Four decades before becoming one of America’s “it” cities, Nashville was the subject of a sprawling, 24-character study that was simultaneously hailed by critics as a cinematic masterpiece and vilified by country artists offended by what they saw as a slam against their industry — or, even worse, a series of caricatures that perhaps cut a little too closely to real life. Directed by Robert Altman, the big-screen Nashville opened in New York City on June 11th, 1975, although the movie didn’t host its actual Music City premiere until two months later.
Five years after exploring the bloody realism of the Korean War with M*A*S*H, which delighted audiences and critics with its decidedly dark humor, Altman trained his experimental style on what was supposed to be a satirical take on the Nashville recording industry. It was a music-filled film with inter-connected characters and plot, featuring a political campaign rally at its explosive, chaotic climax. Those who “got” the joke (which seemed to be mostly those outside the country music community) praised Nashville for its unconventional storytelling and an absence of slickness in the musical numbers throughout.
At a time when country music was beginning to routinely cross over into pop territory (just ahead of another big-screen phenomenon, the Urban Cowboy boom), the city of Nashville was, understandably, protective of its industry and image. Just as the characters from a similarly-named ABC TV series, Nashville, invited comparisons to real-life country stars when the show first debuted in 2012, the principals in Altman’s film were dissected for the traits that were, perhaps, meant to mirror those of such country icons as Porter Wagoner, Hank Snow, Charley Pride and Loretta Lynn. Filled with characters like the pious, toupee-wearing Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) or fragile, flighty country superstar Barbara Jean (played by Oscar nominee Ronee Blakley) who (spoiler alert!) is gunned down at the end of the film, Nashville made its Music City at a star-studded premiere event in August 1975. . .and the brickbats were immediately flying.
“I’ll tell you what I liked best about the film,” songwriter-producer Billy Sherrill said at the time. “When they shot that miserable excuse for a country-music singer.”
Brenda Lee reported after the screening that she had “one word” to say about the film, but that her husband had begged her not to repeat it. And Ronnie Milsap quipped, “I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day. . . and this is one of them.”
Grand Ole Opry stalwart Minnie Pearl was, as usual, the epitome of Southern diplomacy, noting at the premiere that the film was “very interesting.” Later, however, she would add that “the music was terrible” and also expressed disdain for the way the film portrayed the Opry and the “plastic look” it gave the fans in attendance. Webb Pierce predicted Altman would never return to Nashville and that if he did, he would probably be hanged. Other stars at the premiere, including Dottie West and Carl Smith, were more complimentary of the film.
Although Nashville was left treading water in the wake of filmdom’s first summer blockbuster, Jaws, the film was nevertheless a box office hit and went on to earn five Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Original Song for “I’m Easy,” written and performed by actor Keith Carradine. Five years later, another Nashville-based film, Coal Miner’s Daughter, would earn widespread acclaim in country music circles and also win Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn. Lynn, who had no interest in seeing that film (since she had already lived through it once), had famously boycotted the Nashville premiere, too, telling a reporter at the time, “I’d rather see Bambi.”