HOT TALK: Country Revealed, Jim and Ralph Romp, Johnny Returns

(HOT TALK is a weekly column by longtime CMT.com contributing writer and former Billboard country music editor Edward Morris.)

Our Country — Right or Wrong?
Like our country, America, Our Country, the movie, has suffered a recession. The recently debuted IMAX film, reviewed here last week, is a visual extravaganza powered by some fantastic country music. But it started out to be much more. It was designed to be a comprehensive fable of how country music became the variation of styles that it is today. And, yes, to answer one reader’s question, the Dixie Chicks were filmed to be a part of the project. Instead of tantalizing you like a TV news flack about why the Chicks aren’t in it now, I’ll tell you straight up front that they were not deleted because of their politics. They asked out. Riders in the Sky, the last of the cinematic cowboys, also ended up on the cutting room floor. Although Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes were initially slotted to participate, they never made it into the film either.

As Gaylord Entertainment, which financed the movie, prepares to take it into other markets, let me explain what you might have been seeing. On Sept. 20, 2000, the company issued a press release announcing the project. “The yet-untitled film,” it said, “uses a fictional story line about a young Irish boy who travels through time to view the development of country music. The boy’s musical father is forced to immigrate to the United States because of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, and the story begins as the boy travels across the ocean and time to see the legacy of his father’s music.” The boy was supposed to end the movie listening to a Dixie Chicks show in Detroit, and the film was slated to premiere in Nashville at the 2001 Fan Fair. Of course, neither happened.

Shooting had already gotten underway by the time Gaylord made this announcement. The Chicks’ show had been filmed. Martina McBride’s segment was done, as was the scene in which Dolly Parton sits on the front porch of a cabin and leads a group of fellow stars in singing “Turn, Turn, Turn.” If you think Chet Flippo and I were bosom-fixated in our remarks about the film last week, then consider what Parton told a newspaper reporter at the time: “I’m already bigger than life, but in this movie, I’m going to be bigger than a cow.”

Another component of the movie, since dropped, was a video study guide to country music to be narrated by Marty Stuart. Gaylord was in a transition of leadership at the time, with interim president Dennis Sullivan at the helm. As the shooting progressed, the bills began piling up and vendors were not being paid. Finally, in April 2001, The Collective, the company doing the filming, sued Gaylord to remedy this deficiency. Steven Goldmann — who helped conceive the project, directed its musical sequences and is a member of The Collective — emphasizes the suit was about finances, not creative control. And he notes that none of the Gaylord executives who ultimately saw the film to completion, including current chief Colin Reed, were in place when the suit was filed. The new regime, he says, “have treated us beautifully.”

While the suit was resolved amicably out of court, it marked a turning point in the film’s look and feel. Instead of continuing it as a musical narrative, Gaylord’s new overseers chose to turn it into something like a documentary. That’s why, in the finished version, the Irish lad whose role is to hold the story together disappears abruptly and a series of disconnected scenes brings the movie to an end. These substitute segments include backstage and onstage footage from the Grand Ole Opry, a scene in which Lee Ann Womack sings from the deck of the General Jackson showboat and post 9/11 shots from New York.

“With all the delays,” Goldmann tells Hot Talk, “the market shifted a great deal in the distribution model for these large format films. Gaylord was responding to [this] model to make sure they got the film out. [They thought] it might have been risky to go with a full-on musical story and decided to make it historical to get it on as many screens as possible.”

The delay may have been a factor in the Dixie Chicks’ decision to opt out of the film, which a spokesman for Gaylord confirms that they did. “Tim McGraw was a completely different scenario,” Goldmann explains. “He was committed, but then some scheduling conflict arose. It had everything to do with production and how we shifted things around and where we wanted to shoot. We were shooting in locations all over. In that respect, Jo Dee Messina essentially took his place. … At that point, we hadn’t even chosen the song yet for Tim. So it’s not like she replaced him in all senses, but she did replace him in the shooting in Utah. Originally, if I recall, Tim was going to be on a big Indian motorcycle, and there was going to be a cowgirl [riding a horse beside him]. We were shooting through part of the summer and into the fall. These artists were very giving of their time, but there was a limit to what we could expect from them.” Thus, instead of McGraw on a motorcycle, the final cut has a woman on one, with a cowboy racing his horse beside her. Far above them, Messina prances stomach-churningly close to the edge of a canyon while singing, “My Own Kind of Hat.”

Goldmann describes the deleted Riders in the Sky sequence as “glorious” but insists that its omission was “nobody’s fault.” “These films are 40 minutes,” he says, “and when they started adding in the historical footage and putting in all the black and white stuff [it crowded other scenes out]. … Even Vince Gill’s part of the movie is cut short. It’s unfortunate, but the market just sort of dictated that.” So what you’ll see in Our Country is a still somewhat jagged collision of art and commerce, smoothed over considerably by Hal Holbrook’s sonorous tones.

Now showing in Nashville at the Regal Opry Mills IMAX and in Palm Springs, Calif., the movie will open in Kansas City, Mo., in August; in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Dallas in September; and in Colorado Springs, Colo., in October.

Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley Shoot Comic Video
Grammy-winning buddies Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley commandeered Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last week to shoot a music video for their comedy duet “She’s Looking at Me.” The song is from the Lost in the Lonesome Pinesalbum.

Johnny Lee Bowing New Album July 13
He may still be looking for love in all the wrong places, but he’s looking for fans in all the right ones. Texas-based Johnny Lee will be at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville at 6 p. m. on Sunday (July 13) to debut his new double album, which is called, oddly enough, The 13th of July. The party is open to everyone. Mike Daniel, who produced the album, reports that there are “13 brand new songs and 14 greatest hits” in the package. The first single from the album will be “Stand by Me” — not the rock tune that became a hit in 1980 for Lee’s friend, Mickey Gilley, but a new composition by Even Stevens. The album, on Title Tune Records, will be telemarketed.

Crystal Gayle Mulling Acoustic Holiday Album
Nothing firm yet, but Crystal Gayle tells Hot Talk she may record an acoustic Christmas album later this year and support it with a brief holiday tour. She was backed by an orchestra on her last yuletide collection.

Fontanel Still Won’t Sell
Were there not so many of you Barbara Mandrell fanatics out there, I would let this whole story drop. But it just won’t go away. I was leafing through a local rag recently and noticed that Babs’ former log castle, Fontanel, and the woodlands surrounding it are still looking for a buyer. The price remains rather pricey — $5.5 million — but, says the ad, it’s “an incredible opportunity to own this legendary estate” of 136 acres, a 27,000-plus square feet home, two guest houses, an indoor pool, a complete gym and a helipad.” So where’s the barn?

Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, readers, were no crime. But since we don’t, hop to it and e-mail me your gossip and good will right now to Hottalk@cmt.com. Thanks, you’re a marvel.