Monday, December 29, 2008

New Zealand -- Bust Them Broncs Down Under

Shades of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman....

It's reported that some 5,000 people attended the rodeo in Waimate, New in its 53rd year...

(OK, OK, their movie, which I haven't seen and based on the trailer and reviews I doubt if I will, is "Australia, " not "New Zealand", but Australian rodeo cowboys took part in this event.......)

TEST OF WILLS: Ashburton rider Brad Caley was holding on tight during the Open Bareback event at the Waimate Rodeo on Saturday.

About 200 riders from New Zealand, Australia and Canada showcased their skills with a stand-out performance from Lawrence rider Simon Roughan in the Open Saddle Bronc.

Weekend visitors were also entertained by steer wrestling, craft stalls and plenty of tasty tucker.

Read Full Article

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Slovakia -- RIP Dobrofest (at least for now) and RIP Cowboy Beckham

So, football star David Beckham is no longer going to be the advertising face of Pepsi Cola....Over the past 10 years in the job, he reminisced:
"I’ve played a gladiator, a cowboy, a surfer, and worked alongside Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez as well as some of the biggest names in world football. "
The tears are flowing....but why mention it on this blog? Well, I thought I'd mark the solemn occasion by recalling how a Pepsi poster with Beckham in his cowboy persona formed part of the atmospheric decor of a Wild West saloon in the little Slovak town of Trnava...

The photo was taken during the annual Dobrofest festival there -- I guess I have to call it the late, lamented Dobrofest, because municipal authorities, who sponsored the festival, have decided there will be no Dobrofest this year, and who knows if it will be revived.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Real tears are flowing over the demise of Dobrofest.

It was a wonderful festival that honored the resonator (or resophonic) guitar, one of my favorite instruments (especially when it's played by Lubos Novotny, of the Czech band Druha Trava. He's a genius on it).

Lubos Novotny (and Peter Rowan) at Dobrofest in 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The festival was founded in 1992, just when Slovakia was gaining independence through its "velvet divorce" from the Czech Republic. The country was, subconsciously perhaps, looking for national heroes, and John Dopyera, who invented the dobro, became one -- the archetypical local boy who made good, even though he left the country to do so.... Dopyera was born in the village of Dolna Krupa, near Trnava, in 1893 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1908. They ended up in California.

States the Dobrofest web site:

The sound of the resophonic or resonator guitar dobro has already hadseven decades of contribution to popular music. Its first appearance on the music scene began in the mid-twenties of 20th century in the USA, where today it is regarded as an American folk instrument, and since those times its use expanded into the whole world. It was created during the times when the musicians who played guitars felt the need for a louder sound for their instruments yet the possibility of electrification was still in the cradle. Clever application of acoustic sound technology, by which the metal resonators work like natural mechanical amplifiers, expressively changed the sound of popular music and went into the history forever.

Although it is undoubtedly one of the most significant artistic-craftmanship-technical inventions by which Slovakia through its natives enriched the world´s musical culture, the fact that the inventor of resophonic dobro was Slovak native Ján/John Dopyera (1893-1988), was until lately practically unknown. In June 1989, however, one year after John Dopyera´s death, a newspaper article came out with the information that the inventor of the dobro was from Slovakia. It is very symbolic, that the first article appeared directly in Trnava (in the monthly Culture and Life of Trnava), the same town where a couple years later there arose the international music festival Dobrofest-Trnava dedicated to the inventor´s memory.

In this way Trnava succeeded in discovering this famous native for the whole of Slovakia and later, through the Dobrofest, gave that information to the world. We can say without exaggerating, that the end of the 20th century belonged to the dobro in the worldwide music scene as well as in Slovakia. The resophonic guitar came back again to the foreground, after decades of eclipse due to electrical amplification, on the fashion wave of return to acoustic music and became literally the symbol of so called unplugged music.

Year after year, Dobrofest brought top international musicians to Trnava, including the Americans Peter Rowan, Bob Brozman and Jerry Douglas.

The extraordinary Bob Brozman at Dobrofest 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

And a Dobro Museum - the "Dobro Hall of Fame" -- was established as part of the local Museum of Western Slovakia.

Dobro Hall of Fame museum, Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

So, read this and weep....

Friday, December 26, 2008

Country Music - Questions (and answers?)

At the Country Piknik, Mragowo, Poland, 2006. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

I came across a question and answer session on pegged to the question Why don't most people like country music?

"im 13 years old, live in california and i personally LOVE country music (and i mean REAL country). i dont see anything wrong with country music even though growing up in a family who only listened to rap. i just dont understand why some people despise country!"
The replies (and the question) made me think of my friend, the Polish country singer Lonstar, and his recent English-language album called "What's This Country Thing?" -- which is also the name of the title song, the first part of which you can hear on Lonstar's myspace page.

Lonstar performing at the Berlin Country Music Messe, Feb. 2007. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

The gist of the song is Lonstar's answers to a "lady" who asks the question, "What's this country thing" -- i.e. what is the appeal of country music. In Europe, where hardcore fans often dress up in wild west attire (and drink a lot... and line-dance a lot...), country music is often scorned by the mainstream. Lovers of pure American country music are sometimes embarrassed by the raucous "scene" -- such as that associated with the trucker festivals and other big events, where a carnival atmosphere can prevail. Many country music fans scorn, in particular, local-language country music, sung by local musicians in German, Czech, Polish, French.....

For example, in his book Das Neue Grosse Buch der Country Music (Koenigswinter: Heel, 2005), my friend Walter Fuchs, a staunch country music fan and one of Germany's most serious experts on the genre, wrote:
"[T]hat the German language country song, [. . .] with its interpreters dressed up like cowboys and its partly banal to infantile text has brought the altogether serious German Country Music scene into discredit is undisputed. Numerous friends of country music often do not dare to 'out' themselves in front of their friends for fear of being identified as a fan of German language country songs. [. . .] The German language country song and the original country song from the U.S.A. are worlds apart."

All photos (c) R. E. Gruber.

In his song -- which he sings in both Polish and English versions, Lonstar sets out to show his skeptical questioner that there is more to country music (and "country") than that.

He sings: "you criticize it, saying that it's kid stuff, backward and bad taste, stuff we should grow out of, dirty trash and waste."
"Country's not about a boot or a cowboy hat, you should learn about it just a little more than that. It's a life that prides every word to the music of your laughter, crying, joy and hurt. A friend you can rely on, faithful to the bone. If it feels like home, then it's country.

"Simple man and scholar, granny, dad and son; poor man and a rich man, there's room for everyone. And you insinuate it's isolated, 'cos pearls and swine don't mix. You claim it's a pastime, good for fools and hicks -- which is a lie, 'cos we have loving couples, and the cheatin' wives, those who've just got fired, and those who've won a prize, united in the country music circle, good as daily bread. Why don't you drop this line of accusation, lady, join our bunch instead. And see for yourself...."

