With a cast of 24 principal players and its labyrinthine subplots, Nashville left a discernable dent on American cinema when it debuted over 25 years

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From Victoria to Nashville

With a cast of 24 principal players and its labyrinthine subplots, Nashville left a discernable dent on American cinema when it debuted over 25 years ago. And its charms weren't lost on audiences north of the border, either. Victoria, B.C., resident and Mint Records artist Carolyn Mark ("the Lucille Ball of country") has watched Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece over 80 times, largely as a consequence of a "no money, no cable" situation that left her with limited viewing choices for an extended period of time.

Well, thank god the Canadian government doesn't subsidize cable for artists. Because after absorbing every conceivable nuance of the film, Mark and her band, the Room-Mates (her honest-to-goodness housemates Tolan McNeil and Garth Johnson), decided to stage a tribute concert to the original motion picture soundtrack, which features compositions and performances by stars Ronee Blakely, Karen Black, and Keith Carradine. And now they've taken the project a step further with a new CD, breezily titled Carolyn Mark & Her Room-Mates Present a Tribute to the Soundtrack of Robert Altman's NASHVILLE (on Mint).

Mark's NASHVILLE features almost as many performers as Altman's, including Kelly Hogan, Neko Case, Dallas Good (the Sadies), Carl Newman (the New Pornographers), Cindy Wolfe (Tennessee Twin), Robert Dayton (the inimitable Canned Hamm), and more. McNeil turns in a heartwarming rendition of Carradine's 1976 No. 1 adult contemporary hit "I'm Easy." And the spirited way Neko Case declares, "send us over a couple of beers!" in her best hog-calling voice after the Corn Sisters' rendition of the Smoky Mountain Laurels' "Oh These Troubled Times" is worth the price of admission alone.

But rounding up this diverse cast wasn't easy, Mark reports from a tour stop in Edmonton, "the city of champions." Over the course of a full year, she and the Room-Mates waited diligently for select participants to come play faraway Victoria. "And then we'd lure them home," she confesses. A couple cocktails later, the hapless victims would find themselves shackled to a mike in Mark's basement studio.

"The character I relate to most in the movie is Mr. Green when he's trying to get L.A. Joan to see her sick aunt," admits the singer. "Tolan did all the work, but I was like a sheepdog, rounding up the talent. I was the motivational coach."

Some folks knew exactly what ditty they'd be called upon to warble, while others had numbers thrust upon them in accordance with Mark's nefarious scheme. Dottie Cormier, formerly of the Canadian bluegrass ensemble Heartbreak Hill, was tapped for a lickety-split turn on Blakely's "Tapedeck in His Tractor." Newman, "the only one who wanted to do a transgender thing," called dibs on "Memphis," and even retains the impossible low notes of Karen Black's interpretation.

"I wanted Kelly [Hogan] to sing 'Dues' from the beginning—even though it's my favorite song— because I knew she could nail it," adds Mark. Hogan, however, felt otherwise. "It was really hard to figure out how to sing it," the Chicago songbird confessed recently, citing "the crazy, not singing of Ronee Blakely" as a challenge to interpret.

Ah yes, Ronee Blakely. Despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for her dizzying performance as country star Barbara Jean, little has been seen or heard from Blakely in over a decade, since she sang "Anonymous 1916" on John Wesley Harding's 1991 album The Name Above the Title. One can only hope that Mark's NASHVILLE will spark interest in Blakely's back catalog the same way O Brother, Where Are Thou? turned a million NPR yuppies into bluegrass aficionados. With her eccentric songwriting and throaty singing style, as preserved on out-of-print LPs like 1975's Welcome, the singer-actress earned the respect of peers including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (she recorded with both), and she deserves a better fate than a footnote in the Where Are They Now? files.

Speaking of neglected songwriters, Mark is in the final stages of completing her sophomore solo album, Terrible Hostess, the follow-up to her ebullient 2000 debut, Party Girl. Alas, the disc won't be available until at least summer, partially due to the pending release from Mark's partner in the Corn Sisters, Neko Case. "[Mint] doesn't want it to come out at the same time as Neko's record," she explains. But Mark is nothing if not patient. The other day, her horoscope told her she's destined to come into her own . . . in nine years.

So in the meantime, the singer will continue to mark the days with repeated viewings of Nashville, which came out on DVD last year, much to her delight. "There's this great director commentary on it—one of the best," she declares. "And the colors are so much better on DVD. It's so washed out in that video. Now Shelley Duvall's shoes are, like, glowing."

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