Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's that country thing?

 A band at the country music festival in Ustron, Poland, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a year ago, I posted about the Polish country singer Michael Lonstar and his song "What's this country thing?" in which he tries to explain the country western phenomenon to a skeptic. 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.

Here's a link now to a post on the 9513 blog -- an anthology of artists' responses to the question "what is country music?"

The responses are fascinating -- and reflect what European musicians and fans have told me over and over: i.e. that "country" is more than music,  a "way of life;" that the love the songs for the stories they tell, etc etc.

Here, for example, is Dolly Parton's response:
“Country music, I believe, are ordinary stories told in an extraordinary way, certainly by extraordinary people in most cases. I think it’s just real life, and it’s almost like life’s soap opera, with all the pain, all the joy, all the heartache, all the emotions that a human being has. Country music has a way of doing that in the best way possible.”
Read the full story HERE

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cowboy social networking site

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Austin Statesman runs a very interesting story about a new Cowboy/Wild West oriented social networking site called
This year, husband-and-wife team Chris and Kelly Cooper [...] have been working on a new social network as an offshoot of their marketing company, Cowboy Syndicate. includes message boards, photo areas and other staples of social networking sites, but it has a distinct country/Western feel. [...] The diversity of our members is intriguing. Our members range in age from 16 to 75 and hail from all over the world — the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Japan, Sweden, Australia, France and more. All of our members, no matter where they come from, have a love for both Western and mainstream lifestyles.
         Read Full Story

I haven't signed up yet, but I probably will!

One of the site's sponsors in Stetson, and the home page currently features a big ad for a Stetson contest that members can enter.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Germany -- Xmas at Pullman City

 Looking toward the music hall. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I spent the weekend before Christmas at Pullman City, the German wild west theme park near Passau, in southern Bavaria. I wanted to reconnect with the park -- which I hadn't visited for awhile -- and also hang out with Willie Jones, who introduced me to large sectors of the imaginary wild west, and who was back at Pullman for the first time in five years, playing the singing Santa Claus at the annual Christmas market.

Willie Jones and his wife, Inge. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

Every year, in the Advent month leading up to Christmas, Pullman City becomes a holiday bazaar, with stands set up selling hot wine, ornaments and other trinkets, the shops open, and the saloon and music hall featuring live music and various other programs.  Willie performed as Santa Claus for kids, families and at the music hall -- ho-ho-ho-ing and singing songs like Frosty the Snowman.

I was glad to be there, and happy to renew contacts with P.C. personnel. (And also to eat one of the best hamburgers I ever had, in the Saloon. It was very cold -- minus 13 centigrade -- and most of the visitors were bundled up, like me, in heavy winter coats, but there was a fair sprinkling of folks in wild west attire, too.

The table next to mine in the Saloon. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

Since I had been to Pullman, the so-called "authentic area", where hobbyists can build their cabins, has expanded, with more -- and more solid-looking -- housing. The area also is now classed as a historic display area.

In the authentic area. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poland - Lonstar wraps up a busy November

Me and Lonstar at the Berlin country music fair, Feb. 2008

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Polish country artist Michael Lonstar has posted an interesting account on his website wrapping up a busy November/December -- and demonstrating the wealth of country and western events that take place, even in the autumn, in countries including Germany, Poland,  and Lithuania.

Lonstar posts videos of these events, as well as photos.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Norway -- Toby Keith at Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo

The AP reports on Toby Keith saying there's no need to apologize for his support of the Iraq War, while he was performing in Oslo at the annual Nobel Peace Prize concert.
Keith’s appearance at the downtown Oslo Spektrum arena was questioned by Norwegians dismayed that a performer known for a fervent pro-war anthem was playing at a show focused on peace. The musician dismissed the criticism. "If President Obama has to send (more) troops into Afghanistan to fight evil, I’ll pull for our guys to win, and I won’t apologize for it,” Keith said. "I’m an American, and I do pull for our team to fight evil.”

 Read full AP story

Norway has a strong country music scene that has been detailed by the scholar Kristin Solli in her University of Iowa PhD dissertation "North of Nashville : country music, national identity, and class in Norway."

I've had the pleasure of appearing at conferences with Kristin on two occasions -- last year at the International Country Music Conference in Nashville, and in 2005 on a panel she put together for the American Studies Association annual meeting in Washington DC.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bluegrass and Peter Rowan in Vilnius....

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I was in Vilnius, Lithuania for a few days this week -- too late to attend the recent bluegrass festival, headlined by Peter Rowan, but still in time to get a picture of the poster....(love the way they spelled his name!)

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tony Trischka School of Banjo

 Tony Trischka hanging out in Czech Republic, 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Last summer, when I traveled a for a day in Poland with the banjo great Tony Trischka after he performed at the Silesia Country Music Festival in Ustron, he told me about his plans to start teaching the banjo online, with an interactive video tutorial program that enabled personal feedback.

Tony's banjo school is now fully online -- see THIS SITE.

Tony's banjo school is part of a broader online music school called Artist Works, with instruments taught by leading musicians. It looks like the instruments and teaching programs are going live one at a time. I am hoping that the harmonica school goes online soon....

Friday, November 27, 2009

Germany -- Willy Jones back at Pullman City for Christmas Season

 Willie Jones performing at Pullman City, 2003. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The American banjo player and country singer Willie Jones will be at Pullman City in Bavaria, Germany's biggest wild west theme park, for the coming month, performing each weekend at the German-American Chrsitmas Market (Deutsch-Amerikanischer Weihnachtsmarkt).

