Tall tales from the world of rock ’n’ roll are legion, but country artists have stories of offstage shenanigans that would curl the toes of even the rowdiest rocker.
And in his new partially animated Cinemax series “Tales from the Tour Bus,” Emmy-winning writer-director-producer Mike Judge tells a few, both hilarious and heartbreaking.
From the singularly self-destructive qualities of Johnny Paycheck — who once stole Patsy Cline’s car — to the time Waylon Jennings tied George Jones to a tree (alcohol was involved), Judge approaches the stories as a die-hard fan of the genre.
“I'm always trying to turn people, nonbelievers, onto stuff like this because I think, once you get past the initial prejudice of just thinking you're not supposed to like country music, that you can find that it's actually really great,” says Judge, whose wildly varied comedy résumé incudes “Beavis & Butt-head,” “King of the Hill,” “Office Space” “Idiocracy” and “Silicon Valley.”
REVIEW: Mike Judge gets at the wild, dark heart of country music in the addictive 'Tales From the Tour Bus' »
Using a mixture of animation and live-action, Judge, who serves as the show’s (animated) narrator, illustrates stories told by relatives, friends and assorted members of artists’ entourages including hairstylists, backing musicians and bus drivers. And in one case, the artist himself, Billy Joe Shaver. (The episodes begin with the disclaimer that the events recounted are “real” but “due to the passage of time and, in some cases, indulgence in both controlled and illicit substances, details of some tales are a bit hazy.”)
We recently hopped on the phone with Judge, a musician himself, to discuss “Tales,” how it felt to see himself as a cartoon, and, naturally, the bizarre way that his satirical 2006 film “Idiocracy” has presaged some of our current events.
Most folks’ primary awareness of the show’s first subject, Johnny Paycheck, is "Take This Job and Shove It" but even the biggest fan might not realize he had such a wild life. Did the stories come first or the idea for the show?
It's funny you say that because one of the reasons that the whole thing started was I had heard stories about Johnny Paycheck. I mean, I was a fan of his. Everyone knew "Take This Job and Shove It," but I had one of the older albums.
I had heard these crazy stories about him, and this friend of mine, Rich Mullins [who’s played bass for Monster Magnet and Karma to Burn and co-created “Tales”] — he’s a metal guy but he's really into this stuff — was pointing out that none of this stuff is on the internet and well, maybe there should be a documentary.
In the course of doing this, Merle Haggard passed away along with Billy Sherrill, who we had a phone interview with, but never got to interview on camera. So some of these, I just thought it would be good to get these stories down while these people are still around.
Given the personal nature of some of the stories, have you heard from the estates of the subjects who have passed away?
No, actually. I mean we were in touch with them to begin with, but I guess they haven't seen it yet. But ultimately I love their music. I took the lead from [the people involved like sidemen] the Adams Brothers, for example, who were really close friends with both Johnny Paycheck and George Jones. I mean they love those guys. They also have no problem making fun of them. That's the way all these people are. At the same time, these are some of the most ornery people you'll ever meet, but that's kind of what that world is. So I just took the lead from them on what the tone of it would be.
These [artists] made, I think, really incredible music, and are incredibly talented. I think we try to balance it. I never, ever wanted it to be we're just making fun of them. To me it's like making fun of them the way you'd make fun of your friends, which is exactly what the people we're interviewing are doing.
Did you have a favorite episode once it was done?
Even though I actually had met Billy Joe Shaver several times and was a fan, there's a lot of these stories about him I didn't know the details of.
That man has had a hard life with family tragedies and health problems and on and on.
Yeah, one after another. That's my favorite one, I think, of the series, the stories are just incredible. That's the only one where [we talked to the artist]. Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, but we didn't interview him. We have one little clip at the end of him that's fairly recent, but Billy Joe Shaver, we interviewed a bunch, and he's just an amazing storyteller. In his stories, they have a beginning, middle and end. He tells them great. He's crazy in the best way and he's a little bit scary at his age still.
Do you have plans for a second season? Or to delve into another kind of music?
Yeah, we've talked about doing another one and, yeah, jumping to a different genre, doing hip-hop or ’70s rock.
You have been a touring musician yourself. Do you have any tales from your tour bus?
No, I toured all over in Europe and everything. I played with blues people mostly, and I played upright bass. I did OK. I was a sideman, so ...
You didn’t get into any trouble?
No, I didn't. I didn't get to do enough drugs. Now, if I play, it'll be with somebody that I used to play with. I don't like using my Hollywood thing to go try to play with somebody famous. I don’t ever do that.
Presumably many people are coming up to ask you about “Idiocracy” these days. What do you say?
Oh my God, yeah. I don't have a snap answer really, except that, on the one hand, I’m proud to have predicted the future. On the other hand, I’m not glad that it’s the future. But yeah, it’s really crazy, I mean just all the specific things out of the movie that have happened.
It's very strange. But you feel no responsibility, right?
No, you know, don't shoot the messenger.
And it happened so much sooner than you expected.
Yeah, it’s 10 years, not 500.
You gave voice to characters on “Beavis & Butt-head” and “King of the Hill” but have you yourself been animated before?
Not myself, and I wasn't crazy about that. Originally I was thinking of it like the way Bill Cosby introduced “Fat Albert,” but then I hated myself on camera talking. So we ended up animating it.
Did you find yourself getting vain about what the animation would look like? Like “Don’t make my forehead too big.”
A little bit. [Laughs.] The artist who drew me for the most part — it's tricky because I don't want to be like, "Make me look really good-looking" or anything — and finally, at one point she said, "Do you want me to get rid of those lines on your neck?" And I said, "Yes. You said it, not me, but go ahead."