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A Southern classic: Good Ol' Girls

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Southern belles, or those who hold with the belle "way," be forewarned: The musical Good Ol' Girls is probably not for you.

The women in Good Ol' Girls, which is based on works by North Carolina authors Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, are sassy, smart, in love with life, and not afraid to stretch its boundaries a little. Well, maybe a bit afraid, but gutsy enough, too, to take the bull by the horns when necessary -- especially after they've talked to other good ol' girls.

The nearly two-hour version of Good Ol' Girls in the television broadcast (some potentially "objectionable" parts have been deleted for the broadcast) is a Southern classic, a musical in the tradition of King Mackerel or Pump Boys & Dinettes, where a collection of revealing anecdotes are held together by a series of songs. It's also a celebration of everyday women's lives, in all their complexity, celebration and aggravation.

According to McCorkle, Good Ol' Girls is about "women of all types in all different places ... coming to terms with some big issues in life. These good ol' girls are strong ol' girls, survivors."

Survivors like the woman who describes the pain and chaos of giving birth, but loves the baby more than anything else in life. Or the young woman who loves her boyfriend Bobby, but now the bastard's had too much tequila and went and gave her a black eye. She's followed by a song dedicated to Bobby "and the other men like him," men who are "mean as a snake when you've got booze in your blood."

The singer-guitarist who wails the immortal words, "I'm gonna take off my kid gloves, put on some boxing gloves, and beat the living daylights out of you," is veteran Charlotte actor Gina Stewart. Watching Stewart's strong, whirling dervish performance on "Booze In Your Blood," you'd think she was having a good time. And she was.

"I love that song," said Stewart, "and it was written by Marshall Chapman, who was one of my heroes when I was younger and just starting out as a performing musician. She and Carlene Carter were the only women who were doing what I wanted to do at the time."

Chapman, who, along with Nashville singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, wrote the songs in Good Ol' Girls, has been a pioneer "good ol' girl" rocker since the late 1970s. Berg, who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last year, initiated the creation of Good Ol' Girls. After reading a number of Lee Smith's novels, which contain some of the most deeply developed "good ol' girl" characters in American literature, Berg called fellow singer-songwriter Chapman and proposed that the two of them create a musical along with Smith. Chapman, who knew Smith from their days together in Nashville in the 1970s, called the author about the idea. Smith, in turn, contacted Prof. Paul Ferguson, who in 1995 had adapted her novel The Devil's Dream into a fine musical, and asked him to do the same for Berg's idea. A mere five months later, they presented an early, raved-about version of the show at the North Carolina Literary Festival in Chapel Hill.

Stewart heard about the play from Bo Thorp, the artistic director at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, who helped develop the production. "I thought it was right up my alley," said Stewart. "I know some of those characters in the play -- not literally, of course, but we all know these women, we've been around them most of our lives." She described her experience of working in a nursing home in her teens, which no doubt contributed to her riveting performance as an ancient nursing home resident. The nursing home scene is a powerful, poignant moment, and it's just one of several in a play that turns out to be much more than just a musical walk in a stereotyped Quaint-Southern-Women park.

The musical is for sure a lot of fun, but it also mines themes of everyday people's lives, from childbirth to the teen years to sex to the complications of adulthood and old age. The women in the play deliver their lives in anecdotal form, but they're also teaching viewers about the problems, wrong turns and deflated dreams that can come from living life to its fullest.

As the New York Times describes it, the show is "a feminist literary country music review," but we'll let author Lee Smith have the last word, as she does in a filmed interview after the performance: "It's a show about attitude, about having a spunky approach to life."

The broadcast of Good Ol' Girls will air at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 22, on WUNG (analog channel 58, digital channel 44 and Time Warner channel 13). Check local listings for dates and times of other UNC-TV showings. For more information, go to www.unctv.org/goodolgirls.

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