A large man with a full beard, Willie was one of the first people I met in the European country and western music scene, and he has provided me with a lot of anecdote and insight. I actually met him at Pullman City, on my first visit there - I think it was in 2003. Willie had remained in Germany after getting out of the service and took up a career as a country singer, in various bands, most notably one called Shady Mix, which started out in America, moved to Germany and then moved back to the U.S.

When I met him, Willie had a job as the "singing cowboy" of Pullman City -- he gave set performances in the theme park's saloon, but he also roamed around the area, playing and singing.

We hit it off from the start. That weekend, Willie had some Slovak musician friends -- a bluegrass band -- playing at Pullman. I was working on a story for the New York Times about wild west theme parks in Europe, and I had intended to go directly from Pullman City to the Silkluv Mlyn theme park in the Czech Republic.

Willie convinced me, though, to go with him and the Slovak band (some of whose members now form the group Grasscountry)  to a country road house somewhere in southern Bohemia  for a country western party. Of course I said yes, and we drove there in a sort of convoy -- Willie in one car, the Slovak guys in their car, and me trailing in mine.

As I posted in this blog earlier:
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 [that is, 2007]; he was working as the blacksmith at the Halter Valley private wild west town near Pilsen in CZ.)

"Fuzzy" at Halter Valley, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm hoping to be able to get to Pullman City while Willie is there, as I haven't seen him  for several years.

He moved to Texas in 2005, and the last time I saw him was in May of that year -- I visited him where he was living near Templin, north of Berlin, and he took me to explore an abandoned former Soviet army base nearby. Willie and his wife had moved there to work for a new Wild West theme park, Silver Lake City, which -- at that point -- had gone bust.  So they picked up and moved to the real west. The park has since reopened as Eldorado. I have yet to see it in action... Willie took me on a tour of Silver Lake City out of season in the winter of 2005, but almost everything was shut.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lithuania-- Peter Rowan headlines Vilnius Bluegrass Festival

Here's a heads up for the fifth Vilnius Bluegrass Festival, which takes place this weekend, Nov. 20-21.

Peter Rowan at Dobrofest in Trnava, Slovakia, 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The American folk legend Peter Rowan, currently on a short tour mainly in the UK, headlines the festival. Also featured are the veteran  Polish country music singer Lonstar (about whom I have written on this blog), the British New Essex Bluegrass Band (one of the winners of last summer's European Bluegrass Festival in La Roche sur Foron, France) and the Russian group Country Saloon.

Lonstar reports that in September he  concluded a tour pegged to his latest CD, "What's This Country Thing."
Twenty four concerts all over Poland and abroad: Cologne and Wittenberge in Germany, Piestany in Slovakia and Visaginas in Lithuania, among many others. In their number – big international festivals, songwriter recitals, club dates and acoustic “unplugged” performances at the meetings with his fans.  
The last summer’s season’s highlight was Lonstar’s (and his band’s) spectacular multiple victory in the IX Country Music Awards “Stagecoach 2006-2008", concluded in April. 
When the smoke cleared and the results were revealed at the award-granting ceremony, the famous formula “...and the winner is... “ was followed by the name “Lonstar!” four times, as the recipient of awards for the Artist of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, Song of the Year and Best Album.  
The very title, “What’s This Country Thing”, due to its reflective and provocative lyrics of the respective song has gained the status of the cult definition of country music in Poland’s country music fan circles. Thank you fans for your continuous support!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Sauerkraut Cowboy Essay in Western Way Magazine

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Western Way Magazine has published a shortened version of the long paper on European country music I  presented last year at the International Conference on Country Music and elsewhere. It can be downloaded at the web site of the Western Music Association, but I am also posting it here in jpg form. (Note that the caption on the picture of pg 40 is wrong -- these guys were at the Country Piknik Festival in Poland, not at Pullman City.) The full version of this essay can be accessed via the link in the side bar of this blog.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Texas -- Renaissance Faire (Touché!)

I just want to point out that the Texas Renaissance Festival is on in Plantersville, TX, until the end of this month. If you look at the video on the web site and think cowboy gear and country music instead of medieval get-ups, you will have Pullman City, Cowboyland Italy, Sikluv Mlyn Czech Republic and all the rest.....but maybe bigger? The Renfest's Facebook page has more than 20,000 fans....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bluegrass - Traveling Bluegrass Festival in Germany in December

The Toy Hearts, European Bluegrass Festival, France, July 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Germany (with a detour into Switzerland)  will see a 16-date travelling Bluegrass Festival in December. Called Bluegrass Jamboree! -- Festival of Bluegrass and Americana Music, it will feature the groups the Toy Hearts from England, and the U.S. groups the Steep Canyon Rangers and Beverly Smith and Carl Jones.

The full program can be seen at the festival web site.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Italy -- OWSS convention video

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I shot this little video at the Cowboy Action Shooting match during the Old West Shooting Society convention October 10-11 at Boario Terme, Italy. The theme of the match was "Smoke in the Rocky Mountains."

Monday, October 19, 2009

England -- Singer explains attraction to country music

There's an interesting interview online with the British singer Pete Molinari, currently recording country music covers for a CD in Nashville, about what attracted him to American roots music and country music.