(Earlier this year, I posted a video of Lonstar singing at the Mragowo Country Piknik.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

India -- Indian Movie Cowboys

We all know about the Spaghetti Westerns, the Karl May films and the DEFA East German Indianer film .... but, weeding out some old emails, I have just come across this remarkable blog posting from July about Indian actors (that is, from India) playing cowboys in Indian Western movies.

The posting, on the blog by Shaileh Limbachiya, describes Indian (especially Hindi) movie cowboys who were active mainly in a slew of films in the 1970s and 80s

They were basically inspired from Clint eastwood, Gregory pack and all other those once upon a time movie cowboys of hollywood. But our cowboys had qualities of those cowboys with essential benefits or qualities of Indian culture. Like western cowboys they used to ride on horses, wear boots, jeans and shooting bullets like playing with toys� but could also dance and sing very well, must fall in love with village girl etc etc. Most of our good cowboys had Daku or Thakur/zameendar as their hard targets.

The posting has wonderful photos of Indian cowboy actors -- and details a facet of the Imaginary Wild West of which I was utterly unaware.

According to the blogger,
FEROZ KHAN was the best Indian cowboy hindi films have ever seen. He had no name in Khote Sikke but whenever he used to appear on screen; special whistle used to play and he sing that hit song �jeevan mein darna nahin, sar nich kabhi karma nahin�� He superbly represented that arrogant nature and attitude. Instad of jacket he wore balck shawl shirt.

khote Sikke

In the film Joshilay
Dara(Sunny Deol) and Karan (Anil Kapoor) were the young, energetic, egoist and handsome cowboys. They had their pasts and had target to destroy Jogi thakur (Rajesh vivek) and Kulbhshan Kharbanda. I liked dusty nature and action of the movie. Joshiley had good cinematography representing landscapes of Rajasthan. Also the title song “Joshilay shehzaade hain” when Sunny and Anil are riding on horses - was beautifully composed and picturised.

Here's a video of that song

Anyway -- the blog post is eye-opening. I know next to nothing about the Indian cinema, but the posters, photos and other material on this post (also the comments) are fascinating and shed a lot of light on the vast reach of America's "foundation saga" and mythology.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Karl May -- Indonesian Links

Dana Weber, who is doing her PhD on Karl May festivals, has come across Karl May web sites in Indonesia....It's not Europe, but it is the imaginary wild west. I wonder how this German version of American translates into Asia...

Check out and indokarlmay. com

Friday, December 19, 2008

Canada's imagineNATIVE's CULTURE SHOCK program at Berlin Film Festival

The Canadian indigenous film and media arts project ImagineNATIVE's CULTURE SHOCK PROGRAM will have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2009.

Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal artists Bonnie Devine (Ojibway), Keesic Douglas (Ojibway), Darryl Nepinak (Saulteaux) and Bear Witness (Cayuga) respond to the image of native people as portrayed in the 1960s Karl May films in West Germany (featuring the French actor Pierre Brice as May's Apache hero Winnetou) and the "Indianer Films" in communist-era East Germany (often starring the Yugoslav-born actor Gojko Mitic -- who went on to play Winnetou in stage productions after German reunification).

States the press release:

For the program, four artists were selected to respond to two films from West and East German film collections, provided by the Goethe-Institut Toronto. The films represented classic German cinematic interpretations of Indigenous North Americans from the 1960s, such as the infamous Winnetou films based on Karl May's novels popular in West German cinema and the so-called "Red Westerns" created by East Germany's legendary DEFA studios. The artists created four new video works in response to the two films that had their world premiere at imagineNATIVE in October 2008. The Culture Shock program was accompanied by a publication provided by V tape with essays by curator Steven Loft and guest writer Stephen S. Foster.

Pierre Brice and Lex Barker in Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi (Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi)

imagineNATIVE's Artistic Director Danis Goulet stated: "The presentation of Culture Shock will be a landmark showing of Canadian Indigenous-made works at the Berlin International Film Festival and represents a breakthrough year. It is a significant accomplishment for the artists and curator of the program to have their incredible works presented in such a renowned and international forum."

For the full press release and links, click HERE

Gojko Mitic in Die Söhne der großen Bärin (The Sons of the Great Bear)

I saw Gojko Mitic perform as Winnetou several years ago at the annual Karl May Festival in Bad Segeberg, Germany (founded nearly 60 years ago). And I actually met him this year at the Karl May Festival in Radebeul -- he was a guest of honor, dressed, this time, as a cowboy. (At some point, I'll post the interview I did with him.)

Below, here I am with Gojko and with Dana Weber, who is doing her PhD on Karl May festivals.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cowboy and Country-Western Saloons

Swinging door saloon, Pilsen, CZ. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Sam Corbett writes about U Bocmana, a country-western saloon in the current issue of the NYU student online magazine The Prague Wanderer. (He quotes me....)

Places like this are "wild western spaces" par excellence, and there are dozens of such saloons (with or without swinging doors and spittoons) in various European countries -- I have visited them in Germany, Poland, CZ, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia....

Some are just bars or cafes; some feature live music; some are full-service restaurants. Most are individual, privately-run venues, but in Poland there is even a chain of western-style restaurants called "Sioux." There is also a big chain of western-style steak-house restaurants in France (with outlets in Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg) called "Buffalo Grill."

One of my first experiences in the Imaginary Wild West was, in fact, a cowboy-style party in a country-western roadhouse in a remote village in southern Bohemia....I was led there by Willie Jones, an American who at the time was working as a singing cowboy at the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria. Along with a Slovak bluegrass group, we traveled in a three-car convoy from Pullman City into CZ.

The road house was in a village too small to appear on my map. From the outside it looked like an anonymous village restaurant, but inside it was decorated with Wild West paraphernalia including horseshoes, sepia photographs of Native Americans and Billy the Kid, and a framed arrangement of pistols and playing cards.

The occasion for the party was the 50th birthday of Franz Zetihammel, a figure well known on the Czech and German western show circuit for his portrayals “Fuzzy,” an “old coot” persona harking back to characters played by comic western actors such as Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Fuzzy has long straggly grey hair and beard and never appears in public without his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo tie and other jewelry.

A Czech country duo got the guests up and dancing with locally written Czech country songs and Czech covers of American hits such as John Denver’s “Country Roads” and even “I’m and Okie from Muskokee.”

One of the party guests, a man in his forties, was dressed head to toe in full cowboy attire, including sheriff’s star and a six-shooter – which Fuzzy at one point pulled from its holster, brandished at the dancers and then fired at the ceiling – fortunately, it was loaded with blanks....

(I haven't been back to that place -- I'm sure I could never find it again. But I ran into Fuzzy last year; he was working as the blacksmith at the Halter Valley private wild west town near Pilsen in CZ.)

