Broadway Opry '79, the ambitious new country music series that opened at the St. James Theater on Friday night, is presenting a broad spectrum of Nashville styles and a generous assortment of talents in its first installment. There's a world of difference between Tanya Tucker's country rock, Don Gibson's weathered honky-tonk, Mickey Newbury's sensitive ballads and Floyd Cramer's glossy piano playing, and one suspects this variety may turn out to be the point of the whole thing.
Minute for minute and song for song, this initial Broadway Opry presentation, which runs through tonight and will be replaced on Wednesday by a package that features Waylon Jennings, is one of the most appealing country music shows imaginable. The backing musicians are capable and attentive and the sound is exemplary, allowing one to listen to the artists and what they're saying without any of the annoying distractions that so often seem to accompany country music concerts in New York City.
Don Gibson is the most rousing performer on the bill, with his infectious enthusiasm and frequent shouts of encouragement to his musicians. Technically he doesn't have much of a voice, but his bluesy, improvisational style makes the lyrics he writes, some of which have become such country music truisms they often seem to have been sculpted in granite, sound remarkably fresh. His embellishing moans and cries are exquisitely musical, so perfectly are they laid into the rhythm, and his entire presentation rings with the sort of sincerity that can't be faked. Two of his musicians, the guitarist Marvin Lianier and the harmonica player Terry McMillan, are well worth hearing all by themselves.
Mickey Newbury is a songwriter who manages to be personal and genuinely creative while working in a frankly commercial idiom. His high, reedy voice is the perfect vehicle for his melodies, which rarely seem to conform to country conventions but don't sound much like rock or straight pop music either, and he uses a number of modest but effective expressive devices to lend certain words and lines added weight. His music isn't as lived-in as Mr. Gibson's, but it's every bit as real, and both men's sets seemed all too brief.
Floyd Cramer spent most of his portion of the show tinkling away at tepid pop kitsch, though he gave a tantalizing demonstration of his rock-and-roll style on "Flip, Flop and Bop." Miss Tucker's electric band was quite a change from the show's softer first half, but she steered a deliberate middle course between her earlier country hits and the hard country rock she now favors, giving indication of a talent that should last longer than her present notoriety as a country music sex symbol.