I grew up in a big family with many older brothers and sisters. My folks liked the tradition of things and were not much accustomed to the modern change in things when it came to music and art and food (wise people). I learnt much from my older brother’s record collection. Always getting a vinyl to spin from them on my little record player (that I still have), they were into rock and roll mainly –Sun Records, and Chess. Also country records that seemed to paint my childhood with bold colors.
Something happened to me listening to those Chet Atkins records and Owen Bradley recordings. I would stare into the vinyl spinning, like it was the portal to some other world (and it was). As a child, you don’t ask who wrote what, who produced what, who even sang what (that all comes later), you just listen to the sound. That voice of Billie Holiday’s or Patsy Cline’s. I was really lucky. I was only into drawing pictures and listening to music. The British music scene didn’t influence me as much, great as it is. It didn’t make an impact upon my spirit the way American music and literature did.
 Read full interview at www.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

BBC on the persisting cowboy....

 Lone Pine, California, October 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

A BBC correspondent draws on his youthful fascination with the Wild West to write a report on present-day cowboys.
...there are still cowboys all over the West, from North Dakota down to New Mexico, partly because there is still some rugged terrain where the horse remains the best way of getting around.
But it is also partly because the cowboy embodies many of the characteristics which Americans see as part of their identity - the tough, self-reliant figure riding alone who tamed the unconquerable wilderness from which America drew its wealth. 

How much longer that lifestyle will survive on the ranch rather than the tourist heritage park is hard to say, of course. 

But not for the first time, the cowboy finds himself staring towards a far horizon, wondering what challenges lie beyond it.
Read (or listen to) full report

Friday, October 16, 2009

Italy -- Old West Shooting Society (OWSS) Convention

OWSS competition, Boario Terme, Oct. 09. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I travelled to northern Italy last weekend -- to the spa town of Boario Terme -- for the annual convention of the Old West Shooting Society, the Italian branch of the American SASS -- Single Action Shooting Society. I went to the Convention last year -- see my blog post about the experience -- and have since become a member -- my OWSS/SASS name is "Miz Flora," in honor of my Texas-born grandmother.

I arrived at the Hotel Castellino just in time to change into my "wild west" duds -- not a very elaborate costume, compared to some: mainly a slightly old fashioned fitted black linen jacket with leather buttons, over a long, off-white linen skirt, with a lace hairband, cameos, and cowboy boots.

There was an awards ceremony, presenting prizes for the Cowboy Action Shooting competitions throughout the past year, and then a four-hour dinner with more courses than I can remember to count.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Part of the evening was devoted to remembering the former president of the OWSS, who died suddenly this year when at a SASS international gathering in the US.

Dopo cena... Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

At dinner, I sat next to Federico Polidori (AKA Frederick Holstermaker) -- an artisan in leather, based in Rome, who produces beautifully tooled holsters, bags, saddles and other goods.  I had known him in Rome in the 1980s, and had encountered him for the first time since then at the OWSS convention last year.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

On Sunday morning, as last year, there was a Cowboy Action Shooting competition -- at a gorgeous firing range set high up a mountain slope above Boario. I could only stay briefly, as I had a long drive home -- and also, I had forgotten to bring earplugs. Those guns are loud!

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Emilio Salgari -- the Italian Karl May

 Books displayed at the Karl May Festival in Radebeul, Germany, May 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I had dinner the other night with an Italian friend who worked in film for many years. He recounted his love of westerns and the fascination with the Wild West he had had since childhood. I asked him how he had first become interested in the West, how it had captured his imagination. The answer? The stories by Emilio Salgari -- a 19th century Italian adventure writer who can be called the Italian Karl May.

Salgari, who was born in 1862 in Verona and committed suicide in Turin in 1911, was, in fact, an almost exact contemporary of May, the German writer who created the iconic Western heroes Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. And, like May, Salgari wrote adventure stories set in the Middle East and elsewhere as well as Western tales. (He is, in fact, bestknown for creating the character Sandokan, a Bornean prince turned pirate: the Sandokan tales were turned into many movies and an inconic television series.)

Also like May, Salgari rarely traveled -- he created his swashbuckling, incredibly detailed and wildly popular worlds from his imagination, based on books, encyclopedias and other reading. Karl May never visited the American West -- his one trip to the U.S. came in 1908, four years before he died and decades after he had created Winnetou, and he never went further west than Niagara Falls.

Salgari, it seems, never ventured further than the Adriatic Sea.

There has been considerable study on Karl May -- in English as well as German. But Sagari, and particularly his western stories, remain largely unknown in the English-speaking world. As do the dozens of other European authors who produced hundreds -- thousands? -- of westerns in the 19th and early 20th century.

The Brigham Young University scholar Richared H. Cracroft  writes in detail about these writers in his chapter "World Westerns: The European Writer and the American West" in the huge volume A Literary History of the American West, sponsored by the Western Literature Association and published by Texas Christian University Press in 1987.

Cracroft writes:
From the steppes of Russia and the cities of Poland and Italy to the villages of the Spanish plains, the zest for literature of the American West continued through much of the nineteenth century. This fervor, centered primarily in Germany, spilled over the borders of German lands into every nation of Europe. In every case, the western works of popular German writers, including those already considered, and others not considered (such as the fifty-nine western adventures of Wilhelm Frey, or Fricks), thrilled Europeans from Holland to Greece. Nineteenth-century Norwegians, for example, elevated Frey and Möllhausen to top position among their nation’s most popular writers and read the translations of English Western author Mayne Reid as well. And in the twentieth century Karl May continues a best seller in many European nations.

