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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 14, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Country and Opera, Bush's Mind, Genocide and Piglet

Dolly Parton was famous before I knew anything about country music, and I was soon tired of everything about her. I was tired of Johnny Carson's endless leering double entendres. I was tired of her big hair and endless cheeriness. Above all, I was tired of how plastic and mass-produced all her songs sounded.

I found a completely different road into country music, by way of Emmy Lou Harris and Lyle Lovett, Alabama and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Suzy Boggus and K.D. Lang, and the soundtrack albums from Deliverance and Nashville and Coal Miner's Daughter.

By comparison, Dolly Parton sounded like the country cousin of Barry Manilow.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was driving cross country with my favorite music critic and she slipped in a cd and said, "Have you heard what Dolly Parton is doing now?"

I almost fell out of the car. This was the critic who introduced me to Rufus Wainwright and David Gray, Macy Gray and Lauren Hill. And she had the new Dolly Parton cd?

"No, she's doing something different. Very hill country. Deep roots."

And so I listened and was blown away.

Since then I've bought three of these albums for myself, and they're all amazing. The hauntingly bitter songs of disappointed love, the hill country gospel songs, all done with instrumentation and arrangements that barely hint that anybody in that recording session had ever been corrupted by Nashville ...

These are not all old songs. She covers Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer" and Bread's "If" and "Stairway to Heaven" and an old Cole Porter song -- but they don't sound like they ever did before. And there are plenty of songs in the grand old "Kick Out Your Man" tradition.

But her tour-de-force, showing her chops as an actress as well as a singer, is "These Old Bones" on the Horns and Halos cd, where you will be stunned to realize that the old witchy woman she's singing a duet with is also Dolly Parton.

The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, and Horns and Halos -- any or all of them. If you have a taste for country music that feels like you might have heard it first on the porch of a wellwater cabin, sung by a woman who learned it all by rote and sings them from the heart, then you will be delighted with them all.

If the reason she went back to the wellspring of country music was because her pop career had faded, well, all I can say is, I'm sorry if she went through some troubles, but if that's what it took to get her to record music like this, then hard times ain't all bad.

*

The name of the group is Opera Babes, and that alone made it impossible for me not to buy their first album, Beyond Imagination.

Karen England (mezzo) and Rebecca Knight (soprano) have beautiful, well-trained voices, and while they might never have become stars at the household-name level, like Callas and Sills and Te Kanawa and Battle and Upshaw, they could have had nice careers playing character and chorus roles or leading roles in the podunks.

Instead, they headed for the street in London and began singing, for whatever tips people might throw their way, the most astonishing arrangements of operatic arias and choruses -- and even "songs" that were never meant to be sung.

So when they passed from the street into the studio, they went for a no-holds-barred reinterpretation of a deliciously weird selection of music. Not at the level of, say, Switched-On Bach, but rather inventing new settings for each song. Here and there a driving Celtic underbeat; in other songs, definite rock rhythms; while others use the full sweep of the orchestra, and the surprise is that a chorus has become a haunting duet, or a well-known instrumental has been given words.

When they do "Stranger in Paradise" from Kismet, they eschew the Broadway version and return to Borodin's original melody. They sing the Carmina Burana chorus "O Fortuna" and the chorus from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" so convincingly that you wonder why the composers thought they needed something so big.

I'm going to stop trying to describe the indescribable. Let me sum up this way: If you love opera, I think you'll find this is a breath of fresh air without ever showing disrespect to the original. If you hate opera, I think you'll discover that it isn't opera you hate at all, and when it's performed like this you realize it can be wonderful.

I hope they stay together long enough to make a few dozen more albums.

*

With Harper's Monthly and The New Yorker indulging in lunatic-fringe hate campaigns against George W. Bush, it's a breath of fresh air to open Atlantic Monthly's April issue and read something not just sane, but wise.

Indeed, I recommend the whole issue, from the ironic opening editorial to the puzzle at the end. But above all, read the article "The Mind of George W. Bush."

I know, I know, usually when an article or book has a title like that, you expect it to be a hatchet job. But this is neither an attack nor a puff piece. Instead, Richard Brookhiser seriously examines the way that George W. Bush governs -- in a style different from any of his predecessors.

