Category Archives: History

Willie World

Nashville museum is a deep-dive time capsule of vintage country music

Nashvillians don’t have to go “On the Road Again” to visit a “Willie” terrific collection of memorabilia and artifacts from country music’s golden era.

The Willie Nelson & Friends Museum features exhibits on Nelson and more than 30 other country stars. It’s just off Briley Parkway, across McGavock Pike from the entrance to the Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry, in a strip mall book-ended by Cooter’s and the Nashville Palace.

“We’ve got a really small space for a whole lot of stuff,” says owner Mark Hughes, whose mother, Jeannie Oakley, and her husband, Frank—longtime friends of Nelson and other country stars—started their collection in their Madison, Tenn., picture-frame shop 1979. The museum grew and moved several times over the years (off Music Row, then to Branson, Mo.) before settling into its current Music Valley Drive location in 1992.

Its 4,500-square feet of exhibit space details the world of Willie Nelson and many other entertainers who’ve intersected with his wide-ranging musical orbit over the years, including Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Faron Young and Dottie West. There’s a pair of Nelson’s running shoes, and the guitar he played on his first Grand Ole Opry appearance—and his paltry $15 paystub from the gig. Over here’s a mockup of the front of his tour bus; over there’s a custom-made billiard table that once sat in his parlor; walls and display cases hold dozens of photos; and yep, that’s a booth and seats from Tootsie’s Orchard lounge, where Nelson and other singer-songwriters used to hang, just feet away from the backstage entrance to the Ryman. The laminated top of the booth is covered in autographs and scribbled notes, like hillbilly-music hieroglyphics.

There’s a blowup of Willie’s high school yearbook pic, movie memorabilia and items from the first Farm Aid concert, in Champaign, Ill., in 1985, including a bandana signed by all the artists who came to perform—including Willie’s fund-raising partners Neil Young and John Mellencamp, plus Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Billy Joel and Tom Petty. Look, that’s Willie’s 1979 Entertainer of the Year trophy from the Country Music Association, his only win in that category. And yes, that’s a handwritten note from Patsy Cline, thanking him for writing “Crazy” and letting her record it.

You can sit in a little theater alcove and watch a couple of documentaries featuring Nelson and other country performers reminiscing about bygone Nashville days. Or browse displays of stage attire from a country music who’s who of stars.

Another display, of framed photos, shows Willie’s wives, all four of them.

Hughes notes that Nelson’s granddaughter, Raelyn, was coming by the museum the next day to tape an episode of her Music is Funny podcast from the museum. Nelson used to drop by himself from time to time when he was in Nashville, but that doesn’t happen much anymore, now that he’s a bona fide global superstar who doesn’t spend a lot of time in Tennessee anymore. And even though he remains very active at 90, he’s not quite as wide-ranging as he used to be.

Many of the display items came from the Internal Revenue Service, which auctioned off Nelson’s property to chisel away at the $16.7 million they said he owed them, in the early 1990s, for unpaid taxes. “My mother was able to work out something with the IRS,” says Hughes, “and get first crack at some things.” Some things by the truck load, as it turned out.

Hughes says he often hears from museum visitors how surprised they are to see photos of Nelson well-groomed and clean-cut, without his long hair and signature braids, no beard, and wearing dapper, double-breasted suits—1960s Willie, as he was trying to crack into the Nashville music biz. “They say, ‘I’ve never seen Willie with short hair!’ They had no idea he existed before ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain’,” he says, noting Nelson’s No. 1, written by Fred Rose, from his 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, which signaled the beginning of his “outlaw” phase—and the end of regular trips to the barbershop.  

Visitors enter (and exit) the museum through a well-stocked gift and souvenir shop, full of t-shirts and country music collectibles. You can buy a Willie Nelson bandana (complete with braids) or cannabis-themed koozies. And get your future foretold by a mechanized Willie-bot in a coin-operated fortune-telling booth.

The museum displays are mostly vintage, truly from another era, a snapshot of country music before the current millennium and its ever-rising tide of newer, younger acts. “We don’t have anything against so-called newer stars,” says Hughes. “That’s just not what we’re about.”

“There are very few artists who can span the number of years that [Nelson] has contributed, and still be the level [Nelson] is today,” he says, citing Wille’s recent pair of 2023 Grammy Awards. “There aren’t many places people can walk into and see such a diverse collection of specific country music memorabilia, and you can run a thread through all of it and see how everything’s connected”—connected to Willie, as a songwriter, a singer, a hit-making megastar…and good friend to just about everyone whose paths he crossed along the way.

And that includes Hughes, the former businessman who years later took over, and expanded, his mother’s Willie-centric collection.  

People think, “Long hair, smokes pot,” says Hughes of how many fans perceive Nelson. “Yeah, that’s true. But to me, he’s a very nice guy. I’ve never, ever seen him upset.”

—Neil Pond

Best Seat in the House

Drumming with Charlie Daniels, a memorable slice of pizza with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artemis Pyle, and going gonzo for Southern rock

Ain’t it good to be alive and be in Tennessee!

That’s something Charlie Daniels used to bellow out on stage, typically when he was playing back on his midstate home turf.

In the late 1970s, he was the big kahuna of the growing band-centric genre of Southern rock, which included such diverse groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and the Allman Brothers. Charlie had paid his dues as in the 1960s as a Nashville session guitarist (he played with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Pete Seeger and Flatt & Scruggs) and touring road dog. He produced an album by The Youngbloods.

In the early 1970s, he’d had enough of all that and wanted to helm his own group. The Charlie Daniels Band finally hit the airwaves with “Uneasy Rider” in 1973. I remember him performing that song solo, on Ralph Emery’s early-morning weekday TV show, when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember thinking, wow, he looks like he’s not used to being up this early.

Starting the next year, Charlie would throw a big annual homecoming bash, the Volunteer Jam, in the Nashville area. He’d invite all his Southern rock friends to share the stage, along with special surprise guests from the wider musical world—James Brown, Ted Nugent, George Thorogood, Crystal Gayle, Roy Acuff, Alabama, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Don Henley after he’d gone solo from the Eagles. It was the big all-star concert event of the year, with a proudly Southern-fried spin.

In my role as a journalist, I crossed paths with Charlie several times over the years. And his music was a formative part of my teenage years, which happened to be the era in with Southern Rock was on the ascending arc of its curve, and South-rooted FM rock was at its zenith…especially in the South. I played in a band during high school—drums—and would put down the sticks and pick up a pawnshop fiddle to play a screech-y version of “The South’s Gonna Do It,” the CDB’s breakout hit from 1974. (Fortunately, in those dark ages of technology, no home video exists of me playing the fiddle.)

