Nashville Sounds

Altman's masterwork, song-by-song

The great movie musicals of yesteryear are frequently remembered for their spectacle — the lavish sets, beautiful costumes and, of course, the elaborate choreography. Amidst all the eye candy, it’s easy to forget that these musical numbers also served another purpose; they allowed the characters to express important thoughts and feelings through song and dance rather than dialogue. Part of the fun of watching West Side Story, An American in Paris or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers today is trying to decode what’s really going on, if you’ll pardon the easy pop-culture reference, “behind the music.”

While Robert Altman’s sprawling 1975 epic Nashville isn’t a conventional musical — there isn’t any fancy footwork for one thing — it places a similar demand on the audience to sit up and pay attention when the characters open their mouths to sing. That’s because these people reveal more about themselves through music than they do in conversation. But the songs in Nashville don’t simply function as confessionals; they are also used to seduce, taunt and, in several instances, lie. It helps that, at Altman’s behest, many of the actors in the movie penned their own lyrics. Who better to write the tunes that peel back these characters’ psyches than the people playing them? It goes without saying that Altman’s depiction of Nashville as a town overrun by naÔve dreamers and calculating fakes didn’t sit well with the country music industry. The movie’s soundtrack has been criticized over the years as well, with Altman admitting that the songs weren’t intended to be real-world chart-toppers (although Keith Carridine’s “I’m Easy” did win the Oscar for Best Original Song). Nevertheless, when you give the movie a second spin, you’ll notice that what it lacks in number-one singles, it makes up for in food for thought. To that end, what follows is a recap of some of musical numbers heard in Nashville and what they say about the individual characters and, ultimately, the city itself.

Song: “200 Years”
Singer: Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson)
What It Sounds Like: A rousing patriotic number celebrating America’s bicentennial.
What It Is: Hamilton is Nashville’s biggest star and also, as we come to learn, one of its biggest frauds. He’s made a mint selling an image of himself that doesn’t square with the real man. In this case, he’s creating an elaborate mythology for his own family, suggesting that his “mother’s people came by ship and fought at Bunker Hill, ” while “his daddy lost a leg in France, „ his brother “served with Patton” and even he “saw action in Algiers. ” We never definitively learn whether he’s lying about any of this, but given what we come to learn about him during the course of the movie, it’s a good bet that he’s at least embellishing the Hamilton family history if not making it up entirely. And as for the line about praying that “his sons don’t go to war, but if they must, they must” notice that his own son Bud is sitting in the recording studio instead of seeing action somewhere in Vietnam. It’s not like his strapping, blonde-haired offspring has any noticeable physical or emotional problems that would keep him out of the army. (Although there is a throwaway line about Bud just graduating from Harvard Law School, which was probably arranged to get a student deferment.) No doubt both he and his father had “other priorities. ”

Song: “Let Me Be The One”
Singer: Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles)
What It Sounds Like: A sweet love song.
What It Is: The title alone speaks volumes about Sueleen, who longs to be the next Barbara Jean but can barely even carry a tune. The lyrics attempt a romantic innocence that contrasts with her sultry appearance. Barbara Jean would have sold the song’s sweetness, Sueleen can only perform it as a (badly sung) tease, foreshadowing her horrific humiliation later in the movie.

Song: “Bluebird”
Singer: Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown)
What It Sounds Like: An easy-listening country tune.
What It Is: In this case, the meaning lies less with the song and more with the person singing it. Tommy Brown is one of Haven Hamilton’s protégés and apparently the lone black star in an industry dominated by whites. But by aligning himself with Hamilton, Brown has turned himself into an “Oreo cookie” in the eyes of the local black community, represented by the drunken man who confronts him one night in Hamilton’s bar. As a singer, Brown doesn’t seem interested in challenging convention or expressing his own personality. His performance at the Opry is wholly generic, right down to this forgettable tune that Hamilton’s songwriters probably tossed off in an hour. Although at a certain level, Brown probably can identify with the opening lyric, “I’ve been going down that long lonesome road, babe/And I’ve been doing it for awhile. ” No doubt he has been at this game awhile, without much support from either black or white listeners.

Song: “For the Sake of the Children”
Singer: Haven Hamilton
What It Sounds Like: A heartfelt tribute to fatherly love.
What It Is: In this song, Haven plays a cheatin’ father who decides not to run off with his mistress because his love for his children forces him to stay with “the woman I wed. ” Of course, the real Haven didn’t stay with his wife. According to Bud, she went off to Paris and Haven took up with Lady Pearl instead.

Song: “Keep A-Goin’”
Singer: Haven Hamilton
What It Sounds Like: An ode to self-reliance.
What It Is: Haven takes on the role of motivator here, encouraging the audience not to “sit and whine/cause the fish ain’t on your line. ” Instead, they should keep a-goin’ because, after all, “it takes work to reach the top. ” Once again, it should be noted that he doesn’t exactly put these sentiments into practice in his own family, since his son grew up in a privileged environment and is now following the career path his clearly father has laid out for him.

