The final scene of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville belongs to the transient wannabe singer Albuquerque, played by the late Barbara Harris. Up to that point, the storyline has followed numerous musician characters who are striving to get discovered or bolster their existing stardom but give little consideration to what they’re actually capable of offering the world as performers. They’re ultimately brought together by a rally for a populist political candidate. After one of the headliners, the beloved country queen Barbara Jean, is gunned down on stage, her injured duet partner Haven Hamilton is led away pleading for someone else to step up and sing. None of the other big-name performers on the bill seem immediately up to the task, so the microphone lands in the hands of Albuquerque, whose torn pantyhose and miniskirt fashioned from quilt scraps make for shabby, unprofessional-looking stage attire next to what even the bohemian acts are wearing.
She seizes her chance,
timidly at first, as though she’s singing to herself and expecting to be shooed
off at any moment, then grows more emphatic. “C’mon, everybody sing!” she
implores. As she sings harder, her shoulders jerk with the effort of forcing
air out of her chest. She reverses a familiar display of appreciation between
audience and performer; instead of receiving a bouquet from an adoring fan, she
scoops up individual roses, previously cradled in the arms of Barbara Jean and
now strewn around the stage, and tosses them to the crowd.
Just as notable as the
riveting way that Harris plays Albuquerque’s in-the-spotlight transformation is
the character’s actual delivery of the song “It Don’t Worry Me.” Her phrasing
is slurred and slippery, and her wild, fluttery vibrato darts around like a
deflating balloon, hitting the occasional curdled note. The approach is far
closer to Janis Joplin’s caught-up blues-rock wailing than the rock-conversant
female country voices who were enjoying success around the time the movie came
out (see: Tanya Tucker), and considerably more unhinged than the
singing of Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakley, who displays emotional
fragility but performs with the composure of a soft-rocking folkie.
There were numerous layers
to what was captured on camera, most of them intended, like the chaotic, collaged effect of Altman’s ingenious
technique of sweeping across a panorama of disconnected dialogue. But he may not have foreseen all the ways
that his musical and directorial choices would interact with Nashville’s
musical conventions. Regardless, it all contributed to the significance and
complexity of the final document. Throughout the film, the songs serve as a
narrative device, helping flesh out characters’ perspectives, moving the
storyline along and steadying it.
“Altman had a provocative way of wading directly into the cultural tension between country music and folk.”
The narrative around the making of the film, promoted in advance of its release, was that the members of the cast were songwriting novices who’d composed the tunes for their characters to sing, like a musical application of method acting. It’s become evident over the years that that was a somewhat less than accurate portrayal of how the soundtrack came together, but the authorship of the material has never been in question. Blakley was already a minor player in the West Coast folk-rock scene by the early ’70s, keeping company with the likes of Joni Mitchell. She was acquainted with the film’s musical director, composer Richard Baskin, who planned to sell some of her songs to Altman, then had her cast as the lead when the original actress left the project. When Keith Carradine casually strummed through his completed songs “I’m Easy” and “It Don’t Worry Me” at a party during the filming of another Altman movie, Thieves Like Us, they caught the director’s attention and became early ingredients in the concept of Nashville.
Contemporary film and television projects depicting anything remotely resembling country music careers customarily enlist songwriters and producers from Nashville’s community of professionals. To varying degrees, that happened with the movies Crazy Heart and Country Strong, the primetime soap Nashville and even the new version of A Star Is Born, which technically isn’t a country flick so much as a tale of rock decline and pop ascension. It’s expedient to work with those skilled at writing and recording the music that the filmmakers want as their backdrop. It can confer a certain legitimacy on a project too, not to mention ensure the cooperation and support of those who feel that they have a stake in the music industry’s representation, as the TV show Nashville demonstrated. So warm was its embrace among city boosters that framed posters of its central characters were hung on the boardroom walls at the Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and some of the show’s singing actors have appeared in marketing clips.