A few years later, I got to know one of Charlie’s two drummers, Freddy Edwards, when I was dispatched to interview and photograph him for the newspaper The Portland (Tenn.) Leader, for which I was working during college breaks. Freddy and his wife had bought a house locally, less than a mile from where I grew up, and we got to be friends. I photographed him for the piece in his basement, playing his drums. It looked a lot like the basement in my house, where I’d learned to play on my kit.

And in an interview that would presage my movie-reviewing career by some three decades, we talked about a wide range of things—including the movie Freddy and Colleen had just seen, Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott. I don’t remember much else about the interview, but I do remember how impressed Freddy was with the story about “intelligent” research dolphins who are kidnapped in a diabolical ploy to use for a political assassination.

Freddy invited me one day to come along with him to a CDB rehearsal, at Charlie’s place in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Why, of course! To give the pretense of something professional, I brought along my camera and snapped some pics of Charlie and the band running through songs for the album, Million Mile Reflections, they were getting ready to record in the studio. Freddy asked me if I wanted to sit down behind his drums and play a bit while the band loosened up and jammed—on a tune that turned out to be the albums’ opening cut, a song called “Passing Lane.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I hear the groove that I had locked into that morning in the rehearsal house on Charlie’s place.

A few more years rolled by. I interviewed and photographed Charlie for a magazine cover story after he won a CMA Award for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It was my first job out of college, and I met him at the south Nashville home of his manager, Joe Sullivan, the former DJ who founded Sound Seventy Productions. I took some portraits of Charlie leaning back in a swing in Sullivan’s backyard, against a wall of sheared rocks, because it had a kind of Mount Rushmore feel. Charlie was himself a mountain of a man, a big guy. And if Southern rock had a Mount Rushmore, he would have certainly been on it.

“I’m just a country boy who plays the guitar and the fiddle,” Charlie told me, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice with an emphatic splat into a pop bottle. “That’s all I am. I ain’t no better than anyone else. I don’t look at myself as being separated from the rest of the human race just because I sold a few records.”

He went on to sell a few more records, and I went to several Volunteer Jam events, marathon kaleidoscopes of eclectic performances, all revolving for that one night around Charlie Daniels. One piece I wrote on the Jam in the early ’80s described the performers cycling on and off stage like precision figurines in a massive Swiss clock of Southern rock, musical moving parts all clicking and ticking in sync with the night’s schedule. But you never knew who’d be coming up next. Appropriately enough, the Jams always closed in a late-night jam session, with everyone who’d performed that evening invited to return to the stage and join in.

As a fledgling music journalist, I’d been reading a lot of Rolling Stone, trying to soak up some of the mojo about how the big boys covered big musical stories. One of the RS “correspondents” was Hunter S. Thompson, whose counter-cultural “gonzo journalism” was a free-wheeling mixture of surrealism built around his own outrageous experiences. In Thompson’s world, a writer did than simply report a story—he became part of the story, shaping and sizing it by his presence and participation. I wasn’t gonzo enough to throw myself into Thompson’s dizzying swirl of whiskey, weed, cocaine and acid, but it did give me an idea.

I called Charlie’s publicist, Paula Szeigis, and pitched my proposal for covering the upcoming Volunteer Jam XIII, set that summer at the outdoor Starwood Amphitheater. Charlie knows I’m a drummer, I reminded Paula. What if I played drums during the Jam’s closing jam session, and wrote about it, for coverage? That seemed like something Hunter S. Thompson might have done if he were covering a Charlie Daniels event for Rolling Stone. It seemed gonzo tailor-made for me.

Paula seemed to like the idea, and said she’d run it by Charlie. A couple of weeks later, I got the confirmation call. I’d be drumming at the Volunteer Jam.

At the event, I picked up my laminate and milled around backstage with all the other musicians—Stevie Ray Vaughn was there, so was William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over there is the L.A. rock band Great White, and is that Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman? Yep, it is!  

But the VIPs of the evening were the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, making their first appearance with Johnny Van Zandt as then new front man. He was the little brother of Ronnie, who died in the tragic airplane crash ten years earlier; the crash killed a total of six band members and crew, including guitarist Steve Gaines and his backup vocalist sister, Cassie. That night’s Volunteer Jam was a reunion of the surviving members, who’d decided to pull all their loose ends back together after the setback and re-form for a tribute tour.

It would be the final time they’d share the stage with Allen Collins, who appeared in a wheelchair, waving to the crowd. But his guitar-playing days were over. I think a lot of the crowd at Starwood thought Collins was incapicated because of injuries after the plane crash, but actually, he’d been paralyzed in a 1986 car accident when his new black Thunderbird flipped on a Florida highway, killing his girlfriend passenger. He would never play guitar again, and he died three years later.

There was Ed King, the former Strawberry Alarm Clock member who’d joined Skynyrd in 1972. And there was bass player Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemis Pyle (more about him later), the former U.S. Marine and aviator who’d replaced the band’s original drummer, Bob Burns, in 1974. And there was Gary Rossington, one of the band’s founding members, and piano player Billy Powell, who started as a Skynyrd roadie but became a part of the group after the band heard him noodling around on a keyboard.

With Rossington’s death March 5, the band’s “classic” lineup was all gone—Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines, Wilkeson, Powell, Burns and King. I’ve been thinking about how almost all the Skynyrd band members I watched that night are no longer with us, and three of them had perished a full decade earlier. It had been a rough road for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Southern rock, as a genre, would soon be past its heyday, a retro relic of another place and time.  

I’ve been thinking about the times I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd, the times I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, and about the time I reviewed their sophomore album, Second Helping, for my high school newspaper. Believe it or not, I slagged Bob Burns’ drumming. (He left the band in 1974 after a mental breakdown.)  And I’ve been thinking about a night in 1989 in Elliston Place, Nashville’s West End music district, when I sat down at a table in The End, the little rock club across the street from the Exit In, and had some pizza with Artemis Pyle.

I was playing drums in a little Beatles cover band, Day Tripperz, and we making a return appearance at the club. There were maybe 20 or so people there; it was a weeknight. I couldn’t see very clearly; it was dim and dark. But I could make out the silhouette of one guy, with long dark hair, and he seemed a little bit older than the otherwise college-age crowd. Then a delivery guy from Obie’s Pizza, across the parking lot, came into the club and yelled, “Artemis! Pizza for Artemis.”

I’d never heard the name Artemis until I started reading album credits and music features and came across Artemis Pyle. Could this be that Artemis, the one who drummed for Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Indeed, it was.

Our band was on a break, so I went over and introduced myself. He had friendly eyes and a big, fuzzy beard that seemed to meld with his long hair to completely obscure his face, and he asked me to pull up a chair. He was likeable and talkative. We bantered with a bit of drummer small talk, and then he told me about surviving the plane crash, and how he wanted to write a book, called “The Best Seat in the House,” about his perspective as Skynyrd’s stickman, getting to see everything—on stage and in the audience—from his seat behind his double-bass rig on the drum riser. Artemis didn’t sing; he just drummed…and watched. But the title had a double meaning. If he hadn’t been where he was sitting on that ill-fated Conair CV-240, when it plowed into the Mississippi swamp, if he’d been in another seat, situated somewhere else in the plane, he might not have made it. As it was, Artemis was the only survivor capable of crawling from the wrecked fuselage and trekking into the night looking for help, covered with mud and blood.

