Category Archives: music
A Visit to a Lost Bluegrass Music Temple
By Art Menius, August 31, 2014
Barnum-like music promoter and artist manager Carlton Haney produced the first three-day bluegrass music festival with camping on Labor Day weekend 1965 on Cantrell’s Horse Farm near Fincastle, Virginia. Haney combined his and Bill Clifton’s idea of a big show with all the top bluegrass artists with the concept taken from Newport Folk Festival of a curated, multi-day festival offering some kind of narrative. Carlton capped off the three days with the “Blue Grass Story” on Sunday afternoon, creating a narrative arch for the community that brought the string tribe together. This was folklore being constructed on the ground. View 11 minutes from that first festival here,
After a second year in Fincastle, the original bluegrass festival moved to Watermelon Park near Berryville, Virginia for another two years. On Labor Day weekend 1969, the original festival arrived near Haney’s hometown of Reidsville, NC. On land besides Pat and Hazel Smith just south of Cherry Grove Road on the western edge of Caswell County, NC, Carlton built Blue Grass Park, the prototype for bluegrass festival venues for the next score.
There Carlton enjoyed his glory years, promoting bluegrass as a gospel, publishing Muleskinner News, telling the story, using up almost every ounce of energy Fred Bartenstein had. The theatrical documentary, Bluegrass Music, Country Soul, captured the third, 1971 festival. He added events there including the spring New Grass Festival, while also presenting famed festivals in Gettysburg and Berryville. By the late 1970s competition had grown fierce, while Carlton’s physical, mental, and financial health declined. Mike Wilson and John Maness helped promote three or four very presentable Labor Day weekend festivals during the middle 1980s, before the pair moved the event to Maness’ park.
At one of those events, Carlton took me up the house, still standing on site, which already looked as if vandalized in 1986. Painstakingly, while he was supposed to be stage managing, Carlton located each issue – in order from Vol 1, No 1 – in the chaos. He seemed to have maintained every check book he had ever owned, including banks long out of business. Meanwhile, Maness and the Bass Mountain Boys had been on stage for 75 minutes with no stage manager to wake up the emcee, Bill Hill. When Carlton return to livid Maness, Haney responded, “Art, show John what I gave you! The whole history of bluegrass music.”
The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend 2014, my wife Becky Johnson decided we should head up to Camp Springs for the 45th anniversary and see if we could still find Blue Grass Park. It did not prove easy. First, I made the mistake of turning off of Cherry Grove Road on to Camp Springs Road and driving fruitlessly up its 2 miles thrice. Finally back on Cherry Grove east bound, both Becky, who had only been there twice, and I felt drawn to turn right on Boone Road. After a couple of passes looking for the “Blue Grass Park” sign that was still hanging in the 1990s, we pulled up to a lonely gate with several no trespassing signs.
I had feared a trailer park. What we found was kindly worst. We followed the remains of the entrance road, passed a pine thicket where the band vehicles used to park between Boone Road and the stage area. Turning the corner, feeling like seekers of lost Mayan temples in the jungle, we faced heavy woods, thick underbrush, and to the right of an area where trash had been burned and cans and bottles dumped, stood the Carlton’s old bathhouse. Numerous no trespassing and one “Dead Man Walking if I Catch You Here” messages decorated the cinder block walls. Becky saw a sign warning of “Boobee” traps. The thought of a cannabis plantation crossed my mind.
We pushed through widespread poison ivy and briers as if no deer or other wildlife cleared the brush out in what was once the seating area. Finally like a red clay Angkor Wat, the remains of the stage, one so many festivals copied, stood before us in tatters. Where thousands saw New Grass Revival for the first time, where Tony Rice jumped ship from Bluegrass Alliance to J.D. Crowe, where Carlton told the Blue Grass Story, where Bill Vernon and Fred Bartenstein emceed, looked like a burned out mobile home. Carlton doing an impromptu version of the story with Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise at Renfro Valley, KY in 1971 can be seen here.
Something of “Kathaleen’s” Kitchen could be seen in the distance. More adventurous than I and possessing two good knees, Becky
took off through the underbrush and pine trees. She found a logging that took her to Carlton’s old house and the pond behind the stage.
We drove on to Milton, NC. We talked about Caswell County’s need for more tourism attractions and how Blue Grass Park reminded us of the once-overgrown Historic Occaneechi Speedway looked in Hillsborough, NC before citizens took action together to restore it. As many bluegrass music devotees are exist, cannot Carlton’s Blue Grass Park be saved in cooperation with Caswell County Economic Development and the Caswell County Historical Association to created a living historical site that tells the bluegrass music story while presented concerts and festivals.
