DVD Round-Up: Ahmet Ertegun, Les Paul, Cowboy Jack Clement, Johnny Cash Christmas Specials and Before The Music Dies
While several recent DVD releases focus on the preservation of modern music history, other releases question its current trajectory. Shout Factory released two DVD's of Johnny Cash's brooding Christmas Specials, one from 1976 and the other from 1977. An Atlantic Records release celebrates the life and times of Ahmet Ertegun, Shout Factory's celebrates the life and times of Jack Clements, while Koch Vision's release examines the life and music of Les Paul. The final and most curious release from B-Side examines the current recorded music output and wonders, quite loudly, if music is, in fact, dying.
Christmas Special 1976 & Christmas Special 1977
1976 & 1977
Shout! Factory / Country Music Hall Of Fame
If one had to spend Christmas with any figure of modern music, who better than Johnny Cash and his family? These two Christmas Specials follow the Andy Williams Christmas Special formula for the most partthat family around the fireplace singing songs, telling traditional stories; you know the drill. But the video really changes that routine when the Carters and their guests forego Christmas special standards and offer, in their stead, standards from the bluegrass, spiritual and blues traditions. Merle Travis' "Cannonball Rag" is another highlight, as is the 1976 Special version of the Carter Family's "In the Pines" and the "Sun Reunion" performances from the 1977 Special. The holidays seem extra special when Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins perform "This Train Is Bound For Glory" and Jerry Lee solos on "White Christmas." One can almost never go wrong with anything Cash performs, which is certainly true for these TV shows.
The House That Ahmet Built
Atlantic Records / American Masers / PBS
Ahmet Ertegun's career should need no introduction. Having founded Atlantic Records, he went on to sign and produce everyone from Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin. Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built, released after his untimely and fatal fall at a Rolling Stones concert, celebrates a career that has few rivals and contains poignant interviews from Ertegun, his contemporaries and artists. While his death may have rushed this project to completion, such expediency is not evident, and this disc serves as a fitting remembrance of a great man and career without deifying him or over memorializing him.
Koch Vision / American Masters
The ninety minute documentary entitled Les Paul: Chasing Sound covers his childhood as a "tinkerer," as well as the time he spent in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles developing his music career and living the stories, conveyed in this documentary, about his perfection of multi track recording, his relationship with Gibson and the production of his solid-body electric guitar, and, finally, his weekly Monday night gig at the Iridium in New York City. The presentation delivers enough entertainment and information for a top-flight visual depiction of one's life and work. This hour-and-a-half program feels like minutes. Les Paul: Chasing Sound ranks in the upper echelon of documentaries, owed in large part to Paul and his willingness to comment, candidly, on all facets of his life.
Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan
While the previous three namesCash, Ertegun and Paulshould be familiar names, the subject of the DVD Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies might not. Clement is best known as an engineer of some renown from Memphis and Nashville. He was there when Elvis was discovered at Sun, he told Jerry Lee Lewis to drop the country slant and go at rock and roll, produced and wrote songs for the likes of George Jones, Dolly Parton and Charley Pride and he engineered U2's "Rattle and Hum" record. In addition to a historical context for Clement life and career, this video explores the inner- man and perhaps what is missing from today's music scene, it is a secret " you know, this is supposed to be fun." This video is a lot of fun but it relies too heavily of the Sam Phillips A&E Biography for the Sun Years portion of Clement's story.
Faron West, et al.
Before The Music Dies
Finally, Faron West's film Before The Music Dies explores a question or dilemma posed to him by a friend who was passing away: "Is music dying?' Are major recording companies homogenizing music? Is commercial radio playing only sound-alikes? Are producers and studio personnel making recordings down the middle and "perfect?" Basically, is the industry sucking the soul out of musicians? The documentary makes an error in one sense: it answers its own question quickly with a resounding "yes," but then tries to support the point through artist interviews and by exhibiting how a producer and engineer can make anyone sound good through modern technology (i.e. ProTools and auto-tuning vocal performances).
While the points are both salient and, most likely, on target given today's apathy over the fall of the modern record business, the actual source of this decline is not fully covered. It's easy to make the generalization that "McDonald's is making people fat and Wal-Mart is killing Main Street." But the essence of both assertionscapitalism and the consumerholds the true answer. Yes, the music industry is killing modern music. Why? The modern consumer is allowing the degradation of music quality to happen. Believe me, a record company would release only zydeco music if millions of citizens wanted to buy it. If the consumer prefers processed food, cheap trinkets and sound-alike music, then McDonald's, Wal-Mart and the major labels are more than happy to grant them their wish. If consumers demanded revolution, they would get Charlie Parker instead of Glenn Miller, Nirvana instead of Michael Bolton, and Nora Jones instead of Britney Spears. Those already aware of modern music and the modern music industry will find nothing new in Before the Music Dies, except some confirmation of what they already know and some cool interviews with Dave Matthews and Branford Marsalis.