When director Robert Altman cast actors and actresses for singing roles in the film Nashville, he looked primarily for cinematic personalities and clearly gave little consideration to musical prowess. Moreover, since existing material apparently didn’t fit the director’s artistic intent, and because he wanted his fictional country stars to be actively involved in their roles, he asked them to write their own tunes. As a result, perhaps, the bulk of Nashville works well in the theater but suffers even more than most soundtracks from the transition to vinyl.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the singing of Henry Gibson, who in the movie plays mainstream country vocalist Haven Hamilton. Delivering his “200 Years” onscreen with pseudo reverence, Gibson conveys a sense of a nation buoyed up by stars, slogans and blind faith, and director Altman, juxtaposing snatches of the song’s performance with a reading of its gospel equivalent, builds a scene that matters. What matters on record, though, is that Gibson cannot carry a tune, and that his lyric, apart from the movie, is a crashing bore.
Two other Gibson numbers, “One, I Love You” and “For the Sake of the Children,” while also well suited to the character and believably pleasing to Hamilton’s starstruck fans in the movie, sound like bad parodies on record. And the singsongy “Keep a’ Goin'” may be notable here only as one of the worst pieces of countrified bubblegum ever waxed.
Similarly, Barbara Harris’s lone contribution to the album demonstrates further why this sort of soundtrack has little merit for those who have not seen the film. As Nashville’s anticlimax, her reprise of Keith Carradine’s “It Don’t Worry Me” follows a tragic concert incident and dramatically serves as a palliative for the audience’s despair. Those who hear it on disc after viewing the movie should be able to conjure up the circumstances surrounding its performance; not understanding that the rendition’s choppiness is intentional, others might well judge it perfunctory and incompetent.
Karen Black’s equally dreary readings of a pair of self-penned tunes have only Vassar Clements’s fiddle accompaniment to recommend them. Her voice is undistinguished, and her compositions are as vapid and corny as Gibson’s.
In Ronee Blakley’s “Bluebird,” Timothy Brown at least has good raw material. But Brown, who in the film portrays a character apparently molded after Charley Pride, lacks that singer’s range and communicative ability. Furthermore, while “Bluebird” concerns a down-and-out cocktail waitress, you’d hardly know it from Brown’s jolly, one-dimensional delivery.
The album is not, however, totally devoid of redeeming qualities. Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy,” for instance, boasts evocative lyrics and a warm, effective vocal that is remarkably reminiscent of Steve Goodman. And Ronee Blakley, who serves up a trio of tunes here (among them “Dues,” which, like “Bluebird,” first appeared on her own 1972 disc) pleases consistently. Her hook lines, particularly on the genuinely autobiographical “My Idaho Home,” are memorable; her singing, more redolent of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt than of the Tammy Wynette/Loretta Lynn-styled character she plays in Nashville, is strong and self-assured.
But Carradine and Blakley, both folk-rooted artists, do not fit well in this collection. And their brief performances, while impressive, are not worth the album’s price. Only to those seeking a mere remembrance of the film can I recommend this LP.