Chapel Hill News Q&A
Mark Schultz of the News & Observer’s Chapel Hill News published this detailed Q&A with me online on August 26, 2014 and in the newspaper on August 27, 2014.
You can read the article on line here.
Nu-Blu Scores with “Jesus and Jones”
Siler City, NC’s Nu-Blu has scored big time with their collaboration with R&B legend Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave). August 17th brought a shout out on “CBS Sunday Morning,” which profiled Moore.
Look at the praise for Nu Blu and Sam Moore on the official George Jones Page: R&B legend Sam Moore and bluegrass group Nu-Blu Bluegrass Artists pay tribute to George Jones – The Possum and Jesus Christ with their new song “Jesus & Jones,” featured on Nu-Blu’s album ‘All The Way.’ For more information, visit http://www.nu-blu.com and download the song at http://cwired.co/GJ14JJ #TeamGJ
for the official “Jesus and Jones” video
Broken Circle Breakdown: An Enchanting Bluegrass Music Love Story
By Art Menius 4-27-2014
Following its nomination for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars, Felix van Groeningen’s 2012 film from Belgium, Broken Circle Breakdown can now be viewed on iTune, Amazon Prime, and similar paid services as well as limited theatrical release in art houses and performing arts centers via Tribeca Films. His fourth feature, Broken Circle Breakdown previously found box office and critical success in the low countries, leading to two wins at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.
See trailers: http://bcove.me/0ici1bfo
Three currents run through this cinematographic lonesome river. First, Broken Circle Breakdown provides a compelling and quite believable exploration of Europeans obsessed with an American cultural form and the universal experience of falling in love with a particular genre of music. Didier not only picks banjo, but farms, drives a pick up, and wears a cowboy hat. He owns a horse named “Earl” for Scruggs. Elise runs a tattoo parlor and sings with a sultry soulfulness shaped by Alison and Rhonda.
A torrid love story provides the second theme. The sex scenes prove way hotter than in High Lonesome and infinitely more pleasant, if not exactly safe, than Deliverance. Broken Circle Breakdown, moving backwards and forwards in time from first meeting until final goodbye, traces the entire arc of their time together. Their fights, flirtations, and lovemaking ring true consistently. The screen play presented the story consecutively with the time jumping a product of creative storytelling through editing.
Third, and somewhat less pleasingly, the cloying and familiar tale of a sweet child dying at age six because, Didier believes, President G.W. Bush cut back stem cell research. As you can see, the marketing materials don’t put this storyline front and center.
Flemish vocalist and TV star Veerle Baetens plays the then tortured Elise, whose third suicide attempt after the child’s death sadly proves the charm. Five string man Didier, played by Johan Heldenbergh, committed career suicide shortly before by launching into an emotional and rambling diatribe against God between songs at a bluegrass gospel concert with all the band dressed in white suits. Heldenbergh, who appeared in two of van Groeningen’s three previous films, created the 2009 stage play “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” He learned how to play the banjo, guitar, and mandolin for the role as Didier. For the movie, he sings with the Broken Circle Breakdown Band, but you only see his five-string picking while hearing Hank Van Damme (Karl Eriksson) play.
The film gets so many details right. Two minutes into his first conversation with Elise, he is talking about Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. The image of Elise’s face lighting up at the precise moment where she realizes “this is my music” is absolutely perfect. She eventually takes the stage name of Alabama Monroe. Before they make love for the first time, he happily explains why Manzanita is his favorite album. “Tony Rice had such a sweet voice,” he tells Elise, “and then he lost it. What a shame!”
Van Groeningen explained that:
Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident. Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film: life, death, birth, America, motherhood and fatherhood, finding consolation, life after death,… Music is also what unites the couple…. Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story or is even used as an ellipsis. In other places, we select a given song
because it underpins the emotions…. Bjorn Eriksson composed the [new] bluegrass songs and also created the score. Meeting Bjorn was very important for the film, in lots of ways. You have to know that a lot of bluegrass musicians have something nerdy, but that is not how I saw Didier and Elise. Bjorn has been a bluegrass aficionado since he was 16. But he’s also a very cool guy, and so meeting him, influenced not only the sound but also the look of the film. Bjorn conducted the recordings and guided Johan and Veerle’s performances to the max (they sing everything themselves). Bjorn himself plays dobro and guitar.
