If Dave Grohl is not the hardest-working man in rock music, he is certainly in the top tier. He recently headlined the Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C. shortly after doing a pop-up show at the District’s 9:30 Club for fans who heard about it through the grapevine. He seems to be a fixture on every music awards show as presenter, performer or honoree. And in January he kicks off a year-long tour with The Foo Fighters that starts in South America, swings over to Australia, circles Europe and criss-crosses the U.S. all summer long.
Although never much of a fan of punk rock and its offspring, Grohl’s work has been sneaking up on me as he pays tribute to some of his musical influences. It really hooked me when I watched an episode of his Sonic Highways series on HBO. It is a fascinating multi-media concept that he deserves credit for conceiving and the cable network for backing.
Here’s the pitch: The Foo Fighters want to make a new album that captures the flavor of cities known for their distinctive music styles by visiting each place and recording a track that has been written on the spot based on their interviews and experiences.
For the Nashville episode the journey began by reuniting with Zac Brown and moving into his Southern Ground Studios, an old church where Monument Studios once recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson and Neil Young. Monument was founded by Fred Foster who is credited with discovering Roy Orbison, Ray Price and the Dixie Chicks.
The extended interviews for this segment, called Congregation, include Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earle, Tony Joe White and Dolly Parton.
The clips of those performers as they arrived on the music scene are priceless, especially Dolly’s first song on the Porter Waggoner Show in 1967, “This Dumb Blonde Ain’t Nobody’s Fool.” Just as eye-popping are the clips of early Willie Nelson with short, slick hair in sweaters and turtlenecks doing what seems like an Andy Williams/Perry Como impression.
The production values are on a level that us former documentary makers can only dream about. A forty-five playing on a jukebox resolves into a concert poster and then a live performance. Whitney Houston’s mega hit of “I Will Always Love You” is followed by Dolly’s story about how Elvis wanted the song but she would not give up the publishing rights to Col. Tom Parker so it never happened.
The theme of rebellion is also part of Grohl’s attraction to Zac Brown who forced Sony Records to withdraw The Lost Trailers version of his debut single, “Chicken Fried.”
“I’m drawn to outsiders,” Grohl adds.
Grohl is a low-profile interviewer, letting his subjects have the air-time although he can’t resist joining the Zac Brown Band in a live performance at the Country Music Awards. His reverence for the roots of American music has led to a major contribution to preserving its history. And his ability to synthesize each week’s experience into a fresh and memorable song is a real kicker.
The “Sonic Highways” CD is in stores. The video series is available on demand for HBO subscribers on HBOgo.