Your Ticket To the Grand Ole Opry

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

The key word in "Opry Video Classics" is "classics." The new eight-DVD collection ($119.86, available Tuesday) from Time Life draws from the first two decades of broadcasts by the Grand Ole Opry, which started on the radio in 1925 and moved to television in 1955. The 120 performances are a video version of the Country Music Hall of Fame: There's hardly a pre-1975 member not represented and a whole lot more who would be inducted later.

Many of the performances have never been widely available. Country star and music historian Marty Stuart prefaces the DVDs; each hour-long disc contains 15 songs centered on a particular theme ("Love Songs," "Honky-Tonk Heroes," "Songs That Topped the Charts," etc.). Then it's on to the original introductions and performances. Among the treats: Patsy Cline on the "Duets" DVD singing "(Remember Me) I'm the One Who Loves You" with Bobby Lord (it's her only recorded duet) 15 days before she was killed in a 1963 plane crash. The Winchester, Va.-bred singer appears on several volumes, including "Queens of Country" with Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis, a powerful Loretta Lynn and curiously constrained Tammy Wynette, as well as Dolly Parton, introduced by Porter Wagoner as "one of the prettiest, singing-est, songwriting-ist little blondes in country music."

Parton, too, makes multiple appearances: "Love Songs" includes her "I Will Always Love You," written for Wagoner as Parton was leaving the man who'd discovered her seven years earlier to pursue a solo career. (The song was a country No. 1 for Parton in 1974, 18 years before Whitney Houston's megamillion-selling, chart-topping cover.) Wagoner, still recording until he died last month, appears on several discs, and you'll be thankful when the videos move from black-and-white in the '50s and early '60s to color: Wagoner's show suits favored extremes of gaudy color that must be seen to be believed.

Other classic pairings on "Duets" include Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Johnny and June Carter Cash, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The highlight: Jones and Wynette re-creating their wedding vows in front of a preacher for "The Ceremony." (Also worth following: Jones's hair styles, from the scary Marine buzz-cut of 1959's "White Lightnin' " to his well-coiffed thatch in the early '70s.)

"Pioneers" features clips from ABC's "Purina Grand Ole Opry," the first show to bring the Opry to a nationwide audience in 1955, though some stars were already past their prime, including Hank Snow and Roy Acuff. The set does reflect a larger picture of country with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs's bluegrass, the Carter Family's pre-country, Sons of the Pioneers' western-heavy country-and-western and the Louvin Brothers' classic close-harmony singing.

One volume of "Opry Video Classics," "Legends," is available by itself and is full of classics: Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," Twitty's "Hello Darlin' " as well as Faron Young's "Hello Walls" and Cline's signature song, "Crazy."

What's most intriguing is the long medley of those last two songs, along with "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life," by their composer -- a way pre-outlaw Willie Nelson. At the time (1965), Nelson was a Nashville-based songwriter creating hits for others. His own recording career was going nowhere, and a few years later he retired from the music business and moved to Austin. As we now know, Nelson's retirement didn't stick; thankfully, neither did his traveling-salesman haircut.

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