On Inside Llewyn Davis

 Freewheelin By Art Menius 1-20-2014; new ending 1-21-2014

The much discussed Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis arrived in Chapel Hill fully five weeks after its theatrical release in New York and LA and thus a year after its Toronto festival debut. I felt as if Becky and I were the last folks, along with the other 20 people in the Sunday matinee office, to screen it. I had known less about movies I have already seen.

I enjoyed Inside Llewyn Davis. It kept my attention and did not permit my mind to wander much, which is an accomplishment. I only thought about Van Ronk when Davis played “Dink’s Song.” Otherwise, he no more made me think of Dave than any other bearded white guy with an acoustic guitar born during the 1930s would.

Point mayor cover for web#1: The Mayor of Bleeker Street was source material for this time and place that also borrowed some incidents from Van Ronk’s life, such as getting slugged in an alley by Jean Ritchie’s husband George Pickow.

Question #1: Jean and George came to a Kathy Mattea concert I produced in Whitesburg, KY in June 2008. They looked about 15 years older than portrayed in the film set in 1961. The historical Jean, a lap dulcimer player from Kentucky not an Autoharpist from Arkansas, would have been just 38 at the time. More than a dozen years had pasjean ritchie 1962 LP coversed since she first opened foJean ritchie 1959 LP coverr the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and nine since the first of the two major label releases among 15 albums she would have had out by then. She had earned a Fulbright Fellowship and written a popular 1955 book about her family. These 1959 and 1961 album covers don’t look like the little ole Ozark lady in the movie.

Despite The Washington Post’s claims of a new “forgiving, even wistful, air,” Inside Llewyn Davis seemed to me dark, Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There dark.

Point #2: I went into the Chelsea Theater #3 knowing that the opening scene would be the closing scene or close to it. Plus, the Coens have made one engrossing film after another in which – counter to American film tradition – the protagonist, whether Fink, the abiding Dude, George Clooney in O Brother, Frances MacDormand in Fargo, or Oscar Issac as Llewyn – remains unchanged despite experiences that should be transformational.

The difference with Inside Llewyn Davis is that this is as much a bunch of stuff that happened as any early Seinfeld episode. The earlier films did advance plot if not character. Inside Llewyn Davis takes us back to where we started. Had I expected Llewyn to progress as a person; I would have been disappointed.

Point #3: Instead, I did not find the character Llewyn Davis off-putting. He is a self-absorbed singer-songwriter. That happens. The cat liked him. Get it over it. He is not Dave. Dave’s not here, man. I cared what happened to Llewyn. I can see, however, why folks did not, given then placement of the heckling scene at the front before we know that Mike killed himself, he loves Jean (of Jim & Jean), his dad sits mute, and he can hold a cat for days on end. In a conventional Hollywood film, all this would have been laid out so that we would like Llewyn, then he would display his pain publicly at the expense of faux-Jean Ritchie.

cat on shoulderCat and LD

Instead, the Coens take the substantial artistic risk of introducing us to Llewyn at his worst and working backward. The devise only works in part, mostly for the reason above.

And that is why this is a good, perhaps very good, Coen Brothers joint, but not a great one. Far, far better than Intolerable Cruelty or the Ladykillers, to me Inside Llewyn Davis ranks behind at least Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, True Grit, and O Brother. I did prefer the new release to the acclaimed No Country for Old Men, however. For this flick to have achieved greatness, we would have to genuinely like Llewyn the way we came to admire and root for the stoner bowler Dude.

Question #2: Did it make a difference that the Dude, Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill, or Marge Gunderson could have ended up dead or worse, while Llewyn only could have ended up sleeping on the floor, having cold, wet feet, or going back to work as a merchant seaman?

Point #4: My theory consists of John Goodman’s Turner being the foil to show Davis in a comparably good light. Whatever the reason, Turner proves to me the most unpleasant character in the Goodmangreat actor’s long career. He serves to get Llewyn to Chicago to audition for Grossman, but it may have been easier to walk than put up with his junkie insults. That Goodman is not a high point is likely another reason some folks are not endeared by Inside Llewyn Davis.