Best seat in the house, for sure.

At the Volunteer Jam event, I didn’t know when I’d play on stage, with whom, or what songs. So I just hung out, me and my laminated backstage pass, waiting for my cue and watching the musical flow—and the frenzy when Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage, plowing into the opening bars of “Workin’ For MCA.”

When my “spot” finally came, at the evening’s big closing jam, I was instructed to come up on stage and stand behind one of the two risers on the backline; there were two drummers playing to keep the beat going and avoid any interruption when a sub would come aboard. One of the drummers, on the other riser, was Artemis. The risers were about three feet high, and they had a couple of little steps. A stagehand was standing beside me, behind the platform, and when one song finished, he reached up and put his hands into the rear of the drummer’s pants waistband and gave a tug—time to “switch out.”

The newly de-throned drummer hopped down, handed me his sticks and I climbed up. And before I could say “Yikes!” the 15 or 16 musicians on stage launched into a rocking version of “That Good Ol’ Mountain Dew.” Charlie was leading and calling the shots, throwing in fiddle breaks. Our two-drummer rhythm section was churning. And most of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band members—and various other musicians—were scattered about, picking and playing and trying to get all their chords in the right spots.

I could see the stage stretched out in front of me, with the edge about 40 or 50 feet away. The audience was a churning sea of faces on the other side, disappearing up the hillside into the night. The sound is different, on a big stage like that, from what you’d hear in the audience. I could barely hear when Charlie turned away from the stage and told the musicians what song we’d be doing next, and then we were launched into a peppy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

I’d never played that, or the other song, either. But luckily, growing up steeped in music, I was familiar with them. I just locked in with Artemis, and away we went.

And then I got the tug; my time was up, and there was yet another drummer waiting to take my spot for the big finale, the closing jam number.

I didn’t get any pictures; it’s hard to photograph and drum at the same time. And all my Nashville press colleagues—from the Tennessean, from the Banner, from Billboard, from the Associated Press—had left early, to beat the traffic, along with most of the publicists who were there. I haven’t, to this day, come across anyone who witnessed me playing drums on the stage with Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But I did.

And for a few minutes, I knew what Charlie Daniels meant, about it being good to be alive, and be in Tennessee—I was alive, in Tennessee, playing drums at an event I’d previously only experienced as a spectator. I was alive, even as the specter of death loomed in the gloomy recesses of Southern rock’s musical soundscape, waiting to pluck more victims. My heartbeat had synched with my drum beat, and I knew exactly what Artemis Pyle would later be talking about, off West End Avenue, over slices of Obie’s Pizza.

I, too, felt like I had the best seat in the house, and in a lot of ways, I always have.

—Neil Pond, March 2023

Third Man Records Marks 14 Years in Nashville

Jack White’s indie boutique label continues to push the envelope for the “experience” of music

The former White Stripes front man opened up Nashville’s Third Man in March 2009.

Ben Swank might not be singing “Happy Birthday” this week, but he’ll be thinking it as Third Man Records marks its 14th year in Nashville.

“It feels like, wow, that went by so fast,” says Swank, who was instrumental in opening the Nashville branch of Third Man in 2009—and he’s been a Nashvillian ever since.

Some nine years earlier, Grammy-winning Detroit rocker Jack White had co-founded the independent, vinyl-centric record label with Swank and Ben Blackwell, his Michigan business partners. “It happens fast when you head down the middle of it.”

From its eclectic headquarters on 7th Ave. South, Third Man has grounded itself in the local music community, pushing the boundaries of what a record company can do and be. It releases records, sure, but it’s much more—a retail store, live-music venue, photo studio, distribution center, publishing company and arthouse cinema. Where else in Nashville can you see a collection of vintage music-machine curiosities, then catch a set by a visiting Scottish indie sensation? It’s the only record company in Nashville where an act can perform, record live and then have vinyl records made—on the spot—in just a matter of hours.

Fans can not only see and hear music, purchase it and be entertained by it, but can experience it in one of Nashville’s coolest, most unique settings, where music isn’t so much a commodity as an organic, ongoing creative process.

“Jack’s philosophy on a lot of things is to find new ways for fans to engage,” says Swank, whose describes his role and responsibilities as Third Man’s consiglieri.

Since its opening, hundreds of artists have plugged in to Third Man in Nashville. There’ve been singer-songwriters, garage bands and punk rockers, but also superstars. U2, Pearl Jam, Conan O’Brien and comedians Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari have performed and recorded there. So has White’s former White Stripes duo partner and ex-wife, Meg. Country’s Margo Price was a Third Man breakout with her critically acclaimed 2016 debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.   

When I connected with him a couple of weeks ago, the consiglieri talked about becoming a Nashvillian, how he hooked up with White, and the big opening night, 14 years ago, that kicked everything off and set the tone for everything that would follow.

How did you meet Jack White?

We met when we were in our early 20s in Toldeo, where I’m from. One of his bands was playing on a bill with some friends of mine. My band played in Detroit [White’s hometown] a lot. We started swapping shows; he produced my band’s first big record. We just kind of became, the way music can bring people together. But more than that, I always thought Jack was an intelligent, natural-born almost bohemian type person, and I’ve always found myself more interested in people like that. I just think we identified with each other a little more than some others in the world. But certainly, music was the first thing that kind of made us friends.

White had already moved to Nashville, in 2005, after producing Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose, her much-hailed comeback album, on which the former White Stripes front man also sang and played guitar. Impressed by the Music City vibe, he decided to open a Nashville branch of Third Man, expanding beyond the company’s original footprint in Detroit and its later setup in London. Swank, working in the London location at the time, and Blackwell, White’s nephew, were tapped to relocate and set up the new operation.  

What were your first impressions of Nashville?

I didn’t know anything about Nashville, and then, here I was. My very first night they took me down to Broadway, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, well, this isn’t me.’ But I put in some time, and almost immediately I started seeing that this is the perfect place for us. I wanted to be in a smaller town, and I was kind of tired of living in a sort of hectic-ness [in London]. Nashville had everything we needed for Third Man; URP, United Pressing Service, who started working with us [making acetates and records] almost immediately, was right down the road from us; [and] there’s so much printing [done] here. It felt very close to what we were trying to do, at start of the onset of the trend of small businesses and farm-to-table restaurants. We wanted to say, “Come in, you can record, take your photos, do all of it in-house, and your records will be made here in Nashville,” A one-stop shop.”

Third Man launched in Nashville on March 11, 2009, with a top-secret grand opening known only to the 100 guests who’d been invited. White debuted his new band, The Dead Weather, which played their very first show in Third Man’s new venue space, the Blue Room.

