First time I popped A Tribute to Nashville (Robert Altman’s movie, not the city) into the player, I did what I’m guessing most people will do—went straight to track 12, Kelly Hogan’s cover of “Dues,” the original of which by Ronee Blakley accounts for five of the greatest minutes in American film. Hogan’s version is dreamy, respectful, straightforward. Good show, but then again, “Dues” is an actual song, written and performed by one of the actual musicians Altman assembled for his movie. That one’s easy, but what to do with “200 Years,” “Memphis,” and the rest of Nashville‘s soundtrack, which is either a monument of barely disguised contempt out of Central Casting or (what I believe) a half-parodic, half-affectionate simulation that often connects emotionally in spite of itself.
Well, the rest is even weirder than I expected. Virtually every key song from the original is retained (regrettable omission: “Trouble in the U.S.A.”), intermixed with esoteric re-creations of Hal Phillip Walker’s omnipresent campaign speechifying. The Corn Sisters’ “Oh These Troubled Times” and Dave Lang’s “Keep A-Goin” are bracketed by dialogue, misquoted just enough to disorient anyone who’s internalized the entire script. (Hearing Neko Case introduce the fiddle solo on “Rolling Stone” with “Here’s the best, here’s Rockhouse,” I’m thinking, “No, no, it’s Vassar who’s the best.”) There’s even a 17-second nod to Geraldine Chaplin’s giddy celebrity-sighting of Elliot Gould. And when Lang adds a few extra layers of mock solemnity to Henry Gibson’s “For the Sake of the Children,” a put-on of a put-on, you may find yourself as perplexed as that slacker kid in The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode who was asked if he was being ironic: “Man, I don’t even know anymore!” If you love the film, fascinating; if not, good luck. Either way, Nashville must be doin’ something right to last 27 years.