Final Point, Inside Llewyn Davis proves neither a mockumentary nor documentary about the folk music scene on the cusp of third twenty century wave of the folk revival. Inspired by real life people, places, and events, this is a work of fictional art to evoke the feel of a certain part of Manhattan and a certain segment of society and the fringe music business more than a half century ago.

The truths in this movie are about the fate of the self-absorbed, especially in face of dashed hopes and frustrating expectations. Whereas O Brother was a moving picture that used folk music to such an extent that it was almost a two hour music video, Inside Llewyn Davis uses the people of the Greenwich Village folk music scene to explore human desires and shortcomings.

Question #3: Did anyone else see Llewyn as the anti- Ulysses Everett McGill. Clooney’s memorable character never gave into the dark side, no matter how consistently dishonest and conniving he was. He believed so enthusiastically in his own bull, that he remained a thoroughly engaging, upbeat con man – emphasis on the con. No matter what, you can’t stay mad at Ulysses. Davis remains downbeat and cynical even at his funniest. You know McGill would steal from you, but you still liked him. Davis only wanted to borrow a few bucks and crash on the couch, but he is a downer with a little cloud over his head.

PS: I cannot get “Please Mr. Kennedy” out of my head. ImageI even played it on WCOM-FM 103.5 the other day. Click on the still for the studio scene.

And that leads to my most recent assertion about Inside Llewyn Davis, one that came to me a day after writing this essay. “Please Mr. Kennedy” is not merely a suggestion of the national obsession with the space race, which Mr. Kennedy essentially ended with the man on the moon goal. Nor does it just evoke the novelty song craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s, often folk-pop like “Honeycomb,” and allow a John Hammond, Sr.-inspired character to get in on the fun.

“Please Mr. Kennedy” provides the coda for Inside Llewyn Davis. At the least, it suggests the significance of setting the film in 1961 goes beyond exploring the three or five years between “Tom Dooley” (#1 week of Nov 17, 1958) and “Rock Island Line” (#8 week of March 24, 1956) and the full blown 1962-1965 Folk Scare, when the music was oh so important in determining who your friends and lovers were. On the movie’s website, Elijah Wald, who completed Dave’s memoir, offers an outstanding article about this time. Peter, Paul & Mary’s first Top Ten single, “If I Had A Hammer,” hit the charts in mid-August 1962 and with it the Folk Revival was underway. All that meant, really, was that commercial radio & TV and big time concert promoters latched on to folk while it was hot. In other words, folk moved from a novelty or niche form that could produce occasional hits to being THE pop music until displaced by the Beatles and Stones. Folk – rebranded and reconfigured as “singer-songwriter” – remained a strong component of commercial pop music well into the 1970s.

Enough digression. “Please Mr. Kennedy” in combination with the movie’s darkness, establishes Inside Llewyn Davis as a meditation on the failed hopes of the 1960s. The space program symbolizes our rising hopes in 1961 of an every better future in which we would overcome poverty, racism, and disease through technology and chemicals. Llewyn, in this interpretation, is not a bad portrayal of Dave van Ronk but of the decade itself, self absorption included. His trip to Chicago to have his hopes dashed and then coming back home to find things the same, only worse, becomes an easy metaphor for the times.


Concerts at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC


My commitment to the community is to restore The ArtsCenter (300-G East Main St; Carrboro, NC 27510) to a position of primacy among folk and roots presenters between Alexandria, VA and Decatur, GA. Although we present concerts in the 355 seat Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater and 106 seat West End Theater mostly Thursday through Sunday evenings, we sometimes present on any night and host jam sessions and song circles on Monday evenings. We share the use of these facilities with ArtsCenter Stage, the ArtSchool, more than a dozen resident theatre, comedy, improv, film, and dance companies, ArtsCamp, Youth Arts Blocks, and rentals ranging from Cat’s Cradle concerts to community square dances to bat and bar mitzvahs. For that reason, The ArtsCenter presents an average of 60 concerts for adults per year. Visit our website to learn about shows and concerts for children and families.

I have three decades experience in folk and bluegrass music and the support of outstanding concerts at The ArtsCenter sponsors including Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, Giorgios Hospitality Group, Atma Hotel Group (including the new Hampton next door), Furniture Lab, Brooks Pierce, and the North Carolina Arts Council.Image

Most of all we need your support as a donor, business sponsor, or ArtsCenter Friend, and as a ticket buyer. All these can be accomplished by visiting artscenterlive.org or calling 919-929-2787.