What do you remember about opening night?

Lots of industry people came to see the debut of Dead Weather. We had already pressed Dead Weather’s first seven-inch [vinyl 45], which was available at the show. All the sleeves were hand-signed by the band. Everyone got an individual piece of photo strip of the band, and each one had a different picture in every frame. I think it immediately set the pace for what we were trying to do. We took everyone’s phones away; they had to immerse themselves in this party, this experience. It was amazing to see people’s minds blown by this new thing that was happening.

Third Man continued to add to the experience of music. In 2013, it introduced the Third Man Record Booth, where fans—or anyone else—could step inside a small space and make an “instant record.” Soon, artists also flocked to the booth; Neil Young recorded a whole album in it; Weezer, Weird Al and Richard Thompson also plugged in to its unique aural ambience.

What other new things did you bring to Third Man after the opening?

We’ve expanded our retail store four times. We bought the building next door to us and combined both into one larger structure. So, we now have distribution in-house now, as well as what we call “soft” merchandising manufacturing—T-shirts, etc. And we added the photo studio, where we hand-develop film and make prints in-house. Our Blue Room is now open for shows five nights a week. We’re a bar that’s open on a near-daily basis. We have 800 releases under our belt at this point, I have a family now and I’m almost 50. It’s fun to look back. We started out as a very small team, and we’ve built a very specific kind of world and culture here.

Especially at first, locals expressed some skepticism about the location chosen for Third Man in Nashville—just across the street from the city’s homeless shelter, a couple of blocks from the Greyhound station, in an industrial zone where businesses mostly buttoned up and shut down after dark.

There were comments about Third Man setting up shop in a spot that some people considered dicey, or even a little dangerous.

It doesn’t bother us. We still hear about that; apparently, it’s a concern for some folks. I think it says a lot more about [them] than us, to be honest. Just because we’re next door to the mission, I don’t think it means anything necessarily bad about the neighborhood. It’s always felt like home to us, and that’s what Jack [wanted]. Since we come from a more sort of industrialized city, it never seemed out of place to us.

What have been some of the highlights and things you’re proudest of?

We have a world record—the fastest record ever made, which we did in front of a live audience; recorded it, pressed it, did the artwork. That was a big thing.

[In 2004, White recorded a pair of new songs in front of a live audience, then took the direct-to-acetate disc to United Record Processing, printed vinyl singles and brought them back to Third Man, immediately, to sell to fans. Elapsed time: just under four hours.]

We put a record in space, Carl Sagan. [Third Man’s 2016 vinyl release of the Cosmos host talking was set to music by composer John Boswell; a gold-plated vinyl copy spun on a turntable, specially designed to function in the deep freeze of high altitudes, attached to a high-altitude balloon that ascended to 94,000 feet]. It sold a lot of copies for us.

We brought countless bands through our doors that hadn’t played in Nashville before or wouldn’t have played here otherwise. We have the only venue in the world where you can play a live show in front of an audience and record direct to acetate, live to a master in real time. The audience can watch that process as it happens, and then buy those albums. That’s something that only exists in Nashville, because of us.

We screen films; we have 16mm projectors and we try to show films that are out of distribution. We do massive poetry events and art shows. We really try to just be part of the culture overall. [Third Man’s publishing imprint has released an array of diverse titles of poetry, fiction and children’s books, including White’s own “We’re Going to Be Friends.”]

There’s been so much over the years. But I think the thing I’m most proud of is really being a part of this community, less about being the “first ones” about anything. More about being a part of what’s special about Nashville, and bringing our own stamp to that, in a very specific Third Man way.

—by Neil Pond

The Mother Church is More Than a Country Club

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium rocks—and rolls out the red carpet for all kinds of music

It’s been around since the World War II era, when it was renamed after the death of the steamboat captain, Tom Ryman, who had it built. But before that, it was a church, the Union Gospel Tabernacle. And for decades, appropriately enough, the Ryman Auditorium has been known as country music’s Mother Church, a nod to its house-of-worship roots as well as its unparalleled prominence as a world-class performance spot. The Grand Ole Opry made the venerated venue its home for 31 years, beginning in 1943.

But this iconic temple for Music City royalty has always been a place for more than country music, says general manager Gary Levy, who’s been in his Ryman role for nearly five years. “We just celebrated our 130th birthday, and part of that was to expand on the idea that we’re much beyond the legacy of country music and the Grand Ole Opry.”

Levy points out that from its earliest days, all kinds of showbiz superstars played at the Ryman—including magician Harry Houdini, Italian opera legend Enrico Caruso, composer and conductor John Philip “Stars and Stripes Forever” Sousa, singing cowboy Roy Rogers, comedian W.C. Fields, silver screen goddess Mae West, jazz crooner Nat King Cole, silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin, and Bob Hope.

And the Ryman wasn’t just known for music. It also hosted political rallies, community events, theatrical productions and ballet. It developed a rarified rep one of America’s most venerated performance spots, for acts of any kind. 

“The Carnegie Hall of the South,” says Levy. “Our philosophy here is all are welcome, and we believe that.”

Just this week, the Ryman received its 14th Pollstar Award, an honor voted by the trade industry publication, as the Theater of the Year.

The Grand Ole Opry still comes home “to roost,” for a series of shows during the winter, and other country stars showcase there at other times throughout the year. Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Ricky Skaggs are no strangers to the Ryman stage.

And other times, the Ryman presents a wholly eclectic and ecumenical lineup, opening its iconic doors in downtown Nashville to U2 front man Bono, flute-playing rapper/singer Lizzo, the Wu-Tang Clan (which made history in 2019 as the first hip-hop act to play the Mother Church), pop star/actor Harry Styles, and former First Lady Michelle Obama (on her book tour).

On March 1, the Ryman will host “Rock the Ryman,” an annual event featuring Nashville artists like Little Big Town, The War & Treaty, Caitlin Smith and Charlie Worsham, all performing music from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees—and continuing to connect the dots between the venue and the long line of non-country artists who’ve taken to the Ryman stage over the decades.

“People feel like they’ve ‘made it’ when they play the Ryman,” he adds, “no matter how big they [already] are.”

Left: The suit worn by James Brown during his appearance at the Ryman is on display as part of the venue’s exhibits of memorabilia from artists who’ve played there.

Is the Ryman haunted???

Is there a ghost in the house at one Nashville’s most revered musical places?

“Many artists and a lot of staff members truly do believe the building is haunted,” says Gary Levy, the GM of the Ryman. “My guess is that, if any concert venue is going to be haunted, it would be this one.”

And why is that?

Maybe it’s haunted by the ghost of Elvis, whose first and only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry was a bit of a disaster; audiences just didn’t know what to make of him and his hip-shaking, but he knew what to make of them—he vowed to never return. And he didn’t…or maybe he did, and he does. Could that be Presley’s otherworldly specter, lurking in the shadows of the balcony, or around the labyrinth of corners and corridors backstage?