Fuzzy, Halter Valley, 2007. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Here is a slideshow of several country/western saloons in Europe. All pictures (c) R. E. Gruber:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kenyan Cowboy Shirts

I love it! Cowboy shirts from Kenya! They are made from discarded clothing "from around the world" and shipped from Canada. Part of the proceeds goes to charity.

From the FAQ from the web site:
The shirts cost $75cad - thats alot - what are you doing with the money?

Our tailors have set their own prices and we try to ensure that people involved in the process are happy. We hire people to help name the shirts, create exclusive music (mp3s) to go with the shirts (coming soon) and will continue to find ways in which more people can be financially involved in the process. Also, our costs for shipping from Africa is a bit on the high side.

Are you connected to a charity project like building schools or feeding children?

Yes. A portion of the proceeds goes directly to a lunch feeding program for school children in our neighbourhood of Rongai video link to some clips. Also, we plan to start a community cleanup & recycling business that will receive 10% of profits from Kilakitu - staff will work on cleaning up the environment in Rongai (where our business is based).

Is there a ladies line?

We have an awesome cowgirl dress coming down the pipelines - first thing in 2009. Its going to be amazing - designed to be worn over jeans (or not ;).

I see African models wearing the shirts, are they just for Africans?

The Kenyan Cowboy is for everyone! It just happens that this first model shoot we did at Olepolos, Kenya was an all Kenyan cast! Here is a pic of me in one of my shirts or watch the fashion show video for diversity.

Are all the shirts the same style?

Yes - the Kenyan Cowboy is cut after a classic 1970s Stetson shirt. The style and cut of each shirt is the same and only the size, color, fabric and patterns of the patches differ. Check your sizes

Speaking of Kenya and the global reach of American pop culture, one of the things I did when I visited Nairobi 30 years ago was to go to the movies to see a documentary about Elvis Presley.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thailand -- Yet Another Cowboy Town!

Eugene Tang reports on his blog on yet another Wild West town in Thailand -- this one is called Farm Chokchai, and it's a working dairy farm and cattle ranch, founded in 1957, as well as a sort of cowboy theme park with various activities including a petting zoo and western show.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

OWSS in Trevi -- Gunfight at Fort Alamo

OWSS match, Trevi. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

I spent much of the weekend at a shooting match of the Old West Shooting Society, the Italian branch of the U.S. Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), which I joined last month. (See my post about it.)

This time, the match was held at the shooting range in Trevi, a gorgeous hilltown in Umbria between Assisi and Spoleto. It's an olive-oil zone, and the town sits proudly on a steep slope covered with thousands and thousands of olive trees -- in my area of Umbria most people I know, including myself, finished our harvest last month, but many trees are still loaded around Trevi, and harvesters were out working. This was, in fact, the first good weather for days...

Trevi, amid olives. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

The Trevi shooting range dates from 1883; it's an indoor facility, located above Trevi in a grove of trees near the town cemetery -- there's lots of green-painted wood, and you stand in a protected area to shoot at targets that are set up in the open.

The weekend match was based on the Cowboy Action Shooting "scenario" called Gunfight at Fort Alamo. Participants, all dressed in cowboy or Old West attire, use a pump-action rifle, two revolvers and a shotgun -- all replicas of 19th century Wild West weapons -- to shoot, in specified sequence, at three sets of targets, set up at various distances. The object is to hit all the targets, in the proper sequence, with the correct weapon, in the shortest time. So it's accuracy plus speed. The sequence is meant to recall (or invent) a situation that supposedly took place during the defense of the Alamo. (To see the full instructions, in Italian, click HERE.)

Trevi, OWSS match. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

I had been told that the event took place both Saturday and Sunday, so I drove over to Trevi (about 65 km from my house) on Saturday morning, but I only found a couple people there, including Stefano (AKA Marshal Steven Gardiner, his OWSS nickname.)

There were too few people to compete, but again I was able to get a little lesson in shooting -- this time I hit the target with (I think) all my shots, from both the revolver and the rifle.

Today (Sunday) I returned for the match proper -- the other competitors had arrived Saturday afternoon and evening. There were, I guess, 12 or 15 competitors, some of whom I had met last month at the OWSS convention. People had come from as far away as Treviso, in the Veneto region -- 500 km. Except for the wife of one of the contestants, I was the only woman there.

It was fun to watch and to shmooze with some of the guys, but I didn't take part in the match -- I'm not yet at ease enough with the weapons. But I do intend to compete when I feel a bit more confident. Particularly as the level of skill among the contestants was quite varied -- there were a couple of really good, smooth marksmen, but a couple of the others would never have come out of a High Noon shoot-out alive...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Oh no! A Wild West Theme Park in Thailand, Too!

The Thongsomboon Club in Thailand enables you to "Be a Cowboy or Red Indian Chief".

On his tourismthailand blog, Eugene Tang reports -- with great pictures:

I was there two months ago and it was hard to tell that you are in Thailand. A memorable cowboy-themed party organised by TAT to welcome travel agents and media who went on the Northeastern route during the Mega Fam trip. A night filled with good BBQ food, drink, games and a spectacular performance by the staffs of Thongsomboon and Chok Chai. If you are planning for a special event venue for BTMICE, you may consider Thongsomboon club.

It is also a popular film location for cowboy-themed movie and a battlefield for periodic drama and Pakchong is fast becoming the City of Cowboys and Indians and a Pakchong Cowboy Festival is held annually in Thongsomboon club.

I've read recent articles about other wild west theme parks and events (and country music) in Asia -- Japan and China. (Saw a Chinese country video a few years ago, too.)

And then there is the Indian-born country singer Rajah Khan -- sometimes referred to as the "Turban Cowboy" -- I have his album "Texan by Choice"....

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Not Europe but Imagination -- Kareem Salama

I thought I had posted about Kareem Salama, the Oklahoma-born Arab-American country singer, the son of Egyptian immigrants, when he performed in Rome earlier this year, but maybe I didn't...

The New York Times profiled him last year, and Weekend America runs a piece on him this week:
In high school, Kareem Salama spent a lot of time at the rodeo and drove a Silverado pick-up truck. Ever since he was little, he knew exactly what he wanted to be.

"I always wore a black cowboy hat and I used to wear my boots and I used to wear a cowboy necktie. I was pretty much into that kind of thing," Kareem says.

His favorite music was Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, and Alabama. That might be in part because, he says, country music is like "crickets" in Oklahoma. "It's not really whether you like it or you don't, it's just part of the culture. I don't meet people in Oklahoma who don't like country music."

But listening to country music isn't enough for Kareem Salama: He wants to be a star. He's already recorded two albums and just got back from a European tour.

Kareem's parents are engineers from Egypt and they immigrated to Ponca City, Oklahoma to work in the oil business. At first, slow-talking Oklahomans drove his mom crazy, but Kareem was born in Oklahoma. No one could stop him from loving it.

