Filmed in 1969 to capture an all-star anniversary concert at the Grand Ole Opry, the storied “mother church” of country music, this serviceable documentary balances behind-the-scenes insights about the careers of wannabe stars with polished vignettes featuring established artists. Most of the picture comprises blandly shot footage of performances on the Opry stage, and there’s value in seeing vintage clips of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, and Dolly Parton, among many others. Yet one is challenged to identify much difference between this content and, say, appearances by these folks on TV shows from the same era. About the only thing elevating the Opry scenes is the interstitial material, with performers including Bill Anderson crowding around microphones to read crass commercials. A general sense emerges of an Opry broadcast not as a pristine showcase for musical excellence but rather a commodity like any other type of mainstream entertainment. Therefore, the most interesting elements of The Nashville Sound are the moments showing B-listers trudging through humiliating spotlight gigs (as when Jeannie C. Reilly performs a new tune for a handful of listeners at a party thrown by a label executive), plus the recurring trope illustrating the arrival on the Nashville scene of new singer-songwriter Herbie Howell.
Among the star performers, Charley Pride stands out with his keening sustained notes during “Kaw-Liga,” Parton charms with her unvarnished performance of “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and Cash renders a typically rousing version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” An in-studio jam session featuring a young Charlie Daniels, among other slick players, generates the most heat, musically speaking, whereas blander performances (such as Reilly’s turn on the Opry stage with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”) quickly fade from memory. Some of the sequences of pure reportage, such as a golf tournament featuring Glen Campbell, come and go so quickly as to be meaningless—and, to be frank, the material that gets the most attention, Howell’s story, is merely okay. Although earnest, Howell is not particularly interesting as a musician or as a presence, so it’s hard to get excited about his quest for stardom. Nonetheless, the project as a whole provides an interesting snapshot of a particular industry at a particular time, in some ways very different from and in other ways very similar to the modern country-music scene.
The Nashville Sound: FUNKY