Or maybe it’s the ghost of riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, who founded the building—which eventually became the Opry—as a gospel tabernacle? After he died, and the facility was renamed in his honor, the Ryman began getting away from its “spiritual” roots, hosting a variety of entertainers and events. Perhaps Ryman wasn’t too pleased with all the secular sounds and “risqué” performances. It’s about that time that reports of a strange “apparition” began circulating. 

One of the Opry’s earliest stars during its Ryman years was Hank Williams, who met an untimely death, at age 28 in 1953, after mixing drugs and alcohol. What if the Ryman’s “ghost” is the fabled “I Saw the Light” singer, who perhaps grew so fond of rapturous responses from the Opry crowd, he decided to keep coming back, seeking an encore? Ryman staffers have for years recounted episodes of hearing Hank Sr.’s unworldly voice or his songs in the building—with no explanation or source to be found.

Numerous other Opry entertainers met unfortunate early demises, from accidents, overdoses or even murder—including Patsy Cline (plane crash), Stringbean Akeman (killed during a robbery) and Dottie West (automobile accident…on the way to play Opry, after it moved to its “new” home at Opryland). Maybe they’re just hanging out at a place that they just weren’t ready to depart.

There’s also the legend of the “Grey Man,” believed to be one of the Confederate soldiers who visited the venue after the War Between the States was over; he’s sometimes been “seen” sitting in the balcony, as if waiting for another show to start. Another spooky school of thought concerns “The Lady,” a recurring female apparition specifically believed to be Patsy Cline.

Levy says he’s heard things from some clearly “spooked” Ryman employees. “Sometimes they’ll see something, or someone, when the building is otherwise completely empty,” he says. “Maybe it’s late at night, after a show, and they’ll notice the stage curtain fluctuating, or what they think is someone standing behind it. Or they think they notice in someone in a place where there should be no one.”

While Levy hasn’t seen any of that himself, he won’t go so far as dismissing it. “I have never personally experienced anything,” he says. “But I’m not [going] to discount anything either. There’s a lot of things out there we don’t know about, and I respect the opinions of everyone who believes it might be haunted. Who are we to say if it is, or it isn’t?”

—Neil Pond

Tagged , ,

Past Present

Janelle Monáe reminds us in this double-edged slave drama that the painful scars of America’s “original sin” are still very much with us


Starring Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston and Jena Malone
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
On Demand Sept. 18, 2020

On the poster, the title treatment for Antebellum has the second “e” turned around, facing backward.

That’s because the movie has a twist, a major turn, that makes it something more than just another “slave drama.”

The film opens with a quote from Mississippi’s late, great, Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” That concept is not only central to the story, it rings with timely relevance in this summer’s highly charged climate of racial reckoning and reawakening.

Janelle Monáe, when we first meet her, is Eden, a slave on a Louisiana plantation overseen by the vile Capt. Jasper (Jack Huston) and the sadistic Confederate general (Eric Lange) who literally brands Eden as his private property.

Things are brutally bad, as you can imagine, on the plantation. The young Rebel troops stationed there are like drunken frat boys, there’s a strict no-talking rule for the slaves, and you don’t even want to know about the horrors of “the shed.” Eden and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), a male slave, whisper desperate plans of a breakout and a getaway…

But about midway through the movie, we meet another character, and she’s also played by Monáe—waking up with her husband, greeting a bright, sunny day in their modern suburban Virginia townhouse. She’s Veronica Henley, a best-selling author and sociologist and somewhat of a media celebrity for speaking about the disenfranchisement of Blacks in America and the inequities of “historically marginalized people.”


Monáe as Victoria Henley, with her daughter (London Boyce).

When her daughter asks her about all those big words, Veronica uses an anecdote about playmates, anger and fear, and tells her little one that “things are not always what they appear to be.”

And neither is Antebellum what it appears to be, certainly at first. How does it put together Monáe’s two characters, and these two jarringly different situations? Is it a terrible dream, a living nightmare, a rip in the fabric of space and time? I won’t tell. But I will tell you that you’re in for a wild, galloping ride, kind of like The Twilight Zone crossed with D’jango Unchained, with some bona fide surprises and a few painfully difficult moments to watch.

Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who also wrote the original screenplay, have made a “message” movie that means to remind viewers of the cruelty of slavery, America’s “original sin,” while driving home the point that the wretched system of warped beliefs and twisted ideology in which slavery was rooted, like Faulkner’s “past,” isn’t really dead—or even really past, after all.

Monáe, who came to most moviegoers’ attention in Hidden Figures and Moonlight (both 2016), creates a character for whom we can cheer. Huston, the grandson of iconic Hollywood filmmaker/actor John Huston, has a somewhat trickier task, as a strutting, sneering villain with no redeemable qualities. But he plunges into it with gusto. Jenna Malone (Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games franchise) slathers on the Southern-drawl sauce just a little thick, however, chewing her scenes—as the detestable plantation madam—into pulpy B-movie puree.

But first-time feature-filmmakers Bush and Renz, unfortunately, don’t quite seem to yet have the finesse to pull things off without a few hitches. Characters are mostly one-dimensional, the moon is always full (and totally fake-looking), and a glimpse of a reveal during the end credits makes you question the very premise of, well, the whole movie.

Antebellum was originally slated to be released in theaters, in April, but the COVID-19 crisis pushed off its date and its circumstances until now. The timing may make it even more meaningful. Since April, of course, the nation has reeled and roiled from protests sparked by police killings of Black people, a powerful renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls to end systemic racism and intensified scrutiny on the symbols of the Confederacy—particularly its flag and its monuments—as emblems of hate. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently predicted that the greatest terrorism threat to America in 2021 will come from white supremacy.


A fiery conclusion.

Even the word antebellum, which literally means “before a war,” became so culturally toxic—because of its particular connection to the South, slavery and the Civil War—that the hitmaking country group Lady Antebellum dropped it from their name, becoming simply Lady A. You may recall that the Dixie Chicks, with similar sentiments, are now just the Chicks.

So, slavery, racism and America’s deep-rooted heritage of hate are hot topics all over again, particularly right now, and this movie turns up the heat even hotter.

A Confederate flag and a big ol’ statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee become significant, supremely ironic props. A cell phone rings at a most bewildering moment. And a little girl in a hotel elevator will creep you out, almost like one of the twins from The Shining.

You’ll get the double meaning when Eden tells a dying Confederate officer to “Open your eyes!” She’s not just talking to him in his final gasping moments, but to anyone who might need a jolting reminder, about a society erected on white supremacy and the evil of outright ownership of another group of humans.