The ArtsCenter currently has this remarkable lineup of concerts scheduled

Monday, October 21, 2013 Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 disappear fear (SONiA)
Saturday, November 09, 2013 Sam Bush
Friday, November 08, 2013 Quiet American with Adam Hurt & Beth Hartness
Friday, November 15, 2013 The Honeycutters
Sunday, November 17, 2013 Charlie King & Karen Brandow
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 Jake Shimabukuro
Thursday, November 21, 2013 Kirk Ridge, Lizzy Ross, Rebecca Newton, Jack Herrick, Joe Newberry, Nancy Middleton
Saturday, November 23, 2013 John Gorka
Friday, December 06, 2013 Dar Williams
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 FiddleX Holiday Concert
Friday, January 03, 2014 Robin & Linda Williams
Tuesday, January 07, 2014 Genticorum
Friday, January 10, 2014 Nu Blu
Saturday, January 11, 2014 Hot Club of Cowtown
Sunday, January 12, 2014 Dana & Susan Robinson
Thursday, January 16, 2014 Sparky & Rhonda Rucker
Friday, January 17, 2014 Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Saturday, January 18, 2014 GangstaGrass
Thursday, January 23, 2014 Cahallen Morrison & Eli West w/Bevel Summers
Saturday, February 01, 2014 Grace Pettis
Saturday, February 08, 2014 Joe Pug
Sunday, February 09, 2014 David Jacobs-Strain
Friday, February 21, 2014 Ennis
Saturday, February 22, 2014 Lucy Kaplansky
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 Clive Carroll
Sunday, March 09, 2014 Guy Davis
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 Rory Block
Thursday, March 13, 2014 Paul McKenna Band
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Pete & Maura Kennedy
Friday, March 21, 2014 Missy Raines & the New Hip
Saturday, March 22, 2014 John McCutcheon
Thursday, March 27, 2014 Archie Fischer & Garnet Rogers
Friday, March 28, 2014 Scott Ainslie
Saturday, March 29, 2014 Foghorn String Band w/Piney Woods Boys
Friday, April 04, 2014 Sultans of String
Thursday, April 10, 2014 Drew Nelson
Friday, April 11, 2014 Seldom Scene
Sunday, April 13, 2014 Brother Sun
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 Paddy Kennan
Thursday, May 01, 2014 Cathie Ryan
Friday, May 02, 2014 April Verch
Friday, May 09, 2014 Rolling Roots Review
Sunday, May 11, 2014 Tret Fure
Sunday, June 08, 2014 Jeanette & Johnnie Williams with Louisa Branscomb
Saturday, June 28, 2014 Songs from the Circle 3
Thursday, July 31, 2014 Local songwriters featuring Katherine Whalen
Friday, September 05, 2014 Jonathan Edwards
Friday, September 12, 2014 Steve Forbert
Thursday, September 18, 2014 Sarah McQuaid
Saturday, November 15, 2014 Tom Paxton

World of Bluegrass 2013: The Owensboro Vision Realized in Raleigh


Flatt & Scruggs on WPTF Raleigh with Art Wooten and Jody Rainwater

Flatt & Scruggs on WPTF Raleigh with Art Wooten and Jody Rainwater

World of Bluegrass 2013: The Owensboro Vision Realized in Raleigh

By Art Menius Sept 29, 2013cropped-raleigh-fiddlers-convention-b.jpg

Raleigh is a major reframing, a sincere transformation of WOB, but much in the spirit of Tony’s speech, it not only preserves but strengthens what is essential.

This week saw the Owensboro vision of 1985-1986 brought fully to life. I wish Terry Woodward, Sonny Osborne, and Burley Phelan could have seen it.

This was it in remarkable detail almost 30 years later in a different place with different people, but I saw what we talked about all around me come to life.