Such German success stimulated writers throughout Europe to turn their pens to western subjects. Emilio Salgari, in Italy, and Ferenc Belányi, in Hungary, joined France’s Gustave Aimard and England’s Mayne Reid in producing hundreds of sensational western adventures.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Germany --The AP runs a story on the German Imaginary Wild West

The Associated Press runs a story about the Imaginary Wild West in Germany. It covers, of course, all the ground I've been covering in this blog and various articles over the years. It focuses more specifically on the connection with Texas,
"The picture of Texas as a Wild West country with cowboys is very strong in Germany," says Claudia Baierl, who has been contracted by the Governor's Economic Development and Tourism division in Austin to help promote the state in Germany.

In recent years, Texas tourism officials have increased advertising in German news media and on the Internet.

"There's a lot of interest in us right now," says Julie Chase, chief marketing officer for the state's Economic Development and Tourism division, noting that Germany is the fifth-largest source of international visitors to Texas. Some 77,000 visited the state last year, the most since 2003.

The article mentions Old Texas Town, the nearly 60-year-old cowboy club in Berlin, which I visited at the end of 2007.

At that time, "Ben Destry" (real name Fritz Walter) -- one of the original founders of the club -- was its "Mayor."

"Ben Destry" at the Saloon in Old Texas Town, December 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

"Destry" was a courtly man in his 80s, who spoke almost no English, but loved the American West and Texas -- he dressed up in both Union and Confederate Civil War costume -- and was particularly fascinated by the Alamo. There is monument to those who died at the Alamo in the Old Texas Town grounds.

Ben's  death earlier this year closed a long, intense personal chapter of Germany's Imaginary Wild West. But O.T.T. itself seems to have overcome some of the financial and other problems that threatened to close it, and the town, at least through this year, remained open to the pubic the usual first Saturday of each month. (It is closed in January ad February).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Slovak Country Singer Peter Dula dies


The award-winning Slovak country singer Peter Dula  died Oct. 10 after a long battle with cancer. He was only 28, and his death is a real loss to the European Country Music scene.

Since 2004 Dula had fronted the band Veslari -- "The Rowers," Slovakia's oldest country music band. With Dula singing, the band won a Slovak Grammy and other numerous  awards including the best European country band of 2007. They also played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

The following is from one of Dula's web pages:
They broke the European airplay record when the single "I’m Leavin’" spent consecutive 14 weeks at the top of the ECMA chart. Peter & The Rowers swept the board at the 2007 European CMA awards taking home 6 awards along with the most prestigious “Artist of the Year” award. Peter’s songs are dominating the major European country charts and he and his band are extensively touring Europe. It's like a dream come true.

Since the beginning of 2008 Peter has been battling cancer again but that did not stop him. He is still trying to perform , record and write songs. In spring 2008 Peter recorded a duet with country legend and Grammy winner Joe Diffie. Their song "Long Gone Loner" made it to no.1 on the major European Country Music Chart and to no.3 on the prestigious HotDisc International Chart.

In June 2008 Peter was invited to perform at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville and on June 8th he made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. With the performance on the Grand Ole Opry he made his biggest dream come true.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Switzerland -- Geri Stocker's Photography

Geri Stocker and one of his photos, showing Swiss chalets and the van for a Swiss country band. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I want to point out the new web site -- -- of my friend Geri Stocker, a Swiss photographer who also produces the main country music show on Swiss Radio. Geri has spent years documenting what he calls "Swiss America" and "Amerikanische Schweiz" -- that is, sometimes jarring juxtapositions of stereotypically American or Swiss images in the context of the other country.

Geri Stocker talking to "Sioux," the proprietor of the Dream Valley saloon in Switzerland. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I met Geri several years ago at a country music and trucker festival in Switzerland, when he also took me to the Dream Valley saloon, up in the Alps. We instantly bonded through our interest in the play of stereotypes and embrace of mythology that we observed -- I also take the same sorts of images that Geri photographs, without concentrating on one country.

Interlaken Trucker and Country festival, 2004. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I later wrote about Geri and his work in the International Herald Tribune:

For the past several years Stocker has been documenting what he calls "American Switzerland," that is, the myriad ways in which an American presence visually encroaches on traditional Swiss settings via billboards, advertisements, cars, flags and other publicly displayed signs and symbols.

In doing so, he has produced a striking series of images that are carefully framed to showcase a sometimes surreal juxtaposition and at the same time turn time-honored clichés on their head.

In one picture, for example, a leathery cowboy seems to be leading a horse through a wide-open Western landscape that stretches out under the corrugated roof of the Basel train station.

In another, a hand-written sign set in an idyllic pasture points incongruously to "Dodge City," while two cows graze in the background.

Another shows a modern high-rise tower dwarfed by an enormous stag's skull nailed to a dead tree in a sweeping desert landscape.

The cowboy is on a Marlboro ad; Dodge City is a local restaurant. And the stag skull is a fragment of a poster for an exhibition of paintings by Georgia O'Keefe.

"A lot of people think that I manipulated the images with Photoshop or whatever," Stocker says. "I think what people trip over is that I take what in reality has three dimensions, and I put them in two dimensions, so it looks like a photo montage."

In fact, Stocker focuses on American imagery, objects and symbols that are so pervasive that for most people — in Switzerland and elsewhere around the globe — they have become unremarkable components of the local vernacular.

He makes these things notable by spurring local people to recognize — and question — their relationship with American dreams.

