Texas on the Tube

TV Eye

Is there a voice closer to heaven than that of Emmylou Harris? That's a subjective statement, of course, but fans of hers -- and they are legion -- will be thrilled to see her as the subject of a one-hour documentary this week on PBS (KLRU, 5/16, 9pm). Building the Wrecking Ball follows the making of Harris' recent CD Wrecking Ball (which beat out Bob Dylan, John Prine, Steve Earle, and the Chieftains as the best Contemporary Folk recording at the Grammys in March -- her seventh such award).

Building the Wrecking Ball was filmed during rehearsals and recording sessions for her critically acclaimed album in New Orleans and Colorado, and layers the footage with interviews from Harris and WB producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2 on Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree. Also appearing on-screen are Neil Young, Steve Earle, Anna and Kate Mc-Garrigle, Malcolm Burn, and U2's Larry Mullen.

(Speaking of U2, their early May special on ABC, U2: A Year in Pop, did surprisingly poorly in the ratings during its Saturday showing on May 3. The telecast, celebrating the band's summer tour, was the network's first entry into the May sweeps and bombed out with a 2.7 rating/5 share nationally. Good thing ABC had that little Ellen episode in the wings!)

Harris has been a longtime favorite of Austinites, dating back to her association with Willie Nelson when she turned in a luminous performance duetting with him on "So You Think You're a Cowboy" in the film Honeysuckle Rose. Others will remember her soaring harmonies with original outlaw rocker Gram Parsons, but Harris has settled comfortably into the Nashville mainstream, adding an elegance and class missing from most cotton candy-haired female C&W singers. Her voice, smooth as suede and tough as leather, covers the six songs featured in Building the Wrecking Ball with a supple fit, especially when matched with Neil Young on Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World," another cut sure to please local viewers. And as celestial as Emmylou Harris's voice is, I can't help but envy the way she wears her glorious mane of silver hair, the perfect aura on a perfect star.

Two nights later, True Women, based on the historical novel by Texan Janice Woods Windle, will be broadcast Sunday, May 18 and continues Tuesday, May 20 (CBS, 8pm). Windle lovingly crafted her best-selling novel from her own family history, creating a compelling four-hour drama staring Dana Delaney, Annabeth Gish, Powers Boothe, Angelina Jolie, Michael York, Tina Majorino, and Charles Dutton. (This will be an interesting reunions of sorts for Delaney and Boothe, who both starred in Tombstone, while Gish was in the competing Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner.)

Craig Anderson, who directed the two-night adventure, is also set to direct another CBS' mini-series, Miracle Staircase, to be scripted by True Women's Christopher Lofton. An interesting note about the extras in the cast of True Woman is that a number of them are ancestors of characters portrayed within the saga -- two in particular are grandchildren of soldiers who died during the battle of the Alamo.

True Women is also among the last of the battering-ram May sweeps specials that end 5/21, thank goodness. Not that TW doesn't look like a fine effort, but given the disappointing results of biggies like NBC's Robin Cook's Invasion, CBS' The Last Don, and ABC's The Shining, it really does put the whole notion of network showboating for the sweeps in a specious position -- The Last Don may have done relatively well in the ratings but it was pompous. Good for Windle, though -- the last time I can remember a Texas writer getting a mini-series was Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Word is that Windle is planning The True Women Cookbook, a collection of family recipes and lore. Maybe that will be a special for another channel....

The Austin Music Network (AMN) is finally producing some new programming, as the Dwight Twilley Video Anthology debuts on Saturday (Ch 15, 9pm). The hour-long show includes videos for "A Little Bit of Love" and "Why You Wanna Break My Heart," as well as performances from his 1977-era band (featuring Twilley, Phil Seymour, Bill Pitcock IV, and Tom Petty), and Kent Benjamin's Kirk-o-Matic production of Twilley's Waterloo Brewery showcase during SXSW last March. That 42-minute live set includes "The Luck," "Miracle," "That Thing You Do," "Somebody To Love," "Grey Buildings," "I'm On Fire," "Runnin'," and "Girls." That's his three hits, the two new songs on XXI, and three previously unreleased tunes, Benjamin is quick to point out, adding that 20/20's set from the same night at SXSW will follow soon.

It's good to see fresh blood on AMN, which often suffers from staggerly dull programming, given what it could be. (Conflict of Interest note: I co-host Check This Action with Jenn Garrison once a month on AMN. This is not a paid position.) Every time I refer a New York or L.A. publicist to AMN, I can bank on the same reaction: "You people have your own music channel? For local and national music?? 24 hours a day??? And the City supports this????" I grit my teeth and tell them about the good stuff: Great support for local bands, touring shows, clubs, and video directors... Tremendous effort in bringing the ever-growing Tejano scene home... Memorable programming like Women in Jazz (I still can't get enough of Pam Hart and Connie Kirk on that show!)... Excellent coverage of the Clarksville Jazz Festivals....

Then I try to be diplomatic about the downside: stultifyingly dull block programming... Endless repeats of Armadillo Homecoming shows and Austin Acoustic Music Festival sets... Why the late night and weekend schedules don't rock like they could....

There's no easy answer to this. Some of it is politics, some of it is budget, and some of it is the inability to please all the people all the time. But AMN is one of the most unique aspects of Austin's television viewing. We both deserve better.

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