Antebellum is about a horrific world “before the war” that never quite ended when the smoke of the battlefield cleared, and about how the past has a way of marching right into the present. This double-edge slave story  will twist you around, turn you backward and open your eyes to the scars of racism that are still painfully, awfully real, wrenchingly raw—and very much with us still, today.

Bombs Away

Gripping new doc commemorates the explosive 75th anniversary of the end of WWII

Apocalypse 45_ss2
Apocalypse ’45
Directed by Erik Nelson

On Aug 14., 1945, the fighting in World War II came to an end.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 2, on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor, it was official, and Japanese officials signed their country’s unconditional surrender, bringing the global conflict to a close after four gruesome and exhausting years.

Apocalypse ’45 recounts the final year of the bloody conflict in the Pacific, where Japan—even after Germany had already surrendered, months earlier—vowed to continue to fight to their last man, woman and child, even though they knew the war was lost.

This quite remarkable film brings the final year of the Pacific conflict “alive” with newly restored materials from the National Archives, most of it never before seen, and the enhancement of new sound effects. And it becomes especially monumental and moving, on the week of 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, with its use of voices of actual U.S. military veterans who served in the Pacific.

The number of living World War II veterans is dwindling nearly every day, but director Erik Nelson found 24 men whose words provide a first-person, you-are-there narrative of war from the people who were in the middle of it—the sailors and soldiers and airmen, who recall vicious ground combat at Okinawa, terrifying suicide blitzes by Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the victorious, iconic flag raising after the hell-on-Earth campaign to take of the island of Iwo Jima.

Saving Private Ryan? Full Metal Jacket? Dunkirk? 1917? Apocalypse Now? All great war movies, sure. But not in the same league as this—because this is about as real as a war movie gets.

Taps (John Ford Image) (72)The veterans talk about being frightened, about watching their buddies get blown to bits, and about being young men, sent to the other side of the world on a do-or-die, kill-or-be-killed mission—against an enemy who was fully prepared give up his life in order to take their’s. The interviews provide the film’s dramatic foundation as we watch scenes of brutal combat and carnage, sailors on aircraft carriers and battleships, dangerous and deadly aerial dogfights and, ultimately, the devastation of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, which killed some 150,000 men, women and children. Another bomb, dropped on the city of Nagasaki, finally led to the end of the Japanese resistance less than a month later.

Ah yes, the bomb. The specter of the bomb frames the movie; the film begins with a prelude about the bomb, and it then marches steadily toward the war’s concluding chapter. It wants us to think long and hard about the atomic bomb, America’s original weapon of mass destruction. Military officials knew it would level the entire city and kill countless civilians; the movie notes that its use was not without controversy. Newsreel footage by an American medical team, taken in Hiroshima the following year, shows the ghastly after-effects.

The bomb ended the war—and started the so-called “nuclear arms race,” an era in which many wary nations worried about which other nation might drop the next atomic device. As one veteran notes, “It put us in the position of, ‘We’ve dropped an atomic bomb,’ so now anyone else in the world can drop an atomic bomb.” The end of WWII ushered in the beginning of a new era, an era of even more potential destruction and existential dread, an even wider Armageddon.

The film opens with the words of someone talking, then singing a 16th century Japanese ballad, an ode to peace. We find out his name is Itsei Nakagawa, and that in 1945 he was a Japanese teenager trapped in Hiroshima with his family the day the city was obliterated. We meet him again, at the close of the film.

Iowa Jima vets at WWII Museum.

Iwo Jima vets at WWII Museum.

The movie never otherwise identifies its two dozen narrators—at least not until the end, when they’re all introduced individually, telling us who they are, when and where they served, and finally appearing side-by-side with vintage photos from their military youth. It’s one of the film’s most poignant segments.

Director Nelson, a frequent collaborator of noted German filmmaker Werner Herzog, has an esteemed pedigree as a documentary producer and director. He produced Grizzly Man (2005), about an Alaskan grizzly bear activist, which swept film festival awards; and he combed through some 15 hours of “lost” Hollywood film footage for his 2018 HBO documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, about the B-17 bombers of World War II.

With Apocalypse ’45, he’s made a gripping, emotional snapshot of history and heroism that honors the greatest day of World War II—the day it ended—and a precious handful of the men who made it possible. A stately, somber reminder of the soul-scarring god-awfulness of war and its catastrophic consequences, it’s also a heartfelt salute to those who answered the call of something much bigger than themselves.

“We all had different religions, different faiths, different political positions,” one vet tells us at the beginning of the film. “But the most important thing of all was being American. We were unified in that. That gave us strength. We were one in those days.”

As we remember those days, 75 years ago this summer, Apocalypse ’45 is a powerful reminder of a war that changed the world—and the men who helped bring it to an eventful end, and lived to tell the tale.

In select virtual theaters Aug. 15, and Sept. 2 on the Discovery Channel

Freedom Fighter

From postage stamp to the big screen…and it’s about damn time.


Starring Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn & Janelle Monáe
Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Maybe you’ve seen her on a postage stamp. Now you can watch her on a movie screen.

Harriet is the first major theatrical biopic about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed herself as well as hundreds of her fellow slaves, led an armed regimen in the Civil War and became an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.

British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance as Tubman, who was born into slavery—as Araminta “Minty” Ross—on a Maryland plantation. When her sadistic young master (Joe Alwyn, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Favourite) separates Minty and her husband (Zackary Momoh), she knows she’s about to be sold “down the river,” to the deeper South and a much harsher life, one from which she’ll certainly never return. So she makes a daring dash for freedom, 100 miles across the border to the north and Philadelphia.

Joe Alwyn

It’s a perilous, arduous journey, but Minty makes it, indeed, following the beacon-like light of the North Star, staying ahead of baying, scent-sniffing bloodhounds and trusting in her steadfast faith. At one point, she jumps off a bridge into the rushing waters of the Delaware River, rather than surrender to slave hunters who’ve hemmed her in on both sides. “I’m gon’ be free or die,” she defiantly proclaims, plunging over the side.

That’s how the movie begins, in 1849, but—of course—there’s much more to come.

In Pennsylvania, black abolitionist organizer William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) takes Minty under his wing, and she’s given room, board and a paying job by a glamourous free-born black boardinghouse proprietor (Janelle Monáe). Told that many former slaves shed their old names and take new ones to reflect their newfound freedom, Minty gladly does so, joining together her mother’s first and her husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman.

After a few months, she begins to feel alone, especially when she thinks about all the people still living in misery, hardship and fear in the South. But it surprises everyone when Tubman says she’s going to do the unthinkable: leave the safety of her own freedom and begin making secretive return trips to bring back other slaves, starting with members of her family.

“We’re gonna need a bigger cart,” says Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a scrappy young free black Maryland wheeler-dealer dandy who comes aboard to help Tubman’s cause. Eventually, Tubman’s plucky raids siphon so many slaves off her former plantation that it drives the manor’s toxically racist Southern-belle matriarch (country singer Jennifer Nettles) toward a nervous breakdown.