While Altman elected to sprinkle real-deal country pickers throughout his film—in one scene, the fiddler Vassar Clements is cheered by name as he launches into a solo; in another, it’s the steel guitarist Weldon Myrick—he turned exclusively to Baskin and the emerging folkies and dabbling songwriters in his Hollywood cast for material. Even though it was obvious that realism wasn’t what Altman was going for, hearing satirical slices of blinkered patriotism and literalistic rural sentimentality delivered by country outsiders left some Music Row pros feeling like their life’s work was viewed as amateurish. Following the film’s local premiere, Larry Gatlin, the leader of a popular country-gospel family group, allowed that “the acting was superb” but groused that “the songs were horrible.” The displeasure wasn’t entirely lost on Altman, who wryly interpreted the complaints in an interview decades later. When they said, “They should’ve used real songs,” he explained, stifling a mischievous grin, “[W]hat they meant [was] we should’ve used their songs.” Still, sociologist Richard Lloyd, who teaches at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, has suggested that the filmmaker may not have fully grasped the degree to which his decisions discounted the specialized skills that went into country music-making.
Altman had a provocative way of wading directly into the cultural tension between country music, a supposedly lowbrow and crassly commercial form, and folk, associated with both the well-heeled, academic bent of the urban folk revival and the elevated expression of the confessional singer-songwriter world. Upon arriving in Nashville, the New York folk trio Bill, Mary and Tom see their record displayed at an airport kiosk and inquire how well it’s selling, only to be informed rather dismissively that it’s the country LPs that are popular there. The manipulative, smooth-talking organizer of a campaign rally for the presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker cozies up to country talent by dismissing Hollywood types as “eccentric, crazy communists” and flatters the folkies by implying that they’ll save the event from “country crapola.”
“What’s presented as a momentous musical moment is really the equivalent of a shrug.”
“It Don’t Worry Me” makes its first appearance in the film as a shambling folk-rock number from Bill, Mary and Tom’s repertoire that Tom, played by Carradine, listens to in his hotel room. Later, an otherwise quietly attentive club audience spontaneously breaks into the chorus in anticipation as the trio takes the stage. Then there’s Albuquerque’s rendition, performed for a much larger and more distracted audience.
The song’s chain of ownership is surprisingly plausible; it wasn’t at all uncommon for tunes that singer-songwriters claimed as original, idiosyncratic works to be reinterpreted for the masses by country acts. Peel back another layer, and “It Don’t Worry Me” gets even more interesting. Carradine has said that he was inspired to write the song by Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North, in which he was cast as the young, train-hopping sidekick of Lee Marvin’s hobo character. The lyrics bear that out: “They say this train don’t give out rides / Well, it don’t worry me.” Carradine delivers them with a sense of woozy, vaudevillian mischief, accentuating the lackadaisical outlook of living outside the system. That’s very different from the sort of laidback attitude likely to show up in stone country songs, which may voice contentment with a slow pace but are likely to pair that sentiment with pride in the hard work that makes such a life possible.
With Albuquerque’s performance, Harris adds additional wrinkles. She seems to assuage her personal worries, then pick up steam and modulate to ever higher keys, a dynamic tool that ratchets up emotion. On hand to accompany a different singer, the berobed Fisk Jubilee Singers, who specialize in stately renditions of African-American spirituals, reluctantly lend gospely support. And there, in the wake of an assassination, a breezy little ditty becomes a palliative anthem. What’s presented as a momentous musical moment is really the equivalent of a shrug. Like so many other artful inversions in the film—a ceremonious yet blinkered tribute to the American bicentennial committed to tape in the opening scene; a multi-car pile-up on the interstate that devolves into a convivial gathering of people of wildly different social statuses; a galvanizing political candidate who never actually shows his face and seems to exist as a cipher—this final sequence leaves viewers to sit with the question of how moving the masses is different from simply distracting them.