"Several people told me that when they saw the pictures at first they were kind of surprised because they had never seen that Swiss/American contrast displayed so starkly," Stocker said. "And a lot of people have to laugh or smile. They say, 'Oh yeah, of course you can see it that way, but I've never paid attention."'

He added, "Maybe living in a small country, we like to have and see the idea of a geography and a countryside that is much larger than what we get — hopefully larger in the mind. And, of course, those American images of wide open spaces, cowboy country or big cars are images that awaken those dreams or ideas."

Stocker began taking his photographs in response to his own lifelong fascination with the United States and its pervasive influence.

Read full article

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Scotland -- Country Music Festival Defies Recession

Creetown Country Music Festival

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I haven't posted on this blog for a few weeks, as I've been traveling in Romania (see my Jewish Heritage blog for details).

But here's some interesting news in the Sauerkraut (or, I guess, Haggis) Cowboy world: According to the BBC, ticket sales are up nearly 40 percent at this weekend's Creetown Country Music Festival in Scotland, defying recession trends.

Organisers of the event in Creetown, Dumfries and Galloway, said a move to a new site had helped to provide a real surge in its popularity.

They hope that the 13th edition of the annual festival - staged this weekend - can beat its ticket sales record.

Read full BBC article

According to the festival web site there will be more than two dozen country acts, plus a street fair, western events -- and all the other typical stuff making up the imaginary wild west.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Background to Indian Cowboy Movie

 Guntastic world: (left) Telugu superstar Rajendra Prasad plays the gun-wielding, bovine-loving superhero; (top, from left) Gunpowder, Locket Lover, Rice Plate Reddy and Mango Dolly. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

I posted recently about a new Indian (subcontinent) cowboy flick -- Quick Gun Murugun.

Here's an article about the background to the character, by Anindita Ghose: "How the iconic dosa-eating superhero, Quick Gun Murugun, broke out of his shelved television avatar on to the big screen." The article also provides biographical info and an interview with the director. (The photo is from

Seems Quick Gun Murugun started out as promotional spots for a new TV channel.

The promos were a comic juggernaut. Featuring an over-the-top character called Murugun fashioned on B-grade Tamil film heroes, they were designed to counter similar MTV spots, albeit with an Indian flavour.
Telugu actor Rajendra Prasad plays Murugun on the big screen. A veteran of over 200 Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films, the 57-year-old portrays the swashbuckling hero with alarming comic effectiveness. The story revolves around an epic battle between vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism wherein gunslinging Murugun fights against all odds to prevent his nemesis, Rice Plate Reddy, from opening a non-vegetarian Udupi joint, McDosa. The film also marks the return of actor Rambha (Mango Dolly), back after a sabbatical and donning a stunning blonde wig that the producers claim cost Rs15 lakh (it was sourced from Los Angeles). Other characters, such as Gunpowder, Masala News Reporter and Locket Lover, complete the array of Tamil movie clichés.

Read full article

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Prague -- The American Frontier in European Imagination

An exhibition in Prague illustrates (literally) early images of America -- the Frontier -- in the European Imagination. Dinah Spritzer reports in the New York Times:

European graphic artists depict the drama of colonization in the exhibition “Savoring America: The New World in 16th- to 19th-Century Prints,” at the quiet Schwarzenberg Palace (Hradcanske namesti 2), a recently restored Baroque gem a short walk from the castle gate. Displayed in a single room, the prints reflect the initial perception of the New World as a savage land, hence the darkly comic pun in the exhibit name.
Seems that the exhibit focuses on the Land of Savagery image, rather than the Land of Promise (as described in Ray Billington's great book, Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century (which can be read online).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

DT's Visas OK

Bea Flaming reports that Druha Trava's visa delay has been cleared up.

Thanks to the tenacity of Greg Buhr working from Minnesota Senator Al Franken's office, I just received word a few minutes ago that Druha Trava's visa petition has been approved! Greg left a message last Thursday at USCIS, then spent 55 minutes holding on the phone on Friday waiting to speak with the Congressional Liaison there, and called again this morning receiving a promise that they would make a ruling on the petition today! He kept working it until they acted. They called him just a bit ago and he immediately called me. Since the US Embassy in Prague is ready to interview Druha Trava, all should go well from here on out! Bea Flaming - DT US Representative

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Druha Trava's U.S. tour threatened by visa delay
DT's instruments and screen image of the Obamas and Czech leaders. Photo from

Next month's U.S. tour of the "Czechgrass" band Druha Trava, the band that played ahead of President Obama's speech in Prague earlier this year, is being threatened by delays in processing their visa requests. The Druha Trava web site reports that if the visas, which were applied for in May, do not come through, the band will have to cancel the 10-state, 18-gig tour, which is due to begin Sept. 4.

DT's U.S. representative Bea Flaming reports, on the web site:
It seems so ridiculous that this band, who performed for an hour at Prague Castle before President Obama's speech there last April, are having such a hard time getting visa approval this year (especially after getting visas every year since 1993, except last year when we canceled the tour before we even filed for visas).

I first FedExed Druha Trava's visa petition on Friday, May 15 this year and I got notification that USCIS received it on Monday, May 18 with Receipt Number: WAC0916351796. According to the USCIS website it should take two months or less to process I-129 petitions for P-1 visas. I have been eagerly awaiting an approval notice since mid July.