Song: “Memphis”
Singer: Connie White (Karen Black)
What It Sounds Like: A fallen woman tries to get her life back on track.
What It Is: With Barbara Jean’s career faltering due to her illness, Connie White is poised to sweep in and steal her thunder (and record sales). She even has her own version of Barbara Jean’s sleazy manager/husband Barnett. But like Sueleen, she doesn’t possess her rival’s aura of unforced innocence. While she comes across as warm onstage, behind-the-scenes she is cold and calculating...a woman after Haven’s own heart. Witness the moment where she waits in the wings at the Opry with an angry scowl on her face that immediately turns into a sunny smile as soon as she spots a photographer. In a way, this song can even be read as a backhanded slap to Barbara Jean. The woman portrayed in “Memphis” is lost and confused; she has important things she wants to tell her listeners but can’t keep her mind clear long enough to find the right words. (This echoes something that happens later in the film, when Barbara Jean launches into long, rambling stories from her childhood while the audience looks on, confused and angry.) Barbara Jean could very easily be the lady who “got lost on the way” and now needs someone to help her from “sliding down some more. ”

Song: “Dues”
Singer: Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely)
What It Sounds Like: The story of a failed marriage.
What It Is: Where Haven Hamilton plays someone else when he goes onstage, Barbara Jean is perhaps only really herself when she’s singing for an audience. This particular number represents the conversation she can never have with her husband Barnett. While lines like “I’d give a lot to love you the way I used to do, ” suggests that they were once happy, she’s grown weary of his “careless disrespect” and his single-minded devotion to her career. When she sings “I can’t take much more, baby”, she’s not just talking about their relationship, but also about life on the road. It’s a naked appeal to him — and to the audience — to let her stop and rest. Sadly, none of them are listening to what she’s really singing.

Song: “Since You’ve Gone”
Singer: Tom (Keith Carridine), Mary (Cristina Raines) and Bill (Allan Nicholls)
What It Sounds Like: A memory of lost love.
What It Is: This is Mary’s attempt to call Tom out in public for sleeping with her and then bedding half of Nashville. As if to drive her point home, she sings the last part of the chorus while looking directly at him. But he avoids any eye contact and her actual husband Bill is, as usual, too self-absorbed to realize what’s actually going on.

Song: “I’m Easy”
Singer: Tom
What It Sounds Like: The precursor to emo-rock.
What It Is: After several furtive phone calls, Tom offers himself to Linnea onstage and puts the choice to pursue their affair entirely in her hands. (Of course, three of his other lovers happen to be in the audience as well and they all believe he’s singing to them.) His plea to “take my hand and pull me down/I won’t put up any fight” is what ultimately wins her over. That’s the kind of request she’d never hear from her buffoonish husband Delbert. Still, when she realizes what kind of man he really is, she has no qualms about walking out on him. Tom has finally met someone who uses him in the way that he has used the other women in his life. No wonder he has to lash out by spitefully calling another girlfriend as Linnea is leaving. Much to his dismay, it doesn’t even seem to phase her.

Song: “My Idaho Home”
Singer: Barbara Jean
What It Sounds Like: A memory from childhood set to music a la Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors. ”
What It Is: Like “Dues”, this song is achingly personal. Barbara Jean is singing about the life she once knew and lost along the road to stardom. “We were young then/We were together, ” she remembers and now that she’s “grown up and out on her own/I still love my Mom and Daddy best/And my Idaho home. ” Her soaring voice makes it sound triumphant, but underneath all that, this is clearly a mournful song. It also contrasts quite interestingly with a scene in Altman’s most recent film, A Prairie Home Companion, where the Johnson Girls (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) sing a number entitled “My Minnesota Home. ” Like Barbara Jean, the sisters are reminiscing about a childhood home and family members that are long gone. Yet the tone is much lighter here, with Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson stating that they’ve found a new home on the “ol’ Mississippi River” even though they still “miss the prairie/and my Minnesota home. ” And where Barbara Jean sang as if her heart was breaking, the Johnson Girls are in high spirits, laughing and vamping for the crowd. It’s another example of how A Prairie Home Companion can be viewed as a response to — or an apology for — the cynicism of Nashville. Where few of the singers in the latter film sang for pleasure, Companion is first and foremost a celebration of music and performance. Could it be that Altman really is mellowing out in his old age?

Song: “It Don’t Worry Me”
Singer: Albuquerque (Barbara Harris)
What It Sounds Like: A rallying cry.
What It Is: “It Don’t Worry Me” is the film’s anthem, and Altman drives that fact home by playing it at various points throughout the movie. We hear it during the freeway pile-up at the beginning, at the stock-car speedway, and finally at the bar right before Tom, Mary and Bill (who wrote the song) get up to play “Since You’ve Gone”. At its heart, this is a song about willful ignorance, which is one of the key themes of Nashville. Lines like “The price of bread may worry some/It don’t worry me” or “The economy’s depressed, not me” make this the ’70s version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy. ” It’s only appropriate that this trio wrote it since both Tom and Bill openly admit to not being at all interested in the country’s political climate. (“I don’t vote for nobody for President, ” Tom tells a Hal Phillip Walker groupie towards the beginning of the film.) That the song becomes a hit in Nashville is no real surprise either; this is a town that wants nothing to do with the problems plaguing the rest of the country. People come here to escape the outside world, not engage with it. That’s what makes the film’s ending all the more depressing. When Barbara Jean is shot, it seems like reality has finally penetrated the city’s carefully constructed facade. But this window is only open for a moment and Haven Hamilton knows what must be done. Someone, anyone has to sing. So he passes the mic to the wanna-be country singer Albuquerque and she promptly leads the audience in a rousing rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me, ” which immediately restores the order of things and creates a new star in the process. It don’t worry them, indeed.