Salama makes a good news story because as a Muslim American of Arab descent, he doesn't fit the stereotype of the typical country singer. (Similarly, I got good rides out of profiles I've written about Kinky Friedman and Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson, both of whom are Jewish.)

I like Salama's music, which is pretty straightforward country/Americana. I found it amusing that the newspaper listing I saw for him in Italy -- a country where country music is little-known and generally scorned -- tried to sell his music as a world music hybrid, claiming that he enriched the Americana with Arabic and Middle Eastern themes....

Also, the stories European performers tell me resonate a lot with what Kareem says in the biographical essay on his web site, particularly the way he talks about his immigrant parents and their embrace of their new culture and how they immersed him in it, too.
Oklahoma is a hybrid of Southern, Western and Native American culture and thanks to my mother’s insatiable desire to learn and experience new things she made sure that I and everyone in my family was immersed in all of it.

As a child, I went to Indian Tribal Powwows, heard country music artists at the county fair and watched my favorite cowboys at the rodeo every year. My mother would take us to nearby Western Arkansas just to watch an outdoor play in an amphitheater. My parents would take us to Branson, Missouri in the summertime where we’d watch live shows, listen to bluegrass music and make wax candles like it was done in the old times. They even took us to Opryland and the famous Grand Old Opry in Tennessee.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Czech Republic -- Bluegrass Article in Prague Post

I am quoted -- and this blog mentioned! -- in an article in the Prague Post on the Czech bluegrass scene, about which I have written extensively.

Pickin' and grinnin'

Far from its home in the American South, a thriving bluegrass scene

By Darrell Jónsson
For The Prague Post
December 3rd, 2008

“These blues are so blue. They are the coal black blues/ For my place will cave in and my life I will lose” wrote American folk musician Alvin Pleasant Carter in 1938. In the years following World War II, the Carter family and musicians like Bill Monroe found plenty of true believers for their brand of tragic but high-spirited music on both sides of the Atlantic.

Musically, the multithreaded form Monroe would coin as “bluegrass” contained all the dynamism of the first African-American banjos, the postwar energy of jazz and the lyricism of Appalachian Anglo-Celt ballads. Filtering the spirit of the times through the use of acoustic instruments enabled bluegrass to travel from its Southern birthplace to anywhere a guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass (or, in a pinch, a washtub) could be found.

With most of these instruments available in Europe, it wasn’t surprising that this infectious music excited enthusiasts throughout the Continent. And, as writer Ruth Ellen Gruber, who chronicles Central Europe’s “virtual West” on her blog “Sauerkraut Cowboys,” notes, “Of all European countries, east or west, it is the Czech Republic where country and especially bluegrass have been most totally assimilated, or reinvented, as genuine local traditions.”
Read Full Story

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Edition of Karl May & Co. Magazine

Karl May Festival, Radebeul, May 2008. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

The latest edition of the Karl May & Co. magazine arrived today. The magazine, which comes out four times a year, is a beautifully produced compendium of everything related to the world of Karl May, the German author who died in 1912 and created the most enduring of Europe's Wild West heroes -- the Apache chief Winnetou and his "blood brother", "Old Shatterhand," a young German immigrant/adventurer. Each issue is full of articles on all aspects of May's life, work and legacy -- the festivals that take place each year, the movies, the distinctive sound tracks, the actors, the landscapes, the cartoons and other spin-offs, the scholarly works....

Much has been written, in print and on line, about Karl May and his key role in helping shape the imaginary wild west among millions of Europeans over more than a century.

I have posted a number of entries and photographs related to May, his work and his legacy on this blog -- search in the labels, or click HERE to see the list. (You may view some of my published articles by clicking here or here or here.)

Karl May & Co. is celebrating 25 years of publication with a festival weekend next May; gala dinner, VIP guests, the works. Its editors are lively young people, and I enjoy spending time with them when we meet at festivals. I was happy to provide photographs for one of this year's issues -- pictures of Gojko Mitic, a legendary, Yugoslav-born actor who played Winnetou in German stage productions after making a career as a Native American in communist-era East German "Indianer" (or "red western") films.

Other Karl May-related anniversaries are also taking place. This year, for example, marks the 80th anniversary of the Karl May Museum, located in May's former home, the "Villa Shatterhand", in Radebeul near Dresden (scene of the annual Karl May Festival). It is also, I learned from the magazine, the 90th anniversary of the publication of the first "Karl May Jahrbuch," or yearbook.

This edition of the magazine provides information on a number of upcoming cultural events relating to the imaginary wild west. These include a big exhibition, "Sitting Bull und Seine Welt," to be held at the Ubersee Museum in Bremen, Germany, Dec. 13- May 3.

Each summer there are at least a dozen open-air Karl May theater festivals around Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic... the new edition of the magazine lists the dates for the 2009 season-- and the online version of the magazine provides links to many of them. Click HERE.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bluegrass: New EWOB web site

The European World of Bluegrass has launched a new web site with information and links pertaining to the 2009 EWOB Festival, to be held May 21-23, 2009 in the Netherlands.

On the site there will be updated information on festival arrangement. Also, you can hear clips from all 48 tracks on new the 10 years of European World of Bluegrass double CD. There's also a photo gallery from past festivals, with interactive space.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Imaginary Wild West -- Brokeback Dreidel

Since this blog is about the Imaginary Wild West, I can't help but post this seasonal offering:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Country Music Goes to China...

At some point over the past few years -- I cant remember just where I was -- I saw a TV show from China featuring country music and dancing costumed "cowboys"....

From The Nashville Business Journal
Nov. 18, 2008

A Nashville company is promoting the country music brand in China.

James Stroud, president of Ronnie Gilley Entertainment and Stroudavarious Records, has entered into an arrangement with the People’s Republic of China to officiate a cross-cultural movement to exchange music and cultural values.

Read Full Story

Country Music -- Two Views

These two articles -- one from The New Republic and one from the Wall Street Journal -- are about the state of country music in the USA, not in Europe. But the constrasting views are interesting regarding the genre as a whole, so I feel that the links are worth posting together.

The New Republic

Country First?


How country music lost the election--and why that may be the best thing to happen to the genre in years

Admittedly, it's difficult to fire up a crowd before a concession speech. Yet on an Arizona stage on election night, there stood Hank Williams Jr. and Big & Rich's John Rich, alone with their guitars and trying, in vain, to rouse John McCain's admirers shortly before McCain officially threw in the towel. In an election full of culturally symbolic moments, here was another: the sight of two country stars, from two different generations, looking testy yet powerless--visual proof that among the many losers in last week's elections was country music itself.

Read Full Story


Why Country Not Only Survived but Thrived

By Barry Mazor

Wall Street Journal, Nov. 18, 2008

Nashville, Tenn.

