BOOTLEG FILES 433: “Nashville Now” (1983-93 television series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces are scattered all over YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Some comedy segments have been gathered for an indie DVD label.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There ain’t enough money for music clearance rights.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is highly unlikely.
Unless you are rabid country music fanatic, there is a very good chance that you’ve never heard of a television series called “Nashville Now.” Between 1983 and 1993, this program was the gem of The Nashville Network’s line-up, and it has been credited with launching the careers of several major singers.
“Nashville Now” was broadcast live on weeknights from Opryland USA in Nashville. The program vaguely resembled the set-up of “The Tonight Show,” with a host seated behind a desk, guest stars seated on a couch to the host’s right, and a studio band providing the musical interludes and cues. However, that’s where the resemblance ended.
Rather than present a Johnny Carson-style comic host, “Nashville Now” relied on veteran country music broadcaster Ralph Emery to helm the show. Emery was a genial presence that managed to keep the conversation flowing with his guests, and he effortlessly waded into the studio audience to harvest questions and chat from those in attendance. When errors occasionally occurred during the live broadcast, Emery was quick-witted enough to patch over the blunders and keep the show moving. For example, in one episode a band musician wearing a bear costume (for whatever reason) screwed up his cue card reading of a commercial introduction – Emery watched the mess with bemusement and announced to the audience, “We’ve got a stupid bear!”
Since the program was on The Nashville Network, its focus was naturally aimed at the city’s music industry. Yet most of the legends of country music only made rare appearances on “Nashville Now” – this is understandable, since these stars had already achieved crossover success and could easily snag couch space with Johnny Carson or any mainstream television show.
But the absence of the reigning legends gave an opportunity for up-and-coming performers to find an audience. Emery would claim that outside of the Grand Ole Opry, “Nashville Now” helped provide the first national exposure to a new wave of country singers. Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, The Judds, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood were among the most prominent performers to secure their first major spotlight time via the program. Sometimes, however, stardom did not quite happen in the first go-round – Randy Travis was still performing as Randy Ray and working as a short-order cook when he made his initial (and somewhat less-than-thrilling) appearance on “Nashville Now.”
“Nashville Now” also offered valuable airtime to older, second-tier singers who were no longer receiving radio play, but who nonetheless enjoyed some degree of name recognition. Thus, the likes of Roy Clark, Dottie West and Doug Kershaw were regular guests on “Nashville Now,” where Emery treated them like visiting royalty.
There was even a place on the program for country-style comedy – which, admittedly, is an acquired taste, y’all. Funnymen like Mike Snider, The Geezinslaws and Williams and Ree frequently brought their Dixie-fried humor along, and the cast of “Mayberry RFD” held a reunion on “Nashville Now.” Also making numerous appearances was Shotgun Red, a cowboy puppet operated by Steve Hall. Shotgun Red played Emery as the straight man for a series of harmless comic routines – though, often, the puppet seemed intrusive and obnoxious rather than amusing.
But even with all of this input, “Nashville Now” still faced the problem of filling five one-hour shows every week. To overcome this problem, the program occasionally put its country roots on the backburner and invited non-Nashville talent. Several long-in-the-tooth rockers from the 1960s, including Dion and the Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith), turned up as guests. One of the most peculiar guest appearances was comic actor Fred Berry, who performed a song in which pleaded to be recognized as himself and not as his Rerun character from the sitcom “What’s Happening!!”
In 1992, “Nashville Now” wound up in the political spotlight when President George H.W. Bush turned up as a guest. Not to be outdone, the Democratic challengers Bill Clinton and Al Gore made a joint appearance on the show. (Third party candidate Ross Perot was, for whatever reason, not on the program.)
For all of the commotion and tunes being generated, one might imagine that “Nashville Now” provided an endless skein of classic television moments. Alas, that was not the case. With the right mix of guests, the program could be an entertaining diversion – there were never any knock-your-socks-off moments, but it was always fun to see beloved singers delivering the goods. But too often, many of the guests only offered so-so numbers, and some of the best singers proved to be inadequate raconteurs – which made “Nashville Now” a bit dreary when the music stopped and the prerequisite talk show conversations began.
Yet the show – perhaps by default, if not design – proved popular with American country music fans. Emery claims the show had a viewing audience of 60 million by its tenth anniversary. But its tenth year also proved to be its last. For no good reason, “Nashville Now” hosted its final show on October 15, 1993, in San Antonio, Texas, instead of Opryland USA. The Nashville Network would fade into the broadcasting void shortly afterwards – the channel jettisoned its country music roots when it was rebranded The National Network in 1998 and Spike in 2003.
There has never been a DVD anthology of “Nashville Now” episodes. Obviously, the challenge in clearing music and performance rights would be an expensive nightmare. There is an independent DVD label release offering a series of comedy clips featuring Emery and Shotgun Red. A large number of individual musical numbers from the program is sprinkled across YouTube via unauthorized postings, but the complete episodes are nowhere to be found online.
In April 2012, Luken Communications and Jim Owens Entertainment announced that they were planning to revitalize and relaunch The Nashville Network as a digital broadcast network. There was no word on whether “Nashville Now” would be shown in reruns, or whether the format would be dusted off for a new spin. Stay tuned for more information on that front.
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