On Tuesday, August 18 I received a letter from USCIS detailing more information and documentation that they wanted, including signed contracts for all booked gigs (I have been signing the papers that lawyers have been filing on my/Druha Trava's behalf since 2004 and I've never before had to provide signed contracts for every single gig, just for a representative number of them, but this is the first time I have filed by myself, as DT's beloved friend, Mary Gardner, who for a dozen years gather materials and paid the lawyers on our behalf, died of cancer last year).

Read the entire post from the DT web site

Another Indian (subcontinent) Cowboy Movie In The Works

Reports from New Delhi announce that a new "Indian Western" movie called "Quick Gun Murugun: The Misadventures of an Indian Cowboy" will be released August 28, in four languages.

The movie's web site features an amazing picture of the hero, with long sideburns, a pencil moustache, wearing a pink satin neckerchief, green satin shirt and leopard-spotted vest. The site has a lot of interactive content, including a trailer, pictures, dialogue, etc.

It describes Quick Draw as
an unlikely Superhero with Guntastic powers. He is a sincere South Indian Cowboy who considers it his duty to serve and protect. The movie revolves around mis-adventures of Quick Gun Murugun and his fight with his arch villain Rice Plate Reddy!
The Business Standard runs an interview about it with the film's director, Shashank Ghosh.

According to Ghosh:
It’s the story of a sincere south Indian cowboy who considers it his duty to serve and protect people and cows. The hero — who dies early on in the film —wants to encourage vegetarianism. His arch rival — and the villain of the film — is Rice Plate Reddy, a staunch non-vegetarian who wants the world to convert to non-vegetarianism.

Ghost says he realizes the storyline is a bit weird -- and held up production of the film for years.
You won’t believe it, but the film’s special effects alone took one year. Besides, the synopsis is so different and out-of-the-box that producers whom I approached laughed and laughed but refused to back the project till Anand Surapur’s Phat Phish Motion Pictures decided to back it.
Read the full article

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Czech Republic -- Leading Bluegrass Musician Milan Leppelt Dies

The late Milan Leppelt (r) and his band Bluegrass Cwrkot, at the Banjo Jamboree, Caslav, CZ, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Milan Leppelt, a leading Czech bluegrass musician, has died, aged 49, following a heart attack apparently triggered by a wasp sting. Leppelt was a longtime member of the band Bluegrass Cwrkot and very active in the Czech bluegrass scene -- the (proportionally) biggest bluegrass scene in Europe.

See an obituary on the European Bluegrass Music Association Blog:
His death is also a great loss to Bluegrass Cwrkot (he was their banjo-player since 1991, and wrote most of the band's original material); to the Bluegrass Association of the Czech Republic (for whom he was membership secretary and chief contact with the EBMA); to the Czech bluegrass scene in general; and to its links with bluegrass in the rest of Europe.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Italy -- and "Dallas"

The iconic TV soap Dallas, with its Southfork Ranch, was a big influence in how many Europeans viewed the West -- and it, of course was a figment of the Imagination. Not long ago Larry Hagman, one of the stars of the show, was guest of honor at the big Mirande country music festival in France.

This blog post -- Ferragosto -- Southfork Style -- recalls how some people in Italy thought it all was real....

When I would travel to Italy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the Italian winemakers found out I lived in Dallas, their mom or aunt would always ask me how Sue Ellen was or if I knew J.R. So real was that show to them, especially in Sicily and Calabria, that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I never met them. But I told the aunts and the moms that the Ewings were doing just fine. “Well, you tell J.R. to treat Sue Ellen better,” one would say, or another would comment, “Sue Ellen, she needs to drink less whiskey and more wine, we worry about her.” I kid you not.

Read Full Post on the On the Wine Trail in Italy blog

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bluegrass - After La Roche-2

Bill Monroe LP -- of Bill Monroe in Germany -- on sale at La Roche bluegrass festival in France. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

After reading my previous post about the International Bluegrass Festival in La Roche sur Foron, France, a friend of mine suggested that I attend a bluegrass fest in Guthrie, Oklahoma to make a comparison. Actually, I've never been to a bluegrass or country music festival in the United States! The closest I've got, probably, is going to the Grand Ol' Opry, and, in my extreme youth, to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and to various "pickin'" sessions at home by various friends.

It goes without saying, therefore, that, given my iterations around the European country music and bluegrass festival scene, I would indeed love to drop in on some in the U.S.... until then, what I have for a fascinating bluegrass model is a book called Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86, (University of Illinois Press, 2001) by the photographer Carl Fleishhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg, the noted historian of bluegrass music (and both, I believe, alums, like me, of Oberlin College in Ohio).

In their preface, the two define their subject as "bluegrass music -- or, more accurately, a community bounded not by geography but by its connection to bluegrass music." (Italics mine.)

The chapters of the book, they state, "represent aspects of this community's culture: the music itself, the places where the community may be found, and the relationships among the community members, including relationships of blood and kin." The chapters are titled "Intensity," "Destination," "Transaction," "Community," "Family," and "The Monroe Myth."

New Essex Bluegrass Band, at La Roche festival, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is, to a large extent, what I have been following in Europe in the country/western/bluegrass scene -- the community or "scene" as much as the music. And every time I go to a bluegrass festival in Europe, I bear this book -- and its premise and its images -- in mind. Fleischhauer and Rosenberg were traveling the high, lonesome road decades ago, in the regions where bluegrass music was born, came of age and reached maturity. They report that from one bluegrass festival in the U.S. in 1965, there were more than 700 a decade later. Yet, so many of the images and descriptions still reflect, at least superficially, what I see on the ground in Europe. Just updated a little, fashionwise, and presented in different languages....(The first bluegrass festival in Europe was held in then-Czechoslovakia in 1973; it is still being held today, as the Banjo Jamboree in Caslav, CZ... and there are scores of other festivals in various countries throughout the summer.)