Falling in love with a banjo player inevitably leads to getting knocked up and no sooner does Elise start singing with the band than she learns she is 13 weeks pregnant. They name their daughter for Maybelle Carter, but cancer claims her much younger. While Maybelle suffers bravely throughly endless treatments and doctors “who won’t give up,” the band grows steadily more successful – moving from bars to concert halls, dressing sharply, and delivering convincing covers of well known titles from “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Over In The Gloryland,” and “Rueben’s Train” to “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” via Gillian Welch, “If I Needed You” from Townes Van Zandt, and Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”
The Broken Circle Breakdown (BCB) Band now tours with increasing frequency in Europe with more than a dozen dates listed for May 2014 alone. The soundtrack from the movie spent eleven weeks at the top of the Flemish Ultratop 50 while going Flemish Platinum and hit number 35 on the Dutch album chart.
“Four stars! One of the finest final scenes in a movie this year… if there were any justice, Veerle Baetens would break out as an international star.” – New York Daily News
“Belgium’s submission for the 2014 foreign language film Oscar is a powerful and haunting tale of love, death and bluegrass — a mournful song played on a broken instrument, with striking visual accompaniment.” – The Observer
- Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Tribeca Film Festival (2013)
- Best Actress, European Film Awards (Berlin 2013)
- Best European Film, Panorama Audience Award, Berlin International Film Festival (2013)
- Best Film, Best Actress, Best Director, Ensor Awards of Flemish Cinema (2013)
- Nominated for Best Foreign Film, 2014 Academy Awards
Why I Left The Folk Alliance Board
By Art Menius
On March 27, 2014, I resigned from the board of directors of Folk Alliance International, the organization I had helped found in 1989. The following is an edited and revised version of the formal letter of resignation that I sent to the board.
I considered seriously going quietly into pasture a second time, as I did in 1996. Speaking out on my own could sound like so much grousing from an old curmudgeon. If nothing else, however, to voice these views forces their discussion, places the ideas into the marketplace.
How does one say goodbye to twenty-five years of one’s life, to separate from an organization that once embodied my core mission? I came to this dire decision in November 2013 when I realized I had no desire whatsoever to go to the first Kansas City conference. One option was not on the table. Neither I, nor anyone of good conscience, can in good faith remain on any non-profit board of directors when one cannot support the direction toward which the majority wants to steer. That is the difference between government service and a non-profit board. The latter runs on consensus; it is wrong to hang on when running against the flow.
I come from a Folk Alliance where Marta Moreno Vega of the Network of Cultural Centers of Color is the speaker not Al Gore, making millions off a faux-progressive platform. No one who has ever supported censorship of song lyrics is a friend of folk music, no matter how well rooted his family traditions. You can, thus, hear Al Gore Sr. play “Soldiers Joy” at the 1938 National Folk Festival here: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/afc/afccc/soldiersjoy/gore.mp3
I had been attempting to write this letter for three months without progress until I read an editorial in the March 2 Chapel Hill News http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2014/02/28/3655641/linda-haac-tale-of-two-towns.html. The background is that I work and serve on town commissions in Carrboro, one of the most left leaning towns in the southeast. While Chapel Hill has fallen under the sway of developers and retirees desiring lower taxes, Carrboro sticks with small, locally owned, locally sourced, organic, walk-bike-free bus, no big box retailers, no structure more than five stories, & etc. Linda Haac wrote:
It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and “so-called progress” needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track.
This contrast between two adjoining towns similar in so, so many ways (even gay mayors) frames the issues I have with FAI to a large degree. Growth and change will happen, but do we stay true to our core values in the process or adapt to mainstream fashions. I believe Folk Alliance, like Chapel Hill, has chosen the latter course, conflating what is best for business with what is best for the larger community.
Folk music is a business, but it is not just any business. Whether klezmer, Cajun, or bluegrass, community comes first and communities are based in shared values.
In recent years, Folk Alliance International has built on an earned income chassis and operated with earned income assumptions, rather than thinking like a non-profit charity. FAI reduces itself to the transactional pay for membership and a conference, rather than raising donated funds to change the world for the better by educating the general public about folk music and its traditions. That changes our mission into making money to stay in or grow the business instead of making the world a better place. Organizations under section 501(c)3 exist to do what the marketplace cannot support.
That process further pushes the FAI membership into the meaningless and ephemeral world of entertainment. Rather than a community annealed by shared traditions, purpose, and, yes, values, our artist members just become entertainers trying to advance their careers to the next level, a level that makes Folk Alliance irrelevant to them.
Do values matter to the Folk Alliance International? I always held they were essential. I know firsthand that values led Clark and Elaine Weissman to call us together at Camp Hess Kramer in January 1989. As Bush replaced Reagan and the culture wars annealed our community in a way that may not have existed since the 1940s. Even the agents and commercial media reps who attended saw folk music as part of the larger non-profit arts world, not the commercial music industry. We wanted to live and work our whole lives in the folk music community, not use folk music as a means to somewhere else.
