Screening the Country DVDs of 2003

Mainstream and Eclectic Discs Offered Choices for Everyone

Concert DVDs were a hot commodity in 2003, but the year’s most fascinating country video turned out to be an obscure film first released 28 years ago.

Most of us had never heard of the late director James Szalapski or his 1975 documentary, Heartworn Highways. In short, Szalapski was in the right place at the right time when he gained access to a group of then-struggling songwriters in Nashville and Austin, Texas. Rodney Crowell was in his 20s and Steve Earle was still in his teens when the film was shot. Even Guy Clark — now a father figure to songwriters — looked liked a kid while performing “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” two songs that later became classics. And although it didn’t make the film’s original cut, the DVD features a song performed by another youngster — John Hiatt. More riveting, perhaps, is the footage of the late Townes Van Zandt, who offers an early version of “Pancho and Lefty.” Other songwriters featured in Heartworn Highways include Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Larry Jon Wilson, the Charlie Daniels Band and David Allan Coe.

Coe also provided one of the year’s more entertaining DVDs with Live at Billy Bob’s Texas. Recorded live at the Fort Worth landmark, Coe proves that he still hasn’t mellowed much in the three decades since he was filmed for Heartworn Highways. Appearing more weathered than ever, Coe still seems like a guy who wouldn’t mind whipping your ass if he even suspected you crossed him. Coe’s contributions to country music have been largely overlooked for a lot of reasons that aren’t necessarily of a musical nature. The 20-song set includes at least two Coe originals that point to true greatness — “Take This Job and Shove It” and “The Ride.” The former, of course, was popularized by Johnny Paycheck. And although Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery” was excellent, “The Ride” remains the best song ever written about Hank Williams’ ghost.

Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” was turned into the year’s most memorable music video through the work of a director whose credits include the recent One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams. The video was released on DVD as Hurt: A Film by Mark Romanek. For those wishing to remember him as a relatively young man, Cash was still in his prime in the mid-’70s when he filmed a special concert at the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The footage surfaced this year on Concert Behind Prison Walls. It was an unlikely concert billing with Roy Clark and Linda Ronstadt sharing the stage. It features Ronstadt at her country-rock best, performing songs such as “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” On another video, The Highwaymen: On the Road Again, Cash is featured with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings during one of their European tours.

In the midst of an international tour and a backlash from radio and right-wing pundits, the Dixie Chicks managed to issue two separate concert DVDs in 2003. Early in the year, the trio released An Evening With the Dixie Chicks, captured at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles as a TV special supporting their Home album. Their roadwork in 2003 is documented in the recently released concert DVD, Top of the World Tour: Live.

Other mainstream country acts turning TV specials into DVDs include Shania Twain, whose concert at Chicago’s Grant Park netted Up!: Live in Chicago. The DVD includes six songs not featured on the original TV broadcast. Faith Hill’s special resulted in When the Lights Go Down, a 12-song program emphasizing her album of the same title.

George Strait can’t fit all of his hits into one concert, but he offered new versions of several favorites on For the Last Time: Live From the Astrodome. The 19-song set was recorded before 70,000 during an event that marked the closing of the Houston Astrodome.

Toby Keith and Travis Tritt were among those who saw their older music videos compiled for new DVDs. Having become a superstar at DreamWorks Records, Keith’s Video Collection, Vol. 1 features several hits from his days at Mercury Records, including “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “He Ain’t Worth Missing.” Travis Tritt’s Greatest Hits — From the Beginning chronicles his days at Warner Bros. through hits such as “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” “Foolish Pride” and “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares).” Similarly, The Very Best of John Michael Montgomery: The Videos collects “I Swear,” “Be My Baby Tonight” and 16 other videos from his days at Atlantic Records. Dwight Yoakam’s Just Looking for a Hit includes several live performances and two 1986 performances of “Honky Tonk Man” in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Ricky Skaggs and his stellar band, Kentucky Thunder, released their first-ever DVD with Soldier of the Cross — The Concert. Taped live at the Gibson Bluegrass Café in Nashville, the concert features music from Skaggs’ 1999 bluegrass-gospel CD, Soldier of the Cross. The DVD includes guest appearances by the Whites, Jerry & Tammy Sullivan and Marty McCall and Bonnie Keen of the contemporary Christian group, First Call.

Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Live is the group’s first full-length concert video. In addition to the full concert performance at the Louisville Palace in Louisville, Ky., the two-disc set features one-on-one interviews with each band member. The DVD is a companion piece to the audio CD, Live, which is nominated for a Grammy in the best bluegrass album category.

Skaggs and Krauss are also featured on the Chieftains’ Down the Old Plank Road, a DVD taped at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. In addition to Skaggs and Krauss, the DVD also features Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride and Earl Scruggs. Krauss makes a guest appearance on The Three Pickers, a concert starring Scruggs, Skaggs and guitar legend Doc Watson.

Other noteworthy DVDs released in 2003 include:

Various Artists, A Tribute to Chet Atkins
Taped in 1980, the 17 performances feature Tom T. Hall, Porter Wagoner, Boots Randolph, Charley Pride, Ray Stevens, the Charlie Daniels Band, Roger Miller, jazz guitarist Earl Klugh and Atkins himself.

Randy Travis, Worship & Faith
Taped at a Baptist church, Travis and his band mix traditional hymns, including “Shall We Gather at the River,” with his recent inspirational hit “Three Wooden Crosses.”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Farther Along
The DVD centers on the making of the Dirt Band’s third installment of its Will the Circle Be Unbroken series. The show features appearances from Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash and many others.

Doc & Merle Watson, In Concert

Watson and his late son, Merle, taped this 1980 show with bassist Michael Coleman. In addition to concert footage, it features an interview conducted in their hometown of Deep Gap, N.C.

Doyle Lawson, Treasures

Treasures was produced to mark Lawson’s 30-year anniversary in the music business. The live performance features the influential mandolinist playing favorites such as “Big Country” and “That’s How I Can Count on You.”

Lorrie Morgan, The Color of Roses

A recent concert recording, Morgan’s The Color of Roses includes most of her hits, including “Watch Me” and “Something in Red,” along with country classics such as “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Norman & Nancy Blake, My Dear Old Southern Home
There’s nothing more majestic than acoustic master Norman Blake playing guitar, mandolin or fiddle with his wife, cellist Nancy Blake. The 10-song DVD includes “My Dear Old Southern Home” and “Last Train From Poor Valley.”

Bob Luman, At Town Hall Party

For more than a decade before his untimely death in 1978, Luman brought a rockabilly energy to the Grand Ole Opry. The DVD’s performances are from several appearances on the Los Angeles TV show, Town Hall Party, in 1958.

The Everly Brothers, Reunion Concert: Live From the Royal Albert Hall

Don and Phil Everly hadn’t appeared onstage in almost a decade when they reunited in the early ’80s at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The magic and the fraternal harmonies are obvious as the Everlys offer up hits including “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.