’ve had access to some of the programs previously: the episodes chosen for this release are less regularly seen ones, in my experience, including performances by Cowboy Copas, Martha Carson, Justin Tubb, Lew Childre and the young Wilburn Brothers, in addition to the key stars of the films usually seen—Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Jimmy Dickens, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Jean Shepard, Goldie Hill, Bill Monroe, June Carter and the latter day Carter family, Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasfield.
The $150 price tag may sound steep, but it’s less expensive on a per-show/pay hour basis than was the vast bulk VHS tape release that was the last purchasable version. For a sampling of what I’m talking about, here’s the online clips ad they’ve put up—unsolicited and unpaid for, just to be clear, but illustrative:
That’s all great, and I trust the set will do well, and there will be sequels coming. But it is also, in its limitations, a reminder that it’s about time that some more serious, even systematic attention be paid to the preservation and restoration of historic country music footage.
Despite the amazing prescience Gannaway showed in filming this material on crystalline 35mm color film with Hollywood crews, at a moment when general availability of color TV was still a decade away, the handling of the original footage after that was not nearly so careful—and it shows. For repeated airplay use and variations, pieces of episodes were cut into others, and nobody has ever put the puzzle pieces all back where they started. If original film was scratched up or the color had gone off-tone before the films were transferred to tape in the Sixties—those problems were transferred to the broadcast video tapes duplicated since. Someone, at some point, thought it would be nice to add yellow subtitles identifying the performers (often, oddly, just after the announcers introduce them), but did it crudely, so those episodes have a general yellow tinge to them throughout. (1955 June Carter, married to Carl Smith, is identified as “June Carter Cash.”) Worse, the sorts of imaginations that thought Hank Williams’ recordings would be more “modern” with strings sloshed over them after the fact got hold of some of these Gannaway episodes too, and layered in “modern-like” video inserts of hands playing steel guitar, electric guitar or piano over existing scenes—anonymous hands clearly not those of the Chet Atkins or Texas Troubadour Billy Byrd or Moon Mullican on camera, which are injected repeatedly with, if my ears don’t deceive me, additional interfering audio actually piled on later as well.
These films are indispensible as records of the great artists who appear on them, and as artifacts of country as it was in that moment and, not incidentally, how Nashville chose to portray itself on-screen at that time. To do them justice—no matter who owns the current commercial rights, which can always be accounted for –serious restoration work is needed, involving rounding up cleanest possible versions of the episodes for use of the best case versions (shot by shot!), digital removal of scratches, color correction, and preservation for the future. That costs and demands attention—and it’s not likely to be purely commercial or nostalgic motivations that will get the job done at this point. It will demand taking the visual side of country music more seriously—handling as careful as any great audio recording discography or library—by archives, the likes of the National Endowment for the Arts, potential future commercial producers, and more.
The very existence of sites like this, where I can readily link to video and audio to make a point, is one reason that it’s time for investment in this area. Those of us who care are delighted to be able to show and tell what we’re talking about right along with all those words. (The Gannaway films could use some serious context-setting notes and commentary, incidentally, not provided in the current packaging.)
Another example of how this multimedia approach to telling the stories matters: Mike Bloomfield, some of you will know, was an American guitar player, Chicago-born, who, against considerable biographical odds, immersed himself in blues music, and beginning in the mid-1960s, introduced a substantial part of a generation to the music of the African-American predecessors he loved, emulated, studied with and played with. He was the dynamic, energetic and influential lead guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the horn-bearing band the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles, and the guitarist you hear on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, “Like a Rolling Stone” included. He had decidedly mixed feelings about being a rock star and lived a jagged life that ended too soon, which calls for some explanation and affected his music— reasons that the inclusion of Bob Sarles’ bio film “Sweet Blues” in the new, immensely pleasurable and informative 3-CD/1 DVD Sony Legacy release produced by Mike’s sometime musical partner Al Kooper, Michael Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, is so welcome.
Multimedia expansion is doing all of us who write about music new opportunities—the best among us included. If you’ve not got hold of the new “enhanced” digital editions of Peter Gurlanick’s seminal roots music books Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home, which take up Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich, as well as Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips, I highly recommend you do—not least for the addition of some of Peter’s original audio interviews with these icons, and related video clips as well.
Some day, most musical stories will be told that way. I suggest that we need to start paying more serious attention to the visual side now, so the historic material will be there when it’s called for.
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