If you tuned in to the CMA Awards on ABC last week to catch performances by young country stars Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley and Sugarland, or by veterans Alan Jackson and George Strait, you are not alone. This year's telecast of the country music awards was seen by more than 34 million viewers. You might have seen the September telecast of last summer's CMA Music Festival, too -- the only festival of any musical variety that is broadcast on network prime time. If you're not sure who or what the "CMA" behind those events is, you're not entirely alone in that, either. But the Country Music Association, based in Nashville, is marking its 50th anniversary this month.

Today, country music is an exception in the ailing music business, a genre still thriving in tough times.

Read Full Story

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Italy -- I join OWSS-SASS (and hit a target)

Cowboy Action Shooting match, Italy, Nov. 16, 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

As I wrote earlier, I spent the weekend at the convention of the Old West Shooting Society, the Italian branch of American SASS (the Single Action Shooting Society), a club/organization devoted to "preserving and promoting" the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting. According to the SASS web site, SASS endorses:
regional matches conducted by affiliated clubs, stages END of TRAIL The World Championship of Cowboy Action Shooting, promulgates rules and procedures to ensure safety and consistency in Cowboy Action Shooting matches, and seeks to protect its members' 2nd Amendment rights. SASS members share a common interest in preserving the history of the Old West and competitive shooting.
The OWSS convention took place in a lovely hotel complex near Gualdo Tadino in the hills of Umbria. Saturday night there was a gala dinner (antipasto, tagliatelle with meat sauce, tagliata with rughetta and roast potatoes, semifreddo, lots of wine and spumante...), and Sunday there was a Cowboy Action Shooting match at a nearby shooting range high up on a forested hill.

The dinner was preceded by an awards ceremony, where trophy cups were presented to first, second and third-place winners of the various shooting competition categories.

Most of the 70 or so guests dressed up in some sort of costume inspired by the "old west" of the late 19th century. Me too, as below, posing with another guest:

Some of the costumes were merely suggestive of the period -- some men simply wore vests or long frock coats and/or cowboy boots. Others were very elaborate -- a couple of women had full, floor-length evening-style dresses. But some guests came in "normal" clothing.

Once again it was brought home to me -- as it has been during my visits with hobbyists and to festivals in Germany, France, Czech Republic, etc -- that men especially look terrific in this type of clothing!

OWSS was only founded a couple of years ago but now has, I was told, about 400 members and chapters in a number of towns in Italy. Most of them seem to be in the north, and I met people from Brescia, Treviso, Vittorio Veneto and elsewhere (including Florence and Naples). The group included people of all ages and from a wide range of professions. Most looked to be in their 30s or 40s. There were a couple of families with children, but also "seniors" and some who looked to be in their 20s. I met a guy who works for the state railway, a woman who runs a shop, a man who installs home appliances, a guy who works for the Telecom, businessmen of various sorts, etc etc.

I was surprised to recognize someone whom I had known in Rome years ago -- Federico Polidori, a fine leather worker who produces beautiful bags, saddles, holsters and other accessories.

Most members are men, and they seem to have been attracted to the club because of the sport -- most of those whom I talked with had already had been involved with target shooting or other shooting sports. The dress-up and general relaxed atmosphere also is an attraction. Everyone who joins OWSS (or SASS) has to choose a wild west alias, or nickname: "Bandito", "Old Bill," "Oversize," etc.

Cowboy Action Shooting (as I found out at the match on Sunday) has specific rules and disciplines, called "scenarios". Basically, it's general marksmanship combined with speed, based on "scenarios" that include a variety of targets -- and shooters both dress in period attire and use pistols or rifles that date from (or, actually, are replicas of) weapons from the late 19th century. Several Italian companies (Chiappa, Pietta, Pedersoli, etc) produce such weapons and sponsor the events. Competitions take place in several European countries, and people I met this weekend regaled me with stories of a recent trip to Slovakia and, most importantly, to the SASS "End of Trail" meet in the USA. The Italian group, in fact, had hosted the European "End of Trail" international meet this summer.

I signed up to join the OWSS (which automatically makes me a member of SASS.) And, as I anticipated in an earlier post, I based my preferred alias on my Texan grandmother's name: "Miz Flora."

On Sunday morning, I made my way to the shooting range, property of a local gun club. I watched the action for awhile and then said my good-byes. Before I left, one of the club officials showed me how to do something I had never done before in my life -- shoot a gun! He showed me how to load pistols, aim, fire and observe safety procedures. I fired full five shots from two pistrols -- and with the second, I hit the target four out of five shots.

Friday, November 14, 2008

European Bluegrass Summit in February

The EBMA reports that there will be a "European Bluegrass Summit" in Buehl, Germany in Feburary. Doubtlessly, my friend Walter Fuchs, a country music fan/DJ, expert and author, is involved -- he founded an annual bluegrass festival in Buehl, and has been tireless in promoting the music.

Get the details by clicking HERE.

The stated aims are:

* To provide an opportunity for a wide audience of up to forty participants to meet face to face, bond, and get to know each other,

* To highlight some of the issues affecting the promotion of bluegrass music in Europe,

* To explore the issues facing different countries and different cultures in Europe,

* To motivate people to work together more closely and to communicate more effectively.

There's a steering committee -- but it seems a little odd that there are no Czechs on it, given that there is more bluegrass per capita in the Czech Republic than just about anywhere else....

More SASSY-ness....

Here's another article about the Single Action Shooting Society in the USA, and what it calls the "growing sport of Cowboy Action Shooting."

The article says SASS has 80,000 members worldwide....I am about to become one of them. I go this weekend to a convention of the SASS Italian branch, the Old West Shooting Society -- I already went to one of their shooting matches last month.

Right now, I'm trying to decide what costume to wear and what "Old West" name to take. I've got a vaguely 19th-century looking skirt that I got a couple years ago in Poland to wear over my Austin-bought Luchese cowboy boots.... as for the name, I know it will be some derivative of my grandmother's name. The daughter of immigrants, she was born Flora Susnitsky in the 1890s in a small town in Texas -- Brenham. In 1919 she married Joe Moskowitz, a burly man in high boots and a Stetson, who surveyed the oil fields in west Texas. I suspect that "Flora Susnitsky Moskowitz" may not sound "Wild West" enough for the club members....but, perhaps, "Miz Flora"?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Germany -- Country Music Messe Nuremberg

This weekend I'm missing (or as it's already Sunday night, I guess I already missed) the annual Country Music Messe, or Fair, in Nuremberg, Germany.

It's a smaller, shorter, sister Messe to the big Country Music Messe in Berlin, in early February, that I have attended for several years. I've written about the Berlin Messe in previous posts and articles (and also radio reports).

Nuremberg started up two or three years ago, and I wanted to go to there this year, to see how this fair differs from that in Berlin. It is smaller, with two rather than three days and three, rather than four, simultaneous stages; but the line-up of acts seems to have been very similar to that in Berlin. Mostly local German groups.