The rest is history, as they say, and the movie does a stirring job of depicting the unbridled heroism of one of America’s real heroes. There’s simply no one who did anything like Tubman did, risking her life repeatedly, putting herself in harm’s way time after time for others, committing herself to a fiercely audacious lifetime loop of extraordinary courage, bravery and flinty resolve.

Director and cowriter Kasi Lemmons (whose previous work includes Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity and Talk to Me) tends to lapse at times into some clumsy, distracting craftsmanship—like jarring, confusing, black-and-white flashbacks, and swells of soundtrack music that rush in to flood scenes with emotional cues instead of letting what’s happening onscreen hammer the drama home. But those are minor criticisms for such a major moviemaking milestone.


Cynthia Erivo isn’t exactly a marquee name, but she’s already won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy—all for her starring role in The Color Purple on Broadway—and appeared in the movies Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Harriet makes great use of her tremendous singing talent by integrating it into scenes that show how songs were part of the fabric of slave communities, and how Tubman sang as “code” to communicate.

The movie also shows how Harriet “communicates” with God—or at least thinks she does. Were her fainting spells really some mystical kind of divine premonitions, blackout moments during which she received heavenly direction and instruction? Or were they the results of long-term, seizure-like brain damage from getting her skull cracked open by a cruel plantation master as a child? The movie never takes a definitive side, but it does depict Tubman as righteously, rigidly religious, unwavering in her belief that something from above was literally guiding her life below.

On her first exuberant footsteps into freedom, across the open border to Pennsylvania, her chaperone—a gentle Dutch farmer—asks if she’d like him to accompany her. No need, she says, “I walk with the Lord.”

While not as intense in its depiction of the atrocities of slavery as 12 Years a Slave (2013), Harriet pointedly reminds us again of the wretchedness of an institution that—once upon a time in America, and not so long ago—legalized the treatment of a group of people as property that could be bought, sold, starved, beaten, abused, even killed.

And it reminds us of the amazing, intensely inspiring accomplishments of a woman who’s already made her mark in the history books—and, since 1978, on postage stamps. (But in 2017, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot down plans to put her on the $20 bill.) Some things take time, as Harriet Tubman knew—maybe a lifetime, maybe even more. But Tubman’s remarkable achievements will live forever, and Harriet finally, fittingly frames her story in the big, oversized Hollywood dimensions it has long deserved.

“God has shown me the future,” Tubman decrees. “And my people are free!

Amen to that!

In theaters Nov. 1, 2019

Forged in Fire

Hollywood loves heroes, and this film offers up a real-life pantheon

Josh Brolin;James Badge Dale

Only the Brave
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly & Taylor Kitsch
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

When I was a tyke, I had a Little Golden Book and a record about Smokey the Bear, the forest-fire-prevention mascot who could “find a fire before it starts to flame.”

There’s a bear at the very beginning of Only the Brave, but it’s certainly not Smokey—it’s a blazing, charging beast made out of fire itself, barreling through a hellish nightmare of burning trees.

That bear of fire haunts the dreams of Eric Marsh (James Brolin), the grizzled supervisor of a group of elite firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Marsh calls the burning bear “the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

The beautiful, terrible specter of fire hangs heavy over this rousing true tale, which recounts the heroic exploits of the Prescott firefighters, which lost 19 of its 20-member crew while battling a 2013 wildfire northwest of Phoenix, near the town of Yarnell. It became one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

Hollywood loves heroes, and Only the Brave—based on a magazine article in GQ—offers up a real-life pantheon, one made even more timely and resonant by the wildfires currently ravaging California. Director Joseph Kosinski spends most of his movie building the story of the men who made up the Hotshots, how they became a tight-knit team and the matter-of-fact business of fighting fire. We know the tragic event, which defined the Hotshots’ legacy, is coming—but before it does, there are other fires to put out, in the mountains and at home.

Josh Brolin;Jennifer Connelly

Josh Brolin & Jennifer Connelly

We get to know the firefighters mainly through a handful of central characters in its larger ensemble cast. Brolin has seasoned into a fine actor in almost any role, and he plays supervisor Marsh with a mix of toughness and weariness that reflects the years he’s put into a dangerous, taxing, extremely physical job. The toll it continues to take on his relationship with his wife, Andrea (an outstanding Jennifer Connelly), is obvious.

“Do your John Wayne thing,” she tells him before he packs up once again to head into the hills and face down the fire he calls “the bitch.”

Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a pot-puffing stoner screw-up who enlists with the Hotshots in a last-ditch effort to get his life in gear after he finds out he got a girl pregnant (Natalie Hall—she was young Colby Chandler on All My Children 2009-2011) and he’s about to become a father. The others playfully haze him as the rookie, calling him “Puke” and “Donut,” but he eventually earns their acceptance and their respect.

Taylor Kitsch;Miles Teller

Miles Teller & Taylor Kitsch

Taylor Kitsch plays Christopher McKenzie, whose hapless search for a girlfriend becomes a running joke. As the Prescott fire chief, Jeff Bridges gets to flex his musical mojo in a nightclub scene by singing the classic cowboy chestnut “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Director Kosinski, who demonstrated his expansive visual flair in the sci-fi flicks Tron Legacy (also with Jeff Bridges) and Oblivion (with Tom Cruise), also finds the spellbinding imagery throughout this emotional, character-driven story. Fire races across a mountainside, like an invading army. Blazing trees tumble off a cliff, then explode in flashes of sparks and cinders. A lone deer runs alongside a wall of flame, looking for an escape route. A helicopter hovers in super slo-mo above a swimming pool, siphoning out water. Firefighters in gear move through the trees with military-like precision, looking like a centipede inching its way along.

And the movie shows the hard, dirty work and tools of the trade that go into firefighting—it’s a lot of digging, chopping, cutting and clearing. And much of it is “fighting fire with fire,” setting smaller fires to rob a bigger fire of fuel. But all of it involves putting lives on the line and working in the danger zone, a place where a shift of the wind or a change in temperature can mean destruction—or death.

“There are lots of other things you could do that aren’t so dangerous,” Brendan’s mom tells him.

Indeed there are.

Hollywood loves heroes, and we’re told they’re made, not born. And as this moving, heart-tugging movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots reminds us, sometimes they’re forged by fire.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017

Courting Justice

Chadwick Boseman plays a young Supreme Court Justice-to-be


Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Marshall’

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens & Kate Hudson
Directed by Reginald Hudlin

For black history, Chadwick Boseman is becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy.

In 42, he starred as Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play pro baseball. He was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get on Up. In February, he’ll step into the spotlight as Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black superhero to get his own movie.

And he puts the Marshall in Marshall as Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, in one of the early defining cases of his career.

