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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.