Still, it would have been fun to see friends such as Lonstar from Poland

and David Lee Howard who divides his time between Washington state and Europe.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Oxford Questions Country Music outside USA

An online article in Oxford Analytica questions why country music has not has a huge impact outside the US.

The 42nd annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards will be held on Wednesday in Nashville. While millions of Americans tune in to see if Kenny Chesney, nominee for seven awards and performer of such hits as She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy, takes home some gold, the rest of the world will be totally unaware -- despite the somewhat ironic award of an ‘International Artist Achievement Award’ during the course of the evening. Considering the US has given the world rock and roll, hip hop and jazz, why has its second-best selling musical genre failed to succeed overseas?

OK, yes, country music makes up only a tiny fraction of CD sales in most countries in Europe (generally about 1-3 percent). But the story (read full story here) does not mention the scores of country music festivals that draw tens of thousands of people, not to mention the numerous online European web sites. Nor the way that CW music has had an impact on local stars, from Johnny Halliday and Eddie Mitchell in France to Francesco De Gregori in Italy.

And the lively country music scene in Australia? Keith Urban, after all, is from down under.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sauerkraut, Jambalaya and Alan Jackson (on German TV)

Here is a remarkable clip showing the synthesis of, well, sauerkraut and jambalaya... the American country music star Alan Jackson performs on German TV with the lederhosen-clad Bavarian folk group the Naabtal Duo.....(the comments on youtube are worth reading, too.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Imaginary Wild West is .... SASS-y, in Europe as well as the US

Wild Western hobbyists in Europe bear many affinities to Wild West hobbyists in the United States. Here below is a link to an article from a local newspaper in High Springs, Florida, reporting on an annual meeting of the local chapter of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) -- a gun club created to "preserve and promote the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.™" There are SASS chapters throughout the US -- and also in Europe and Australia! (Click HERE to see the Italian SASS site.)

Its members inhabit "real imaginary" wild western spaces -- the SASS slogan is "The closest you'll get to the old Wild West short of a time machine." Members must dress up in Wild West attire and choose a Wild West alias.

States the SASS web site: "Each participant is required to adopt a shooting alias appropriate to a character or profession of the late 19th century, a Hollywood western star, or an appropriate character from fiction. Their costume is then developed accordingly. Many event participants gain more enjoyment from the costuming aspect of our sport than from the shooting competition, itself. Regardless of a SASS member's individual area of interest, SASS events provide regular opportunities for fellowship and fun with like-minded folks and families."

Playing cowboy (with real guns)

Photo By Valerie Garman

The fire from the barrel of a rifle can be seen as this shooter is timed at the Single Action Shooting Society's annual shootout held this past Saturday at the Fort White Gun Club.
Oct. 17, 2008

FORT WHITE -- The Badland Drifter bends his knees deep. He prepares to draw his guns.

He pulls a rifle off a nearby table and fires six shots.

The order is rifle, shotgun, pistol, pistol. Six shots each.

He fires 24 shots in 14.53 seconds. The nearby saloon girls and the rest of the Wild West are amazed by his quickness and accuracy.

His real name is Derek Beirne, but this weekend he is the Badland Drifter. He is 15-years-old.

The Fort White Gun Club disguised itself as the American old west on Saturday for the Single Action Shooting Society’s big annual shootout, attracting more than 100 shooters and spectators.

Cowboys, outlaws, saloon girls and sheriffs roamed the premises, as each contestant dressed in their version of old western attire and came up with an alias for the weekend.

Read Full Story

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Hermann the German" on German TV

The German country singer Hermann Lammers Meyer sent me the link to a piece on him on German TV.

I've met Hermann, who sings and plays guitar and pedal steel guitar, a number of times at country music festivals in Germany. Along with Truckstop, he is one of the most enduring German country artists -- his career dates back to the 1970s, and he has also toured in the U.S. The video shows him and his band, The Emsland Hillbillies, on tour in Germany -- you can catch a little of the flavor of a downhome German country music festival.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Banjo and Brain Surgery

This has nothing to do with the Wild West in Europe, but a lot to do with the Imagination, or at least what goes on in the brain.... and it's amazing video!

The Banjo and Brain Surgery

From the BBC:

A musician who underwent brain surgery to treat a hand tremor played his banjo throughout to test the success of the procedure.

Eddie Adcock is one of the pillars of Bluegrass Music and realised his tremor could threaten his ability to perform professionally.

Surgeons placed electrodes in Mr Adcock's brain and fitted a pace maker in his chest which delivers a small current which shuts down the region of his brain causing the tremors.

A surgeon filmed the operation at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Crisis Cancels a NZ Country Music Awards Show....

Here's a little note from Down Under:

Country music awards canned for this year


Nathan Crombie

The Wairarapa Country Music Club has canned their celebration awards this year after more than two decades of annual hoedowns and showdowns in Masterton.

Read Full Story

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blah Bluegrass Fest in Bratislava....

So I went to the final day of the 2-day Bluegrass Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, driving down from Vienna (it's only about 70 km) and driving back afterwards -- getting back to Vienna around 3:40 a.m.

The Festival line-up was great, including many of the best Czech bands (such as Monogram, Relief, Kreni, etc.) I particularly wanted to hear Garcia, the group fronted by the wonderful singer Katka Garcia, with Lubos Malina (it's more Irish music than bluegrass). I also wanted to hear the Slovak country singer Allen Mikusek, and the great Czech-Canadian guitarist Slavek Hanzlik.

Well, the music was all pretty good. But I have to say, alas, I found the whole affair pretty dreary.... Most bluegrass festivals are outdoor events that take place in the summer time -- in Czech Republic a favorite venue is the communist-era "summer cinema" built outside many towns. Even in bad weather, bluegrass fits the great (even not so great) outdoors; you huddle under umbrellas and ponchos or crowd together under concessions tents....but it's like, you know, in Nature; open to the elements. Etc.

The Bratislava festival took place in a venue that was just about as far as you can get from the bluegrass country or rolling hills of rural America (or rural Europe for that matter) -- the concrete "Culture House" of Bratislava's Petrzalka district, one of the communist era's biggest and most anonymous purpose-built suburbs. When i first visited Petrzalka nearly 20 years ago -- friends of mine lived there -- I had a terror of getting lost amid the sea of featureless "panel houses," that is, identical apartment blocks. I believe travel companies now lead "communist tours" through the district to show what it was once like....

As I noted, the festival took place in the culture house. There was a dimly lit lobby, with a lounge and pub attached, a small stand selling CDs, and a bar and snack set-up selling beer and other drinks, plus grilled sausage and chips. Etc. People milled about, downing beer and going out on the steps to smoke. Smoking was barred inside, but somehow it still felt smokey...with the atmosphere rather rather dim and dispiriting. And not too many people turned up --the concert sets took place in the complex's rather nice theater, with red plush rows of seats. It looked like it seated 300-400, but most of the seats remained empty. At its peak, I think only about half were filled, if that.

