With friends like Dennis Weaver, country music doesn't need publicists. Weaver, who hosts tonight's hour-long "50 Years of Country Gold" (Channel 7 at 9) has all the wide-eyed golly-ism of the true, but new, believer. Unfortunately, the listless production and unimaginative choice of performers and material believe his enthusiasm: "50 Years" is like a sentence, not a celebration.
Most of the show originates from Nashville's new Opry House. Some comes from Las Vegas.You can't really tell the difference, and that's been the major problem with country music over the last decade. "Country Gold" is a microcosm of the uptown move, epitomized by Barbara Mandrell's dreary and stupid pop version of her hit, "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed."
Country performers, Weaver says, were once thought of as "simple, laidback people who never had a thought in the world beyond picking and grinning and singing about love and nature . . . until Larry Gatlin came along." At which point, Gatlin, who couldn't sell records eight years ago, launches into a song about "all the gold in California." There's a lot of working-class imagery throughout the show, but one feels few of these performers would ever step into the coalmine unless it was the name of a club in Vegas.
There are some embarrassing performances: the remnants of the Carter Family, Roy Clark (bet you didn't know that "Yesterday, When I Was Young" was a country classic) and the venerable Ernest Tubb. Haggard, the studly Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis come off reasonably well. So does Loretta Lynn, whose thick country cadence is as authentic as her observation that "a lot of things have changed since way back then."
The real hero is Don Williams. Blessed with the face of a hound dog in mourning, Williams' contribution has a lilting, tradition-laden melody, gracious harmony and the simplest of backups. It's real and it points up Nashville's dilemma: "I guess we're all going to be what we're going to be/So what do you do with good ole boys like me?" We'll appreciate you, Don -- and appreciate the fact that all that's glitter is not gold.