  • An outward looking event
  • An awards show in a beautiful concert hall
  • A fantastic convention center hosting the conference
  • Museums programming about bluegrass history.
  • Thousands in the street discovering bluegrass music, BBQ (the Owensboro parallels don’t stop, it seems), and a revitalized, exciting downtown.
  • A wonderful urban outdoor festival facility where my dad bought me my first car.
  • Hotel rooms filled, restaurants and  on pleasant fall days
  • Even an alternate rain location for the festival

That is the original vision for IBMA and Owensboro fully realized in 2013 by IBMA and Raleigh. Congratulations to Nancy Cardwell, Eddie Huffman, PineCone, William Lewis and the IBMA board, the host committee, Mayor Nancy McFarland, planning director Mitchell Silver (the Robert Moses of our generation), and everyone involved. I dissed my ole home town for decades, but ain’t gonna do that no more (except for the traffic, of course).

C Monroe & Spencer Brothers WPTF
Charlie Monroe with the Spencer Brothers on WPTF Raleigh 1946

This was what we wanted to do in Owensboro, create both an industry event and events that built the industry by engaging new consumers and branding a city with bluegrass. When we moved to Louisville and Nashville we lost the chance to brand but much more importantly, made a horrible mistake of convenience in taking Fan Fest totally indoors. That led to WOB becoming insular rather than expansive and Fan Fest almost useless for creating new fans.

Raleigh stood that tired approach on its head and welcomed thousands to bluegrass.Image

Bill and Caroline Monroe lived here at 1208 Fillmore Street in Raleigh during 1937 as Jan Johansson discovered below.Image

This reframing, of course, creates questions. Producing and marketing massive, popular events on Friday and Saturday makes them much more obvious than workshops and seminars on Wednesday. Yet as we saw, those worked very well.

Memorial Auditorium is not the Ryman in wow factor or history, but it can hold more people much more comfortably, and Charlie Monroe did live in its parking lot during 1937.

WNCN-17 (NBC) http://www.wncn.com/story/23558043/steve-martin-wraps-up-the-world-of-bluegrass






Bailey Brothers Canary 78 with Raleigh address
Bailey Brothers Canary 78 with Raleigh address

The Tennessean of Nashville


And best by David Menconi in The hometown News and Observer


From that: The IBMA conference had about 1,500 registrants, up from 1,118 in Nashville last year, and they filled all the downtown hotels. Thursday’s awards show at Memorial Auditorium drew a sellout crowd of around 2,200 – up from just over 2,000 in Nashville last year. And the 12,000 people attending the two Red Hat shows dwarfed the 8,000 that the IBMA’s “Fan Festival” drew in Nashville last year.

Another key statistic is IBMA membership, which got a bump from the buzz of this year’s convention. Membership is up 25 percent this year, according to IBMA executive director Nancy Cardwell.

NC Museum of History Bluegrass Programming During IBMA

For the next three years, Raleigh will be home to the International Bluegrass Music Association annual World of Bluegrass convention. I am one of the speakers in the NC Museum of History programs to welcome IBMA:

 Tuesday, September 24

         1–3 p.m.          North Carolina is the Banjo State, with Bob Carlin

        5–7 p.m.          Bluegrass in North Carolina, with Tommy Edwards

 Wednesday, September 25

         1–3 p.m.          Bluegrass Music: How North Carolinians Have Contributed, with Art Menius

        5–7 p.m.          The Earl Scruggs Center: Music and Stories from the American South

Thursday, September 26

       1–3 p.m.          The Story of Bluegrass and Raleigh’s Contribution, with Ron Raxter

       5–7 p.m.          Bluegrass Jam, with Pinecone

Friday, September 27

       1–3 p.m.          [Topic TBD*], with Wayne Martin

       5–7 p.m.          Gibson, Scruggs, and the Three-Finger Style, with Jim Mills

When I was little, The NC Museum of History was in WPA institutional building that mostly housed the state department of Education – “EDVCATION” in the granite lettering outside. Opened in 1902, “The Hall of History” and little changed since moved there in 1939, snaked through the first floor with permanent displays focusing on transportation, weapons, and household furnishings of rich white people. The latter appeared to have been 90% of the state’s population before the War, after which it dropped to 80%. I learned a lot about how our heroes fought against cruel military occupation of NC by the United States. Generations of school bus drivers struggled to find the Hall of History since the maps they were sent had South at the top and north oriented to the bottom.