Still, as I said, the music was generally very good. Allan Mikusek in particular played a strong set, joining the Slovak bluegrass group Grasscountry. Mikusek is more from the country music scene than the bluegrass scene -- he wears a cowboy hat and has "the look" -- and the performance was something of a benefit for Peter Dula of the award-winning Slovak country group The Rowers (Veslari), who is undergoing chemotherapy.

Garcia played last, so I stayed til the bitter end to hear them -- the sound man was obviously wasted by that time, and the sound check took longer than the actual set!

Katka has a wonderful voice and is a remarkably accomplished person. Since I had seen her, she has completed her PhD -- in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) studies, namely Ladino how it was spoken in pre-Holocaust Salonika -- and teaches at Trinity College, Dublin. She said that the college understands about her parallel musical career: she gets Firdays off so she can fly to the Czech Republic (mainly) for weekend gigs! As part of the sound check warm-up she sang a Ladino song!

Note -- I did get some fairly decent video and will try to post some clips.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

More on the (late) King of Cowboy Clothing

Here below is a long personal take from Design Observer on Jack A. Weil, the "king of cowboy clothing" who died aged 107 in August. HIs creations were instrumental in spreading the western dream and look around the world. In particular he invented the snap-button "cowboy shirt". "Western apparel was suited to independent thinking people," he says.

Weil was one of lone line of Jewish cothing designers -- in westernwear, the most famous was Nudie Cohen, the creator of the famously flamboyant "Nudie suits."

An untold number of Jews from Eastern Europe ended up in the American West, were they became door-to-door peddlers, ran trading posts, and founded dry goods stores. My great-grandfather was one of them, as were others of my forebears: My mother's cousin, Joe Simon, ran the Simon's Department store in Elgin, Texas, almost until his death. When I visited the store about 15 years ago, it still looked like something out of a western movie -- the big covered porch, the jeans piled up, the western shirts....the main hint of modern times was the fact that he took credit cards. Joe reminisced to me about his father, who would travel with his goods by horse and cart, on sandy Texas roads. After Joe's death, the store was turned into a furniture store -- I visited there a few years ago. When I go to Fort Worth, I always make a pilgrimage to Luskeys, founded originally in Odessa, Texas, in 1919. My uncle always jokes that the founder ("old man Luskey") started out in Minsk (or somewhere similar) and ended up in Odessa....

The Inventor of theCowboy Shirt

By Adam Levy

A few years ago, I found myself lost inside a shopping mall with the man who, in 1946, invented the snap-buttoned cowboy shirt. Jack A. Weil, better known as Jack A, was one hundred and one years old and he was not happy. He was, in fact, highly annoyed. We had wandered into the shirt section of Foley’s Department store in Denver. He was holding up a red-and-blue-striped Tommy Hilfiger. He couldn’t get over the fact that clothes were made anywhere else but in the good 'ol USA. "Call me an isolationist, call me small-minded but why do people buy shirts made in..." — Jack A looked at the label — "Sri Lanka!"

Jack A, along with his son, Jack B, who was then in his seventies, ran Rockmount Ranch Wear, a manufacturer of classic western shirts, Stetsons and bolo ties. (Rockmont shirts have been worn by Clark Gable in The Misfits, by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and by countless other cowboys, both real and imagined in between.) The three of us were trying to find a place to eat. But because Jack B refused to park in the parking garage and spend an extra five dollars, Jack A couldn’t find his way to his usual lunch spot, Spinnakers Restaurant. Jack A liked routine. He still opened the Rockmount shop every morning at 8:00am just as he did back in the 1940s, when he was an eager ex-hat salesman newly arrived in Colorado from Indiana.

Read the full story

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bratislava Bluegrass Festival

I'm off to the Bluegrass Festival in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. The festival runs today (Friday) and tomorrow, but I'll only be able to catch the second day.

The line-up includes many of the top Czech bands, such as Relief, Monogram, Kreni, Garcia.

Here's the link to the festival site, where you can listen to songs from performers and get further info: Bluegrass Fest

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cowboy Chic (Yet) Again in Paris....

The Imaginary Wild West once again embraces (or is embraced by) the high fashion runway.

The Paris fashion house Hermes turns this season -- as so many designers have in the past -- to the Wild West for inspiration. Designer Jean-Paul Gaultier says he did not go to Santa Fe for inspiration '' "It was only in my head." (A wild western space if I ever heard one!)


PARIS, Oct 5 (Reuters) - The new Hermes woman is a 21st century Western film heroine.

Wearing a black Stetson, she walks straight out from the desert, scantily clad in black wide-cleavage dress, tightened at the waist by sturdy superimposed belts and adorned with studded leather bracelets.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, the enfant terrible of French fashion and star designer at Hermes, imagined next summer's woman as trigger-happy adventurer dressed as if she were about to shoot down an opponent in front of a saloon bar.

And her no-nonsense attitude makes her all the more sensual, say his fans.

"Jean-Paul loves women and dresses us in a feminine and very sensual way," super-model Stephanie Seymour, who opened the show wearing an elegant white shirt, straight pants and suede hat, told Reuters.

"I thought it was like a chic Pocahontas," Seymour added about the collection.

Strutting in Seymour's footsteps was fellow super-model Naomi Campbell, wearing a flamboyant red dress that barely covered her body and revealed a sexy red bikini bottom.

Amid an Arizona desert-themed decor, complete with sand and cactuses, Campbell threw out her cowboy hat to a cheering crowd against a backdrop of Western-style music.

"I did not go to Santa Fe," Gaultier told Reuters. "It was only in my head."


Ray Benson Wins 2008 Les Paul Award

Just a coda to my profile of Ray Benson I posted the other day.... Ray has just been awarded the TEC Awards-2008 Les Paul Award presented by the Mix Foundation for Excellence in Audio.

Named for one of the industry's most revered personalities, the Les Paul Award was created in 1991 to honor individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of recording technology.

Previous winners include Paul McCartney, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Al Kooper, Steve Miller and other leading names in (mainly) rock and pop music.

The Awards announcement says Ray "is the ultimate modern multi-hyphenate—bandleader-singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-producer-studio owner-engineer-businessman-raconteur-father-real tall guy. The last one came naturally; the rest he’s had to work at, and he’s good at all of them!"

Mazel Tov Ray!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Co-Founder of Kingston Trio Dies

Nick Reynolds, one of the original members of the seminal American folk-revival group the Kingston Trio has died at the age of 75.

I'm posting his obituary as the Trio was such an influential group, paving the way for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other performers who had a profound impact in Europe as well as in America. (See Otis Gardner's column, for a personal American take.) It was the Kingston Trio's 1963 recording of Charlie and the MTA -- see video posted below -- that sparked the banjo great Tony Trischka's interest in the banjo. Trischka has gone on to be one of the most influential banjoists over the past 35 years and one of the key influences of the European bluegrass scene.