We meet Thurgood in the early 1940s as a young attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. in Hugo, Okla., dispatched to Bridgeport, Conn., to represent a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown from TV’s This Is Us), accused of raping and attempting to murder a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson).


Kate Hudson

As an out-of-state attorney, Marshall must enlist the aid of a local lawyer—a legal technicality—in order to work the case. He partners with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a whiz at insurance and accident cases but zero experience in criminal law.

This being the 1940s, and the case being a “negro” accused of “ravishing” a white woman, the climate in Bridgeport isn’t exactly welcoming to Thurgood. The crusty judge (James Cromwell) begrudgingly allows Marshall to accompany Friedman in the courtroom, but bans him from speaking, arguing or examining witnesses.

After early years of forgettable movie comedies (unless you count Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang or Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man as milestones—and I’m guessing you won’t) and later TV, director Reginald Hudlin makes his first big-screen drama in a fairly old-school, traditional mode. Marshall is essentially a courtroom showdown, with the story spinning around the odd-couple pairing of Boseman and Gad’s characters, the difficult circumstances in which they have to work and the high-pitched racial tensions and prejudice of the times.

And of course, the question: Did Joseph Spell do it?

There are flashbacks and recreations, from various characters’ points of view. Both Thurgood and Friedman—who is Jewish—are harassed by local thugs. Marshall gathers evidence and, as Friedman’s “silent partner,” gives him a crash course in the basics of criminal law and courtroom procedure.


Dan Stevens

Legion TV star Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, plays a real-life “beast,” a smarmy defense attorney. Keesha Sharp (Trisha Murtaugh on TV’s Lethal Weapon) is Marshall’s supportive wife, Buster. And fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as the Chicago P.D./Med/Justice franchise, will recognize Sophia Bush, who plays police detective Erin Lindsay in all those shows. She has one scene as a woman in a bar who provides Thurgood with an observation that becomes a case breakthrough.

The movie looks handsome and polished, but the production values are just a little too tidy. The automobiles all appear to be restoration-shiny, and everyone is dressed to the nines, like they just came…well, from the wardrobe department. Nothing about Marshall really looks or feels lived-in.

And modern audiences, with appetites primed by violent, graphic, gory TV crime procedurals, might not have the patience for the more stately, dignified pace of Marshall. It’s closer to Perry Mason than How to Get Away With Murder.

Brown gives a powerful standout performance as Spell, a character who becomes the heart and soul of what the movie is truly about—a black man seeking justice in a white man’s world, in the grinding gears of a white man’s system, and fearing for his life, no matter what he says. The film’s resonance today with themes of racial division and ugly displays of hate and bigotry are impossible to miss.

Can a black man get a fair trial with an all-white jury in Bridgeport, a gaggle of white reporters asks Marshall. Can blacks expect to treated fairly at all? “The Constitution was not written for us,” Marshall tells them. “But we’re gonna make it work for us.”

In one scene, Marshall counsels Spell about a plea deal he’s been offered, in a conversation couched in a discussion about the slavery in both their family’s pasts. Spell recounts a moving story about his grandfather fighting for his freedom, and Thurgood spurs him to never stop fighting himself.

“We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before,” Marshall tells him. “We’ve got the law.”

During Marshall’s 24-year tenure at the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1967, he would argue more than 30 cases, prevailing in all but three. This feel-good biopic reminds us of a formative chapter in the life of a lifelong crusader—for civil rights and justice, for African Americans and all—who never gave up the fight.

In theaters Oct. 13, 2017


Fly Boy

Tom Cruise soars as real-life drug-smuggling, gun-running aviator 

Film Title: American Made

American Made
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson & Sarah Wright
Directed by Doug Liman

The sky… that smile… those sunglasses—Tom Cruise is flying again!

Three decades after playing swaggering Navy ace “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, the actor once chosen as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (1995) is back, climbing into the danger zone in this comedy-drama based on the real life of a former TWA pilot who became involved with a South American drug cartel in the 1980s.

Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, works as covert operative for the CIA, runs guns to fighters in Nicaragua, smuggles cocaine for the Mendellín Cartel, trains Contras in Arkansas and eventually ferries home so many bags, satchels and suitcases bulging with cash that he literally runs out of places to hide them.

Seal was a bit player in a much bigger governmental shell game of collusion, intervention and South American involvement, spanning eight years and two administrations, that eventually culminated in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

“Is all this legal?” he asks his cryptic CIA contact, who goes the name of Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).

Film Title: American Made

Domhnall Gleeson

“If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him with a shrug. “Just don’t get caught.”

It’s a wild and crazy tale, and Cruise is perfect for the role of Seal—brash, carefree, cocky, confident, “the youngest pilot in TWA history” when he’s plucked from the cramped cockpit of his commercial airliner and offered the opportunity to do something exciting, secretive, dangerous and potentially lucrative “for your country.”

Seal’s real-life saga isn’t necessary a funny one—he did, after all, create and maintain a major pipeline for cocaine into the United States and played a role in international political meddling that cost many lives. But American Made finds the dark humor in the absolute absurdity of his unique situation, as an individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time—and who embraced it for all it was worth.

As played by Cruise, Seal is like an impossibly handsome, incredibly lucky Forrest Gump, moving from scenario to scenario, intersecting with characters who’ll later show up in the news (Panamanin dictator Manual Noriega, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar). He juggles home life with his wife (Sarah Wright) and two young daughters with his increasingly frenzied governmental skullduggery and his own lucrative sideline smuggling operations.

And he gets filthy rich doing it—until his luck eventually runs out.

Film Title: American Made“Hot damn!” he says. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world!”

Director Doug Liman, whose previous films include The Edge of Tomorrow—also starring Cruise—and The Bourne Identity, keeps things crisp, concise and crackling. He uses a mixture of techniques, including cartoon animation and narration by Seal (Cruise), to tie the sprawling pieces of the story together. And he pays attention to details that remind you this tale came from the 1970s and ’80s. Seals does business with high stacks of quarters from banks of pay phones. When a character purchases a new used car, it’s a dinky Gremlin X. Soundtrack tunes (The Allman Brothers’ One Way Out, Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, George Harrison’s Wah Wah) help set the retro mood, and the movie’s color pallet recalls the super-saturated yellows, greens and blues of Kodachrome.

Jesse Plemons plays a small-town sheriff who gets a whiff of Seals and his operation, but his part seems either underwritten, or greatly reduced in editing—to squeeze into the movie’s crammed second half, when several new characters are introduced. As Seals’ wife, Wright is given little to do, which matches the skimpy wardrobe (negligee and cut-off shorty-short jeans) she’s given to wear. If the film’s trying to make any kind of statement—about governmental collusion and corruption, amoral scoundrels on both sides of the border, greed or whatever—it doesn’t really leave that impression.

But Cruise sure does—a movie star soaring high and back in his element in this feverishly upbeat film frolic about a footnote figure in a shady chapter of American history.

In theaters Sept. 29, 2017