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Singing the Praises of 'Troubadours' on PBS 'American Masters'
March 2, 2011  | By David Bianculli

troubadours-my-top.jpgWe've just been sucked into one of those infernal March public broadcasting pledge-break whirlpools, so Wednesday's PBS showing of Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter (8 pm. ET; check local listings) may be on at a different time, even if a different night, where you live. But please find it, because this latest American Masters special is a pleasure to hear AND see...

TV WORTH WATCHING contributor Tom Brinkmoeller has written a wonderful review of this special already, and gone to the extra trouble of interviewing the program's director, Morgan Neville, to boot. (Click HERE for that story -- but hey, read mine first, would you, please?)

I saw James Taylor and Carole King in concert last year, on one leg of their 40th-anniversary "reunion" tour, and expected this special to be a televised concert version, pure and simple. (And I wouldn't have complained a bit.)

Instead, it's pure and complicated, and uses the occasion to trace the evolution of popular music from singers (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley) to songwriting groups (The Beatles) to solo singer-songwriters, which is the focus of this 90-minute study.

Using King and Taylor as their excuse, and the Los Angeles Troubadour nightclub as home base, Troubadours revels in the amazing music, and stories, of the people who played there, drank and did drugs there, fell in and out of love there, and changed musical history there.


One of my favorite moments is when Jackson Browne, explaining his musical inspiration for picking up a guitar and becoming a singer and writer, starts playing Bob Dylan's "I Want You" -- beautifully, from memory, just the way you imagined him playing and singing it as an impressionable teenager.

But there are other great moments, too -- plenty of them. Elton John's career-making 1970 set at the Troubadour is sampled here, and Steve Martin talks about taking the stage during what once was the open-mike Hootenanny night. Carole King shares some lifelong home movies of her at the piano, and James Taylor, touring his personal guitar archive storage room, lovingly pulls out the Gibson J-50 on which he recorded such early hits as "Carolina on My Mind."

James Taylor actually is quite a find here -- speaking so candidly, charismatically and enthusiastically about music that he ought to be given a PBS show of his own to do with what he will -- like a sort of public television veejay of pop music. The closer you get to him, the more soothing he is. He's like the Fred Rogers of folk.

In addition to Taylor, King, Elton and Browne, Director Neville and his colleagues cover lots of additional ground here: Joni Mitchell, the Eagles (or, as Steve Martin clarifies in a very funny story, just "Eagles," with no "the"), Cheech and Chong, and many, many others.

In addition to what's here, I would have liked a short segment on the Smothers Brothers' infamous 1974 comeback concert at the Troubadour (the one where John Lennon heckled drunkenly, got in a fistfight and was escorted outside) -- but I'm biased there. Otherwise, there's only one note that I think was missed.


Early in Troubadours, when the filmmakers visit James Taylor's home in the Berkshires, they capture the pristine falling snow, but fail to match it to the perfect lyric from Taylor's "Sweet Baby James":

"Now the first of December was covered with snow,

"And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston --

"Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting..."

But except for that omission, Troubadours is the frosting on the PBS cake all the way. Find it, even if your local member station makes it difficult to do so... and if you watch, report back, please, on what you thought, and what you liked.

(And you may as well pledge for PBS while you're at it. Offer money during a great show, and they're more inclined to make more of them.)




wilberfan said:

Thanks so much for the heads-up on this absolutely wonderful episode of American Experience. I found it totally riveting. Artists talking about their craft is endlessly fascinating to me--more so when I actually lived through and experienced the time/music in question!

Can't wait to watch it again.

[My pleasure -- both watching it and having you enjoy it. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 3, 2011 12:27 AM

Eileen said:

Has PBS ever failed to live up to our expectations? A resounding no from my perspective.

What a wonderful show. Again, David, had it not been for Tom B. and you commenting on this, I might have missed it.

A trip down memory lane for sure. James Taylor and Carole King are national treasures who just keep getting better with age. My most beloved 8 track (look that one up, kids) was her "Tapestry". The songs she wrote for herself as well as a legion of others are legendary.

It was everything you both promised and so much more. Thanks for the heads-up. Even fund raising couldn't dim the light on this beacon.

[Thanks, Eileen -- Your 8-track reference made me laugh. Hey, I remember QUADROPHONIC 8-tracks! -- DB]

Comment posted on March 3, 2011 8:14 AM

Jim said:

As too often happens, I would have missed the excellent Troubadour show if I had not checked your blog. Unfortunately I didn't check in until about 10 minutes after the show had started. I can pick up the opening segment on the repeat next week, but this is an illustration of why one should check TV Worth Watching early in the day.

I just missed the 8-track craze, but I have all those artists on LPs and cassettes.

Comment posted on March 3, 2011 12:49 PM

Mara said:

I just got to this show today as I missed it on the day and had to tape it. on my VCR. (it's no 8-track, but it's on its way!) It was such a treat, and I also would have missed it if it weren't for this site. and what a loss that would have been. Carole King and James Taylor are two of a kind of unique musicians who seem to just embody their art form. they don't do it for the fame or the money. it's almost as if music just can't help but tumble out of them. it was such fun to hum along with all of the wonderful songs of this era and to get some back story on a truly magical time in music.

one of my favorite moments was Steve Martin telling the story of Betty White's reaction to seeing him at the Troubadour with her husband Allen Ludden. his delivery of her line "we think you're funny" was hilarious (as hers must have been).

thanks again for not letting these gems slip through the cracks.

[And thanks for being here, and trusting us. All part of the fun. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 4, 2011 9:39 PM
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