There is a look to the performers, venues and audience that is eerily similar, no matter whether the pictures were taken in Stumptown, West Virginia, or in La Roche, France, or Caslav CZ..."personal interaction," Carl and Neil reported, "[is] at the center of bluegrass music making." Or maybe it's the posture, or expressions on faces.

Jam session at La Roche (in picture are Dutch, American, Hungarian and, in the background, Czech musicians). Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Rosenberg's text is at times a bit academic for my taste, but he records an amazing wealth of details such as the "ritualized nature of performances at festivals," the construction of stages, the look of the crowd, the parking lot jam sessions, even how conversations were carried out.... "Style preferences," he reported, "could be seen in food and drink, dress, camping accommodations and, of course, musical favorites." These, too, are generally reflected in what I've seen in Europe.

Jambalaya at La Roche 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Camping at the Zahrada folk and bluegrass festival, CZ, 2004. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Family bands were another important component of the bluegrass scene as reported in Bluegrass Odyssey... At La Roche, there were various examples of this, too. The British group Toy Hearts, for example, includes Stewart Johnson and his daughters Sophia and Hannah. Also, the Dutch Schut family -- father Dennis and sons Ralph and Chris -- are leading figures in the European scene, veterans of a family band called Spruce Pine who now live in various countries, including France and CZ, and play in various formations. (The American family group 3 Fox Drive performed at La Roche last year, and one of the American groups that performed this year, Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain, has a pair of twin brothers in the band.)

Dennis Schut holding son Patrick, with son Ralph and Angelika Torrie of the European Bluegrass Music Association. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wrote Neil and Carl: "Family music scenes typically mix levels of skill, taste, ability, and dedication; and as with the families themselves, they're constantly evolving and subdividing. So the family band is often a stage in the lives of family members, a kind of rite of passage. As children grow to adulthood in family bands, some go farther than others in the business."

The Toy Hearts, from the UK, at La Roche. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

France -- Media on the French Country Festivals

At the Country Rendez-vous in Craponne, 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I was sorry that I could not make it this year to the great Country Rendez-vous festival at Craponne in south-central France, where I had had such a wonderful time last year and the year before. I posted some items about last year's festival on this blog, including a photo slide show. Last year's scene looked pretty much as it did in 2007, when I wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune on Craponne and some of the other more than 50 country music festivals around France each year. So I suppose is was much the same this year, too!

Last week the New York Times ran a piece about another big French country festival -- that at Mirande, in the southwest. It reads remarkably similar to my piece about Craponne the year before. In a way, Mirande and the Country Rendez-vous are sort of rivals -- Mirande draws more people (estimates go as high as 150,000 or more) but Craponne is considered the most prestigious, partly because almost all the acts at Craponne are American. This year's headliners were the Texas-based group The Flatlanders, featuring Joe Ely -- who performed solo at Craponne two years ago.

Joe Ely on the screen next to the stage, Craponne 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This year, Le Monde discovered the Country Rendez-vous, with a long article by Stephane Davet who notes how the festival compound -- a Wild Western Space par excellence -- resembles a theme park, and how the line dance craze has has an impact.

05 août 2009

Les Flatlanders se posent en Auvergne (Le Monde)

Avec son saloon, son bureau du shérif, son mur d'enceinte digne de Fort Alamo, l'entrée du festival Country Rendez-vous ressemble à celle d'un parc à thème. Tels de grands enfants, souvent costumés en cow-boy, ils sont près de 8 000 spectateurs à envahir chaque soir, du 24 au 26 juillet, le terrain en pente douce qui surplombe la petite ville de Craponne-sur-Arzon. A l'horizon, le relief couvert de sapins pourrait évoquer les Appalaches, mais à gauche de la scène s'étendent les monts du Forez, à sa droite les monts du Velay. C'est en Auvergne que se déroule l'un des deux plus grands rassemblements de musique country de l'Hexagone.

Longtemps, on a imaginé les Français réfractaires à ces chansons de l'Amérique profonde. Pourtant, il existerait aujourd'hui près d'une soixantaine de festivals country au pays de Brassens. "Nous avons commencé en 1988, devant 200 spectateurs, se souvient Georges Carrier, le président du Country rendez-vous. L'an dernier, nous avons dépassé les 25 000 entrées."
La convivialité d'un événement organisé par des bénévoles, son environnement campagnard, une programmation artistique fière de sa diversité et de ses exclusivités expliquent sans doute ce succès. Tous les styles ont droit de cité : Bluegrass, honky tonk, western swing, new country, country rock...

Le succès du Rendez-vous correspond aussi à la popularité exponentielle du phénomène "line dance". Au milieu d'un public souvent assis sur des chaises pliantes, deux parquets ont été installés, face à la scène. Dans des tenues plus pittoresques que celles de la plupart des musiciens, près de 200 danseurs se sont alignés et synchronisent leur chorégraphie pendant les concerts.

Relancées aux Etats-Unis au début des années 1990 par le chanteur Billy Ray Cyrus, ces danses en ligne (aujourd'hui passées de mode en Amérique), ont commencé à prendre en France, il y a une dizaine d'années. On y compterait plus de 500 clubs spécialisés.