Under US IRS Tax Code, Folk Alliance was created as a 501(c)3 educational non-profit, not a 501(c)6 business league. Many in our community may feel the need for a 501(c)6 business league or trade association along the lines of IBMA, CMA, or AMA. I have no objection to that, but that has to be a new 501(c)6 and not a pre-existing 501(c)3 educational charity. We did not try take over CDSS (the Country Dance & Song Society which remains larger than FAI), but created a new organization focused on our needs and shaped by our values.
To paraphrase “House of Cards:” “The nature of non-profit missions is that they are immune to changing circumstances.” Our community needs an organization that is for, by, and about the folk music community in Canada and the USA, that unites and advocates for the non-profit folk arts presenting world, protects government funding for the folk arts at federal and provincial/state level, educates about and celebrates our traditions, connects us to the academic and public folklore sectors, and places folk arts within grassroots community arts.
That is why we formed this organization 25 years ago. That is why a couple of dozen of us invested vast amounts of time and money to make Folk Alliance a reality. These are tasks that neither a for-profit business nor a 501(c)6 trade association are not designed to do. Nor are they short term goals that can be changed over time to suit membership recruitment goals. In those configurations, where business and trade dominate, principles are devalued. Decisions that should be made in the best interests of the long term good of the folk community are made for what is good for the Folk Alliance as a business.
Aware in January 1989 both of the appropriateness of meeting at a Jewish summer camp and the irony of convening across the PCH from the fabled beaches of Malibu (while ignorant that The Band had rehearsed there), we discussed and reaffirmed our values. One hundred twenty of us made a group commitment to the folk music community in Canada and the USA.
Values do matter. Values are long term, like art. Our values shape our community. Values sustain organizations and given meaning to their work. Today is the time when our voices are needed more than ever within folk music and without. As one of the people that Elaine and Clark Weissman recruited to support this effort, as one of 120 at Malibu in 1989, as a member of the Steering Committee, as our first president and first employee of Folk Alliance, I believe these are our values:
- We are the music of both of authentic communities and cultures and of the left in North America.
- We stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Hedy West, Jean Carignan, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sarah Ogun Gunning.
- We offer an alternative to mainstream, corporate culture
- We believe in non-profit organizations as the primary means to organize our community
- We are committed to building audiences through grassroots communities
- We believe in government and foundation funding for arts, arts education, and arts in education
- We believe in our folk traditions
- We believe in an equal Canadian-American partnership within Folk Alliance, acting as if population and membership numbers were equal.
- We appeal to the best collective notions – embodied by singing together – not base self-interest
- We need one strong voice to advocate for folk music and dance in Canada and the USA
- We understand that not all singer-songwriters nor all acoustic music is folk.
Folk Alliance International has morphed in recent years into the antithesis of much of we wanted to create back then. While still a fun gathering of the tribes, the conference no longer affirms the essential values of the folk music community in North America. Without values to guide us, we become just a trade association, not a 501(c)3 charity. When the voices expressing those values are marginalized and consigned to the dustbin of history rather than celebrated as the foundation of our community, FAI has gone astray.
Where have we strayed from the course?
- We are more about advancing individual careers than serving the folk music community.
- Trying to build the audience for FAI more than building the audience for folk music through strong grassroots communities, organizations, and businesses. This suggests conflating FAI with the folk music community.
- Yet I have become convinced that FAI uses a pay to play business model that exploits the hopes and dreams of musicians rather than advancing our field. It is true that every year, the Folk Alliance International conference jumpstarts the careers of any number of artists. On the other hand, far greater numbers invest their time and money chasing the dream in private showcase after private showcase. Are we any better footed morally than the showcase clubs in Nashville and LA? Some people call the conference a festival, and it does feel like one at night. We were created to serve the field of non-profit folk music presenters, neither to compete with our members as an event nor to use artists as an income stream.
- Turning to an outside search firm for the next ED tells me that we are adopting and modeling as “professionalism” the worst values of mainstream American corporate capitalism – not the traditional folk community values.
- The sheer hubris of talking about international expansion when so much work remains to be done in the USA and Canada
- Behaving as if we were a 501(c)6 trade association – depending on dues and conference revenue – rather than a 501(c)3 charity whose impact, growth, and effectiveness are funded through donations and grants. Increasing revenue for the organization thereby becomes more important than serving the greater folk music community or, for a trade association, business.
- Failing to serve effectively as one strong advocacy voice for the folk community with private and government funders and policy makers at all levels
Those are the key points. That which was created to serve community, now works for individual goals. Careerism has displaced values.