By the time I was a young public historian at NC Dept of Cultural Resources (a product of the standardization of federal and state cultural bureaucracies during the 1960s and 1970s), an equally static history museum telling a more modern story, albeit with many of the same artifacts, occupied the east wing of our 1968 Archives & History/State Library edifice between the 1964 Legislative Building, in which the General Assembly meets rather than the 19th Capitol building in the center of Raleigh, and the gingerbread Victorian Governor’s Mansion. I always imagined the Addams Family as our first family. In 2013 some would say…..

The current NC Museum of History opened in 1994 between the Legislative Building and the historic State Capitol (walk out of the Convention Center on the Fayetteville Street side and look left. Can’t miss it.) The new museum has a research library, a variety of classroom spaces, and a large and well-equipped, 315-seat auditorium. Large gallery spaces total 55,000 square feet, nearly four times the exhibit area available in the old building. Design shops, storage areas for over 250,000 items, and conservation labs are now all under one roof.

The NC Arts Council, whose staff is being slashed by the legislature, occupies the previous museum space. Five museums in 92 years doesn’t seem like the best long term planning for growth.

Laura Cortese Into the Dark


Laura Cortese Into the DarkImage (www.thisislauracortese.com) released on April 23, 2013

Reviewed by Art Menius (WMMT-FM, WCOM-FM, WCHL-FM)

Laura Cortese has been making substantial recordings for almost a decade, collaborating with the likes of Jefferson Hamer, Rose Cousins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Brittany & Natalie Haas. Her fifth project, Into the Dark, is where her potential matures into a compelling blend of traditional and pop-folk music. This is potent, rich music that demands repeated listening.

Cortese fuses the new and old, as well as classical, folk, and pop influences, into one unified sound of her own that takes full form on Into the Dark. Using the talents of Hamer, Cousins, the Haases, fiddlers Mariel Vandersteel and Hanneke Cassel, Dirk Powell, and many others, Cortese crafts an acoustic wall of sound that propels her confident vocal delivery.

Cortese’s voice gives us lyrics that blend the old and new just as powerfully as her compelling music. She jumps off from classical folk idioms (“Richmond boys they cheat and steal; Drinking brandy til they get their fill” starts the album on “For Catherine”) into modern issues like violence against women (“Broken bottle there I lay; Brandy mixing with cold clay”). The title track is a tour de force of writing, performance, production, everything – a tune that can be played on commercial, public, and community radio from pop to folk to trad.

Many excellent albums have already appeared in 2013. Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark could be the best so far.

Carrboro gets it is own bluegrass brews today

Many bars and clubs present bluegrass music, a couple, such as the Station Inn, all the time. Conversely, many bars, such as Natasha’s in Lexington, KY, exist in the Bluegrass. Now we have a craft brewery that not only includes bluegrass music in its soundtrack and decor, but in its brews.Steel String Brewery IMG_20130427_170037_515

Carrboro, NC’s first modern local craft brewery, Steel String Brewery, will have a soft opening at Noon today (April 27) and Sunday (April 28). The vision of a trio of dedicated young men, Steel String’s opening is a testament to their perseverance. They seemed poised to open fully a year ago when I first returned to Carrboro, but financing proved more problematic than they had imagined.

Now the Steel String rings in the former location of old Carrboro staple The Trading Post between Glass Halfull and Wendy’s. The brew pub opens full time on May 10. The names of featured beers show their musical interests:


Big Mon IPA is named in honor of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, and packs an appropriately hefty 6.7% alcohol content.

The Dark IPA, Manzanita (7.4%), is similarly obvious inmanzanita-label1 recognizing extraordinary guitarist Tony Rice, who lives about a half hour west. They write: “Just as Tony Rice pushed the boundaries of a what a guitar could do for bluegrass music in his landmark album Manzanita, our Black IPA pushes the boundary of the IPA, augmenting the hop-heavy style with notes of chocolate, roast, and fresh-brewed coffee.

Both those IPAs should be ready for sale by mid-May. We sampled both Exile on Weaver Street, a seasonal, and Maggie’s Farmhouse Ale (5.6%), which shouts out to Dylan, today. Each offered complex, challenging, ultimately refreshing tastes. The Steel String brews can be taken home in 32-ounce grouters in addition on premises consumption.

Rubber Room Session Ale (4.7%) pays homage to popular local studio owned by Jerry Brown of the Shady Grove Band and, by transference, Porter Wagoner.