Obituary from The Telegraph, London, England (which emphasizes his international impact)

Nick Reynolds, who died on Wednesday aged 75, was a founding member of the Kingston Trio, one of the groups at the forefront of the folk music revival of the late 1950s.

Offering up tight harmonies and a clean-cut style, the Kingston Trio launched their career with their version of an obscure 19th-century American folk song, Tom Dooley, which went to the top of the charts in 1958, selling more than a million copies.

The following year they won a Grammy award for best folk performance for their album The Kingston Trio At Large.

Among their subsequent releases were The Ballad of Reuben James and Pete Seeger's anti-war protest song Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, which they sang on the White House lawn to an audience that included President Lyndon B Johnson. The Kingston Trio could claim some of the credit for bringing folk into the mainstream of popular music, where it was taken up in the 1960s by artists such as Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and the Byrds.

Reynolds played one of the trio's acoustic guitars and harmonised with the melody line, and for a time the group's music enjoyed great commercial success – in 1959 they had four albums in the top 10 chart, a feat equalled only by the Beatles.

Nicholas Wells Reynolds was born on July 27 1933 in San Diego, California. Demonstrating an early love of music, he took part in singalongs with his two sisters and his father, a captain in the US Navy who brought back from his travels songs from around the world and taught his son to play guitar and the ukulele.

When Nick enrolled as a Business student at Menlo College, California, in 1954 he struck up a friendship with Bob Shane, a fellow student whom he had noticed sleeping soundly throughout a class in accountancy. Shane introduced Reynolds to Dave Guard, a graduate from nearby Stanford University. Guard and Shane knew one another from playing music in their native Hawaii, and the three students got together to form the Kingston Trio. All three played acoustic instruments, with Shane singing most of the lead vocals while Reynolds harmonised, typically a third above him.

In early 1957, while the group was still unknown, the trio was playing at The Cracked Pot club in San Francisco when they were spotted by a young publicist called Frank Werber. As they packed up their guitars and banjos after the show Werber approached them and signed them on the spot, scribbling a contract on a paper napkin. After professional voice training the three young men were booked by another club, The Purple Onion, for a week-long engagement that eventually extended over several months.

A subsequent American tour took them from the west coast to Chicago and New York, and during a four-month residency at the Hungry i club in San Francisco the trio recorded its first album.

One of the tracks on the album was Tom Dooley which, thanks to heavy airplay on local radio stations, became a hit in America; it also did well in Britain, charting at number five in November 1958.

When Guard left the group, he was replaced in 1961 by John Stewart. But by 1967 the Kingston Trio's music was outmoded and no longer had popular appeal. Reynolds left the group that year and moved to Oregon where, with his wife, Leslie, he brought up four children in a rented log cabin. Having bought a 300-acre ranch, he took up sheep-farming. He also ran a local theatre.

In the mid-1980s he moved back to California, where he rejoined Stewart to record an album. In 1991 Reynolds teamed up once again with Shane in a reconstituted version of the trio, remaining with the group until he retired for good in 2003. John Stewart died in January this year.

Nick Reynolds is survived by his wife, their two sons and two daughters.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tex Willer -- Italian Cartoon Cowboy Turns 60

This year's "Romics" Festival of Cartoons and Animation , held in Rome Oct. 2-5, is featuring celebrations to mark the 60th "birthday" of Italy's longest-lived cartoon/comic book hero -- the dashing Wild West ranger Tex Willer.

Back in March, I linked to an exhibit at the Comics Museum in Lucca ("...When the West Arrived in Italy") that celebrated Tex but also centered on Italy's Wild West cartoon heroes in general.

The first comic featuring Tex Willer appeared Sept. 30, 1948 -- and he is still going strong. A Tex Willer comic book is published each month by Sergio Bonelli Editore and appears in various languages.

Tex's 60th birthday is being marked by Issue 575, called "Sul Sentiero Dei Ricordi", or "On the Trail of Memories."

Tex was created by the Italian comic book writer Gianluigi Bonelli (father of the current publisher) almost a generation before the “spaghetti westerns” were produced, at a time when the mythology of the Old West in Italy was still based largely on Hollywood movies. Tex Willer was the first Italian western hero to incorporate the point of view of Native Americans. His philosophy was (and remains) simple: to fight against all kinds of injustice and defend the rights of the Navajos and of all oppressed individuals. In addition, the Tex Willer stories blend classical Western themes with subplots verging on horror and the fantastic (alien space ships in Arizona, voodoo sects, mad scientists and above all Tex’s arch enemy, the diabolical Mefisto).

Tex’s "maverick" attitudes opened up a new and broader horizon for the post-war reader's imagination and enabled the comic, its characters and its self-contained universe to achieve a pop cult status that endures to this day.

In an interview some years ago, Bonelli (who died in 2001) discussed the unique traits of his hero: “In my Tex there's a strong reaction against injustice, ill-treatment, abuse of power. And when the so-called ‘bullies’ are whites moving further and further towards the west, then you do also find a reaction against genocide and against racist intolerance. However, I have always considered the struggle against discrimination within the wider context of rebellion against any form of oppression. On the other hand if you consider the atmosphere of the period in which Tex was born, then my choice has to be seen as a reaction against the prevailing conformism of that time. But why was I that way whereas other people weren't? Well, even at that time I used to read a lot of books about the Native Americans and I'd learned to respect those indomitable peoples.” (Click HERE to see the full interview.)

Jewish Texan Country Singer (NOT Kinky Friedman)

In a previous post I posted a slideshow of pictures of the Austin, Texas-based Western Swing band Asleep at the Wheel, whose leader and anchor over the past more than 35 years is my old friend Ray Benson, performing at the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne, France. I've known Ray since we were teen-agers. He, like me, hails from suburban Philadelphia, but he moved to Texas in the early 1970s and has transformed himself from an east coast suburban Jewish boy to one of the top country music performers around -- he's won nine Grammy awards as the leader of Asleep at the Wheel and maintains a full-throttle recording and performance schedule.

Ray is not a "Sauerkraut Cowboy." But he is an example of how people can transform themselves, reinvent themselves, even "live their dreams". I've talked to him several times about this. And this, of course, is "the American way." People immigrated to America from all over the world and became Americans. Texas, too, is an "immigrant state." My own great-grandparents immigrated there from what is now Lithuania.

The imaginary wild west is an immigrant state of mind. People I've met in the European country and western scene immigrate internally, for a variety of reasons, into an imaginary wild west that they make real.

Here's an article I wrote about Ray -- it's for the Jewish media, so it focuses on his Jewish background.

A Jewish singer towers over country western scene

Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber Published: 09/26/2008

CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA) -- Think Jews and country music and you'll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a "Jewish giant" and "the biggest Jew in country."

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

"I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky," he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. "I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here 'til I die."

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

"Kinky's not a country western singer -- he's Kinky!" Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.