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‘Tales From the Tour Bus’ Review: Mike Judge’s Clever Cartoon is Outlaw Country’s ‘Drunk History’

Mike Judge presents an animated advocacy for country legends who may be the worst good ol' boys in music history.

Mike Judge Presents Tales From the Tour Bus Season 1 Johnny Paycheck

Cinemax

“You don’t like country music, do you? You think it’s corny and twangy and kind of stupid? Well, you could be right, but it’s always good to keep an open mind.”

Like most fans of country music, Mike Judge is sick of people dismissing his musical genre of choice. A New Mexico native and consistent chronicler of working class folks from small American towns, it should come as no surprise to even casual fans that the “King of the Hill” creator has a penchant for musicians like Johnny Paycheck, Jerry Lee Lewis, and George Jones; so much so, he’s created a new, unique documentary series to honor their most madcap memories.

Though it’s unlikely to win over any of the haters Judge repeatedly alludes to, his latest primetime animated venture should entertain and inform devotees on the creator or country music.

“Mike Judge Presents Tales From the Tour Bus” is both exactly what it sounds like and so much more: Blending live-action archival footage with animated sequences of interviews and reenactments, Judge brings in various collaborators of the country music artists spotlighted in each half-hour episode and animates the stories they tell. When Johnny Paycheck’s former bandmates talk about him showing up for a court date shirtless, a hand-drawn version of Paycheck sits in front of the judge, middle fingers raised to the sky, and naked from the waste up.

Mike Judge Presents Tales From the Tour Bus Season 1

The talking heads are animated, too. (The only parts that aren’t animated are choice archival photos and videos.) Judge himself only appears in animated form, but he’s front-and-center in the series: His name’s at the front of the title, and he’s center-frame telling tales from the bus. Though he fades into occasional narration as the episodes progress — ceding time to those who lived the stories they’re recounting — his presence remains, thanks, in part, to the style in which they’re told.

Judge uses his introductions — sitting on the bus with a beer in the deepened, spill-proof cup-holders, a guitar hanging next to an open window, and a framed photo of Tammy Wynette behind his head — to frame each story in a wider historical context. He compares Johnny Paycheck to N.W.A. in both how many records each sold and by asking why the latter was more controversial than the former, despite similarly dicey off-stage activities (not that Judge is unaware of the reason).

The episodes don’t necessarily respond to these comparisons in any antagonistic or pertinent manner; largely, it’s storytelling for the sake of storytelling. The above quote is the first thing Judge says in the pilot, and this dry methodology of his is used to juxtapose the insanity of what these men have done. Each episode starts with the jocular intro:

The following is about real people and real events. However, 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.

Mike Judge Presents Tales From the Tour Bus Season 1 Johnny Paycheck

The details that survived an onslaught of booze, drugs, and the slow tick of time are quite telling. These icons have lived in Matthew McConaughey’s sense of the word. Multiple episodes feature gunfire aimed at other human beings, including two instances where someone is shot in the head and survives. George Jones gets tied to a tree after accosting a man outside his home. There’s a wrestling match in a public bathroom because a jealous musician grabbed his wife’s ex-lover’s penis.

The subjects describing such stories do so with a casual tone but emphatic pride emulated by the series itself. Sometimes they’ll provide remembered or imagined dialogue for a scene and the animated sequence depicting it will incorporate their voices, “Drunk History” style, rather than as straight narration. Mostly, though, these figures are fascinating themselves, even in animated form, such as the unforgettable image of Jimmy McDonough, a music writer, sitting behind his kitchen table with a pair of shades on his face and a black cat perched prominently next to him.

It’s as though the cat was so important to the character it couldn’t be left out when the animators went to work, and that’s a credit to the style of the series. At its core, “Tales From the Tour Bus” is a very simple show: Its primary objective is to honor these fascinating individuals by sharing their stories with a wider audience. That could’ve been done without the animation, but Judge, as a storyteller himself, maximizes his potential audience by infusing sly humor into every visual inch of the show. Even the editing can evoke a chuckle, and that might just be enough to make a few dismissive music fans show some respect to these legends.

Grade: B

“Mike Judge Presents Tales From the Tour Bus” premieres Friday, September 22 at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.

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