(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
At last, there’s a boxed set to match the considerable musical prowess and achievements of the late Roy Orbison. Many misfires in the way of music anthologies have been attempted over the years, ever since the true American original that was Orbison died too soon of a heart attack in Nashville in 1988.
But the new Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll, to be released Tuesday (Sept. 30), is a comprehensive four-CD set that displays considerable attention to detail. It was put together by his widow, Barbara Orbison, and their son, Roy Kelton Orbison Jr., and that’s obviously why so much care went into this project.
And the attention shows throughout. For the first time, Orbison’s entire musical career is presented on disc, from his hard-scrabble West Texas rock ‘n’ roll beginnings to his final glory days as international rock superstar in the 1980s. It spans his work from his first recording of “Ooby Dooby” with his Teen Kings in 1956 in Odessa, Texas, to his last live cut of “It’s Over” on Dec. 4, 1988, just two days before his death. In addition to the 107 music cuts, of which a dozen have never been released, the box includes rare photos and remembrances and notes from a wide range of Orbison’s contemporaries. One important essay is by his influential producer Fred Foster, who writes about the heady Monument Records days and delivers a frank account of how those days came to an end.
I’m not sure Orbison’s importance and significance to the body of American popular music has yet been fully realized. His career and life intersected with a significant cross-section of key rock and country music figures, including Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and others. He and Hank Williams were both managed by Acuff-Rose (when that music publishing firm still managed artists) and were both on the MGM record label. Both he and Cash were produced by Rick Rubin at the end of their careers (in Orbison’s case, the song “Life Fades Away” from the movie Less Than Zero). Orbison, like Cash, had his huge chart hits early in his career but achieved his most personally satisfying recordings late in life. Early on, Orbison, like Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich and many other rock luminaries, were graduates of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis. They were drawing the road map for rock ‘n’ roll and for rockabilly and for country rock because none of that had been done before.
Orbison’s overall influence has yet to be fully determined, I think, because it can’t be measured in dollars and cents or in chart figures or quantifiable in any other way on paper. Just in the lingering impact that his music has. His presence is never far away.
A big difference in Orbison’s music, which differentiates it from so many others, is a great intangible factor. And that factor is a mystical one. Namely, it is the almost spiritual impact much of his music had and continues to have over audiences and artists alike. Tom Waits said Orbison’s voice “sounds like the wind forming words … being sent to you from across time. … There is something so tender, so private about his voice, it confides feelings you keep mostly to yourself.” Springsteen rightly said that Orbison sounds like “he’d dropped in from another planet, and yet [could] get the stuff that was right to the heart of what you were livin’ in today.” That’s why a song like “Crying,” for example, or “Only the Lonely” can’t be adequately described and dissected on paper. Its impact is completely visceral and spiritual. It must be heard to be fully experienced. The impact is purely personal. Then, as the great Nashville DJ Eddie Stubbs says about monumental recordings, the final word is, “Are there any questions?” No, sir.
All of this came from a man with a very low-wattage public persona. Early on, he was mocked for his looks. The voice stilled critics then and always by its power. But in many ways, Roy Orbison was able to remain a private person, to the point that casual fans still wonder about his “lost years,” when he seemingly disappeared between his “Oh Pretty Woman” golden era at Monument to his re-emergence with the Traveling Wilburys in the 1980s. Musically, this collection answers that question. Personally, he was, as much as he could possibly be, a father and husband to his family and still making records during those years. Especially when his career took a serious commercial dive after the Monument years, I have always sensed that he would have been supremely content staying at home, writing songs and crafting and flying model airplanes with his sons and adding to his huge collection of cars and just living the life he had built. Completely oblivious to stardom and fandom.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, I myself still occasionally run into a new Orbison fan who asks if Orbison was blind, because of his ever-present sunglasses. Blinded by the light, I guess.