You walk by and Judge Daryl Loomis falls to pieces.
Heaven only knows how much I miss you; I can't help it if I'm still in love with you.
When we talk about country music, let's steer clear of the creative abyss Nashville has become. When we talk about the queens of country music, let's really steer clear of it. How anyone could classify Faith Hill, Shania Twain, or Taylor Swift as country mystifies me, and even more that their terrible records sell. While there are plenty of very fine female country artists out there today, the horror of Nashville has no gender bias. To talk about the greatest women in the history of the genre, you don't have to look too hard, but you must go back in time to the likes of Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells, and the three women presented here in this fantastic three disc set, The Queens of Country.
Sweet Dreams Still focuses on Patsy Cline, whose voice is still the standard by which all women in country are judged. Patsy Cline was an amazing performer who met tragedy twice during her career—a car accident that nearly ended her life and a plane crash that did—and could channel that pain into every one of her songs. The performances on this set are from various times and places, but they are exclusively from early in her career and before her first accident. In these early years, it's obvious the kind of vocal power she had and the emotional resonance she could bring to a performance, even off a stage and in a television studio, where all of this was recorded. Song highlights on this disc include "A Church, a Courtroom and then Goodbye," Hank Williams' classic "Lovesick Blues," and "She's Got You," a song that nearly always tears me up. Guest performers include Ferlin Husky and Faron Young. It's a great disc with only one complaint: the narrator is terrible. He has written several books on early Nashville and he certainly knows what he's talking about, but he's as irritating a presence as could possibly be. For having been recorded in the early 1960s, the video and audio are both surprisingly good. There is dirt and grain everywhere with a little bit of background noise in the audio, but they look and sound as good as could be expected.
Next up, we have Dolly Parton & Friends, featuring the undisputed queen of Nashville, Dolly Parton. This disc features three episodes of her ridiculously cheesy television show that aired between 1976-77, in which other artists would come in front of the camera for some song swapping and discussion. The first, with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, is by far the best of the three musically, though it doesn't reach the excesses of the second two. The highlight here is her performance with a band where she pretends she is a 45rpm record played at 78rpm. She plays it perfectly and shows that, through Dollywood and the wigs and all of her excesses, she really does verge on the avant garde. The second episode, featuring poet Rod McKuen, is just plain weird. The final episode is special, however. Co-starring Dolly's long time associate Kenny Rogers, we get to see the man at his cheesiest, and every fan of his knows that this would be pretty darn cheesy. There's nobody in the history of country music like Dolly Parton and, while the show is a crazy relic of the 1970s that brought us other odd variety show hosts like Lawrence Welk and the Smothers Brothers, Dolly is an amazing talent and continues to this day. The disc is similar to the last, with image and sound typical of the era of television, but no real problems with the disc. We do get an extra of a slightly younger Dolly singing on the Porter Wagoner show, where she got her start, which is pretty cool to see.
Finally, and most scary, we have Loretta Lynn: Songs of Inspiration. In this collection of highlights from her time on The Wilburn Brothers Show, Loretta leads us in a series of hymns, some traditional and some downright extremist. She has a great voice, and is in her prime here, but the performances are stagnant, straight renditions of the hymns, with little of her usual flair. Traditional highlights include "The Old Rugged Cross" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," while some of the weirder selections include "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" and "Who Says God Is Dead?" Loretta is, without a doubt, one of the true queens of country, but this is not the best way to showcase her considerable talents. As a disc, Songs of Inspiration is also the worst of the lot. There is some problems with the transfer that go along with the natural damage to the source material, and the instruments are sometimes hard to distinguish in the sound mix. Even as the low point of this set, however, the music is such a far cry better than the best of work coming from Nashville today.
If you are a fan of classic country and a fan of the women who helped to make it great, definitely pick up this set. It's a reasonable price for three hours of great music that are also often bizarre relics of a style of variety show television that is long, long gone.
Not guilty, y'hear?
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