Brookhiser is not blind to Bush's faults (what president doesn't have them?), but he is also aware of his strengths, which are considerable. Nor does he subscribe blindly to the shibboleths of the "intellectual" (read: groupthink) Left. Bush stupid? Hardly. Bush may not be "well-spoken," but that doesn't mean he's the puppet of his advisers.

What he has is the remarkable ability to listen to people who don't agree with him and avoid having all his information filtered through a few like-thinking advisers. He prays about his decisions but never uses that as a cudgel or window-dressing -- he keeps his conversations with God to himself, and persuades others to his point of view using only reason and evidence.

The April issue won't be on the stands that much longer.

*

Do we need another book about Bill Clinton? Much as I loathed him, I also dislike flogging a dead horse.

But I picked up Dereliction of Duty anyway. It's a personal memoir of Air Force Lt. Col. Robert "Buzz" Patterson's service as military aide ("milaide") to the president during much of Clinton's presidency.

Some of the things he talks about are petty -- rudeness, drunkenness now and then, friends and associates who treat soldiers like caddies or servants. What presidency ever proceeds without embarrassing moments?

But gradually you come to realize that the attitude of contempt for the military and the lack of a sense of responsibility for national defense was not just Clinton's alone, but rather the attitude of the entire coterie around him. If anything, Al Gore was even more contemptuous.

And by the end of the book, you realize that the election of George W. Bush really did come just in time, because from the moment of his election morale in the armed forces began to improve, and from the moment he took office, the military began to be able to plan to protect America despite the appalling cutbacks imposed during the Clinton years.

There are many Democrats who take national defense seriously -- I'm one -- but it can't be denied that the Democratic Party has made itself the home for those whose ignorance of history allows them to regard the military with hostility and disdain. It is a matter of grave concern for America that one of our political parties seems to be dominated by people who do not recognize that America's power to do good in the world is in part dependent upon our ability to defend ourselves and rescue other nations that are in dire trouble.

And in case you prefer heavier fare, try Samantha Power's chronicle of America's appalling response to genocide in recent years. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide just won the Pulitzer, and while awards by their nature always end up ignoring many good books, I hope this one helps the book get a readership that might guide future policy.

When you realize that the Clinton administration didn't just ignore Rwanda, but actively withdrew or blocked intervention that might have saved countless lives, you begin to understand that maybe France's actions about Iraq aren't so strange -- they're right in line with what America's official attitude used to be, under both Clinton and Bush I, and Reagan and Ford before them.

There are few good guys in this sad, sad book. But when you're done with it, you'll be grimly determined that from now on, America must become the good guy when it comes to genocide, or we don't deserve our current place of dominance in the world.

You don't have to be the "policeman of the world" to know that you can't stand idly by while whole populations are systematically murdered. And yet that is precisely what our policy has been ... to our shame.

*

Just because we can get marvelous studio performances on cd doesn't mean that live concerts are no longer necessary. There's something about being in the same room with the living people who are creating the music that gives you a thrill you can't get from any mechanical reproduction.

The Greensboro Oratorio Society's Spring Concert consists of a performance of Brahms's "German Requiem" on Friday the 25th at seven p.m. Tickets are seven bucks for adults, five bucks for seniors and students, and you can buy them at the door.

The soloists will be Melinda Wilkinson (who sang at this year's Messiah performance) and longtime Oratorio Society member Roger Gibbs. Come to Finch Chapel at Greensboro College, 815 W Market Street.

*

If you don't actually fall asleep or die in Piglet's Big Movie, the last twenty minutes contain some mildly amusing or mildly moving moments. But let's be honest, folks: Disney clearly doesn't care what they put out under one of their brand name labels. They know they'll make a certain amount of money even if the story is cobbled together from the standard sitcom/kidvid plots of the last twenty years.

The trouble is, this only works for a little while. Eventually, people catch on that while the cover reminds them of great movies of the past, the contents are drivel. And pretty soon the brand name loses its value.

Look what happened to Rocky. A terrific movie. Won best picture, and it's still watchable. It has a kind of independent movie feel that makes it seem real. But with each sequel, it married itself more and more to formula and promotable villains a la James Bond, and by the end of the series, we weren't all that sorry to see it die.

Disney thinks it can't happen to them.

The worst thing is, nobody wants it to happen. We'd like them to keep their quality up. But except for a few big projects, it seems the concern for quality left Disney animation when Jeffrey Katzenberg did.


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