Judge's great creation
“Tales From The Tour Bus” is necessary viewing for any halfway serious C&W aficionado. It presents wild anecdotes, told mainly by eyewitnesses, about the lives and misbehavior of classic country artists, in animated sequences that dramatize both the stories and the talkers. What might someone outside the fold make of it? I was swept away upon viewing the first episode, which focused on Johnny PayCheck (whose voice does tend to sweep me away all on its own, I admit). Not since the early writings of Nick Tosches has such a skilled and sympathetic artist captured and communicated the peculiar attraction of hardcore country, its humility and humor, its heart-wrenching plain-spoken expressiveness, and above all, its usually hilarious and sometimes disturbing excesses. Like Tosches, Mike Judge unabashedly inserts his own voice (literally) into his work, amid the voices of the legends and loonies he’s documenting, although his persona is mellower than Nick’s and his portrayals are less acid-tipped.
I imagine the average consumer is welcome here. To find out better, I tested the Billy Joe Shaver episode on my 18-year-old, Tennessee. He seemed charmed and highly amused. Not that he would ever use such fey terms as “charmed” or “amused,” but his demeanor and non-verbal expostulations were those of a jungle savage enraptured by the tales of a colorful evangelist travelled from afar.
To stand by that metaphor, the incredible content of the stories and the talent of the teller -- I mean Mr. Judge -- are what makes this show fly. Since I’ve never put together an animated show, I’m in no position to analyze closely how this one achieves its effects so well, but I’m going to take a couple stabs anyway:
Brevity/timing: When Billy Joe describes Hank Williams looking at him from the stage and his (10-year-old Billy Joe’s) intense feeling that Hank is singing right to him, the cartoon Billy Joe clicks into a sweet trance, which we see in close-up for about 1.5 seconds. Such a short cutaway effectively sacralizes the moment but avoids making one of those routine, unearned epiphanies in which TV comedies specialize.
Sources: The writer Jimmy McDonough, flanked by a creepy black cat on a desk, tells some stories on Tammy Wynette, and Billy Joe Shaver tells some on himself (which is fitting since he’s world champion at that). But most of the talking is done by close friends of the stars, by their hairdressers, by sidemen and road managers and cowriters and and codependents. In fact, the sidemen predominate, and this is a canny move, because these are the people who see the wildest shenanigans the closest-up and who can balance their suffering in the situations they describe with a deep appreciation of the inborn musical abilities of the people causing them to suffer. Also, musicians as a breed have an advantage over prose writers and maybe even hairdressers: they’re smart, worldly, salted-in-the-shell, and funny as hell. They’ve got the clearest from-the-trenches perspective. It’s frustrating that so much of the information we’re able to get on music artists we admire, and on the inner experience of creating and performing music, is filtered through corporate propagandists and dreamy deskbound pencil-pushers. And when the subject is alive, which is often when the interest is highest, protecting feelings and personal earnings is a priority. We’re living in a lucky sliver of time, in the sense that George Jones’s best friend, though aged, can talk candidly and completely on TV about being shot at by Jones at very close range, or his guitarist about Jones hurling a whiskey bottle hard at his head -- not to put too fine a point on it, but Jones’s aim was terrible.
Dramatization: I love watching stuff like “Country’s Family Reunion” (of whose existence we’re lucky, since, for among other reasons, “TFTTB” gets use of its footage), but animations are more animal-brain entertaining. The pace is brisker, and the stories are shaped and supervised by a first-rate dramatist. Scene recreations, such as PayCheck’s 1986 trial and sentencing for aggravated assault, lift the stories away from their narrators and thus let us bask in the amazingness of the incidents without worrying over the quirks and possible untrustworthiness of the tellers. Either Judge encourages his interviewees to do voice impressions or that’s the standard redneck way; whichever, it adds another layer of interest and wit. Tastefully deployed props (McDonough’s cat, Linda Gail Lewis’s crucifix necklace), suspense-film tropes (Jones’s showpants-clad leg ominously padding through the dark on a drunken path through wet grass to beat up one of his players after a show), and a bevy of comic sound-effects (that same player creaming Jones with a metal door and Jones’s body hitting the grass) add to the fun.
Intercutting between storytellers: As we know from listening to nutty old war veterans, tales grow ever more danger-laden and bullshit-packed with the passage of years. Common sense says (and Jerry Lee Lewis, in a surprising moment, explicitly confirms) that there’s no way a lot of these events could have happened just as described. The participants would have been dumped into jail with no second thought, or maimed by Mother Nature, or shot by firing squad, rather than have gone on into old age enjoying esteemed careers as entertainers. But the intercutting, in which sentences within anecdotes are passed between separate interviewees, and details of anecdotes laid out by party A and commented on by a wholly-removed party B, does plant an insane seed of credence: maybe this shit is true!
Hyperbole eschewed: though the stories are exaggerated, the talents of the stars aren’t. Watching the show I’m reminded of how much empty folderol we have to wade through in trying to learn about the performers we love -- claims about who allegedly ranks where, and unconvincing efforts to pump up inert figures with gassy poetry. Actually, Mr. Judge slips once here, making a “best ever” sort of claim on Waylon Jennings that shines a little too hard a light on the showrunner’s own tastes -- and, after all, when the others on the shelf are Jones, PayCheck, Shaver, and Lewis, making merit-based comparisons is very silly. Besides that, though, no silly boasts mar the series at all. I finished the PayCheck episode thinking, “But they didn’t say anything about the main point and the reason anyone cares about the guy, which is how well he sang!” before remembering -- they showed him singing! They didn’t need to do more! Splendid.
Wiping from animated to non-animated footage at key moments: this is a powerful technique. Why, I’m not sure. Some of the press around the show has divulged the following incident, otherwise I’d feel I was spoiling it. PayCheck’s long-suffering manager, after disgorging a Decameron of bad behavior committed by his client, gets onto the subject of “Old Violin,” the post-prison composition in which Johnny goes head to head with The Distinguished Thing. The song is a masterwork, a privileged trip back behind the eyes of a man looking full on into the abyss that is surely devouring us all, and it’s made more powerful yet by the lack of artistic polish in the lyric -- on paper, it would be a pretty crude scrawl, but animated by the breath of the author, it springs into being with a pathos that is almost dreadful. Talking about it, the cartoon face of the manager emits a tear, at which point the animation gives way to the filmed face of the crying man. The power of this moment is as vivid as it is indefinable. If you’ll forgive an absurdly disproportionate comparison, I was reminded of the end of Schindler’s List, the old survivors in Israel at their families’ graveside, where the film quality goes to home-movie color -- the mask of art dropped to reveal humanity in its piteous, never-changing fragility.
Anyway: watch “Tales From The Tour Bus.”