November 16, 2008
In coordination with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Shout Factory! has begun a new series of country music DVDs that collect archived performances of the genre’s legends, coupled with rare interview footage and Hall of Fame inductions. The promise of this series cannot be overstated, both for fans of the artists profiled and the need for country music’s legacy to be preserved.
Both of the debut entries in the series follow the same format. Fifteen performance clips from old television shows are arranged chronologically, and provide the bulk of each set’s content. The defining singles of both artists are included, and in watching the clips, viewers can get a sense of how each artist developed, along with a fascinating window into how country music itself was presented on television over the course of four decades.
For a variety of reasons, the Marty Robbins collection is the stronger of the two. Since his career dates back to the fifties, we’re treated to four performances from Country Style USA, one of the earliest country music television programs. As we transition into the age of color television, we’re treated to a stunning performance of “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” from the 1970 CMA Awards. As the liner notes point out, Robbins penned the song in the hospital while recovering from his first heart attack. In one of many appearances on these two collections by other country legends, Tennessee Ernie Ford gives a classy introduction that precedes the performance.
Robbins was one of country music’s true entertainers, and a perfect fit for television. His broad smile while performing uptempo songs is infectious, and the drama he infuses to ballads like “Among My Souvenirs” and “El Paso” command undivided attention. He even dresses for the part, donning full suits when singing uptown numbers and switching to Western wear for his down-home ones. The performance that’s most entertaining on the disc is of “El Paso City”, from Robbins’ second television series. It’s all he can do to keep from laughing as he delivers it, a rare break in character for the consummate showman.
The Robbins disc also boasts invaluable bonus features. Though featuring only two, they are both essential viewing, and both come from 1982, the year which ended in his death. The first is a lengthy, gripping interview, where Robbins speaks candidly about all of the thought processes that inform his creative decisions. He speaks in wonderment of fans who come to his show repeatedly, even though he sings the exact same songs the exact same way every night. He even questions his own labeling as a “Country and Western” singer, and claims that “El Paso” isn’t from that genre at all, but is rather an American folk song.
His Hall of Fame induction in 1982 is here as well, and his surprise induction is led by the great Eddy Arnold. The serious, thoughtful man of the interview is back in full performer mode, grinning from ear to ear as he accepts his honor. The contrast between the two clips is stark, but it makes total sense. After all, Robbins makes clear in the interview that there’s a difference between Marty Robbins the performer and Marty Robbins the man.
Such a distinction did not exist in the career of Tammy Wynette, a self-described “average woman” who somehow became a star. Whereas Robbins hammed it up for the camera, Wynette avoids it, rarely making direct eye contact with the viewer while she performs. The Wynette disc doesn’t have quite the scope of Robbins’. While her career started a decade later than his, the final clip comes from 1981, leaving out the final seventeen years of her life.
Still, what’s here is worthwhile. She performs “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” on the 1968 CMA Awards, the first to be televised. There are two clips from The Bill Anderson Show, with Jan Howard serving as sidekick. Johnny Cash introduces her breathtaking performance of “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own”, from his 1976 network special. Wynette got an NBC special of her own in 1980, and she delivers a powerful performance of one of her lesser-known songs, “He Was There (When I Needed You).”
The final performance is of “Cowboys Don’t Shoot Straight (Like They Used To)”, another should’ve-been smash that shows just how strong her artistry was as she entered the eighties. We’re also treated to four duets with George Jones, and an early cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).”
It’s my instinct to assume that the pool of clips to chose from for the Wynette collection was more limited, but it’s still noticeable how many of the big hits are missing. Yes, we get the obligatory “Stand By Your Man” clip and the very essential “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, along with a strong performance of “Woman to Woman.” But it’s a shame that classics like “Another Lonely Song”, “Singing My Song” and “Till I Get it Right” aren’t here, forcing us to settle for “Reach Out Your Hand” and a few too many duets with Jones. As great as their chemistry together is, it takes the focus away from Wynette’s solo work. Performances of Jones & Wynette could make for a great collection in their own right.
The bonus features also aren’t quite as good as those on the Robbins set. We get two interviews instead of one, but neither are nearly as revealing. There’s also the bewildering inclusion of local news footage about Tammy Wynette & George Richey’s wedding ceremony.
Wynette died shortly before her Hall of Fame induction in 1998, which is also included here. It features wonderful performances of classic Wynette hits by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, but the induction itself focuses far too much on her personal life. It’s also so awkwardly written that less informed viewers could be led to believe that Wynette wrote “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in the aftermath of one of her failed marriages, even though that song was penned by Bobby Braddock.
Taken together, these two collections are an excellent start to what will hopefully become a long-running series. A third collection focusing on Merle Haggard has already been released, and there’s no shortage of legendary acts who warrant their own entries in the series. If country music fans and historians are lucky, there will be more of these in the future.