Stetson noir et santiags

"Ce qui m'a plu, explique Véronique, pimpante quinqua, en Stetson noir, jeans à franges et santiags, c'est la convivialité, le côté physique de l'exercice, la possibilité de danser sans cavalier et l'impression de se retrouver aux Etats-Unis sans avoir à payer le voyage."
Pour ces danseurs, qui ont souvent dépassé la quarantaine, les festivals sont aussi l'occasion de faire des emplettes sur les multiples stands de vêtements, chapeaux, bijoux, bottes, qui voyagent au gré de ces événements.

A Craponne, la programmation essaie aussi de limiter la puérilité du pittoresque. Vendredi 24 juillet, le plus beau concert de la soirée d'ouverture n'était pas le plus dansant. Originaires de Lubbock, Texas, la ville natale de Buddy Holly, les trois fondateurs des Flatlanders - Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore et Butch Hancock - ont grandi artistiquement à Austin, cité refuge pour les musiciens allergiques au conformisme de Nashville.

Après un premier essai commun infructueux en 1972 (avec un album magnifique qui ressortira, en 1990, sous le titre parlant de More a Legend Than a Band), les membres du trio se sont taillé de belles carrières solos - Ely, en country rocker côtoyant Springsteen et les Clash ; Gilmore, en ténor métaphysique disciple de Roy Orbison ; Hancock en conteur métaphorique - avant de retrouver, par épisode, l'alchimie des Flatlanders.

A 60 ans passés, chacun maîtrise son art avec un sens infini de l'épure, de la mélodie et de la narration. Morceaux anciens ou issus d'un nouvel album, Hills and Valleys, leur concert rayonnait d'une classe qui éclipsait tous les habits de lumière des cow-boy fantaisies.
Country Rendez-vous à Craponne-sur-Arzon. Tél. : 04-71-03-25-52. Le 25 juillet : The Figs, Paul Eason, Jo Dee Messina... ; le 26 : Star of Azlan, Jeff Griffith, The Matt Skinner Band... 35 euros.
Stéphane Davet (Le Monde)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bluegrass -- After La Roche-1

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's more than a week since the International Bluegrass Festival in La Roche-sur-Foron, France, and I've only now found a little time to reflect on the experience. I'm prompted to do so by listening to the quite pleasant CD I was given there -- a compilation of bluegrass music called "France Bluegrass 2" played by local French bands. Some 30 bands are represented, with names such as "Nashville Airplane," "Lonesome Day," "Sainte-Foy Family Reunion" and "Bluegrass Deluxe."

The first such compilation came out five years ago, with 21 groups represented. I was told at La Roche that there are about 40 really active bluegrass groups in France today. The heyday of the genre in France was apparently in the '70s and '80s -- according to the CD's web site and thick information booklet, bluegrass was introduced in France in the 1960s thanks to the efforts of the guitarist Marcel Dadi and bano players Jean-Marie Redon and Bill Keith. (Somewhere I have a booklet/magazine by Dominique Fosse put out a few years ago that details 18 years of bluegrass in France.) Some of the early groups -- Bluegrass 43 and the Sainte-Foy Family Reunion -- are still active and included on the CD.

Several French groups on the CD were among the 35 -- count them 35 -- groups that performed during the four days of the La Roche festival. (And I should note that the organizer of the festival, Christopher Howard-Williams, plays in a group represented on the CD called Moonshine.)

There were groups from more than a dozen countries at La Roche -- from Russia to Spain. They played in a variety of styles, from historical re-creation of old recordings (eg the Czech band Sunny Side) to a bluegrass base infused with rock, blues and swing (eg the British band Toy Hearts). Most of the bands were decidedly youthful in their demographic makeup.

A band contest was part of the festival -- and the difference in styles caused consternation among some of the judges. "Bluegrass content" was one of the scoring criteria, and some of the judges refused to acknowledge anything but the strictly traditional.

The Czech band Kreni, which won first prize at the La Roche bluegrass festival. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Once again, the Czechs (and Slovaks...) proved themselves to be at the epicenter of all the styles. The young Czech group Kreni won first prize, with its virtuoso playing, singing and original songs and instrumentals. "They represent the future," said "Big Herbert," a German promoter (and fan and afficionado) who was on the jury.

Big Herbert, with Lilly Pavlak to his right. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The second prize went to a band with a totally different demographic (ie, older) and sound -- highly traditional. The New Essex Bluegrass Band from England. The traditional sound and style is studied and deliberate -- as the band's web site puts it:

Since 1994, the New Essex Bluegrass Band has enjoyed over twelve years as perhaps the most traditional sounding of all the UK bluegrass bands.

The material comes from the repertoires of the early bluegrass bands, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse, as well as more modern bands who have created fresh new work in the same tradition. Banjo, mandolin and fiddle drive the faster songs, and provide subtle back-up to the authentic duet and trio vocal harmonies of the slower songs.

From the outset the band adopted the single microphone as the most appropriate form of stage sound, and have inspired many of the other British bands to do the same.

The New Essex Bluegrass Band plays in La Roche town hall for the Mayor. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The third place was a tie -- between the Czech Bill Monroe clones Sunny Side (which gives a great show hewing note by note to the old music) and the Slovak/Czech group Blueland, with a more modern sound featuring original material.

Sunny Side. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

(to be continued)