Friday, March 27, 2009

The Economist on Cowboy Poets

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

The British newsweekly The Economist has an interesting take on the phenomenon of Cowboy Poetry at a time when -- it feels -- that cowboys otherwise are disappearing from popular culture....

The rise of the cowboy poet coincides with the virtual disappearance from popular culture of another Western figure. Hollywood used to churn out dozens of films a year about square-jawed gunslingers. It now produces almost none, and there is currently no new Western series to be found on broadcast television or basic cable. But the departure of the heroic cowboy has opened some room for gentler, more reflective voices. Although it is growing, their audience is smaller: unlike Western films, cowboy poetry is mostly produced by Westerners, for Westerners.

Read Full Article

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More on Kareem Salama

I've posted a couple times before on Kareem Salama, the Egyptian-American country singer from Oklahoma. Technically, his story should not be part of this blog, as he is American, not a "foreigner" picking up and transforming country music or the Wild West myth.

Still, as I've noted, the interaction of his immigrant parents with the Wild West dream, and how Kareem interacted with that, resonates with the experience that I've witnessed among fans in Europe. And the interest he triggers as a Muslim (albeit an Oklahoman) who sings country music continues to make waves. now has an interview with Kareem, posted as Hesham Hassaballa's column on Muslim music.

Although I can see Islamic thoughts infused in your music, there is nothing overtly Islamic in your songs. Is this intentional?

I would say talking about love is overtly Islamic. It may also be overtly Christian, Jewish, or even overtly human but the fact that the subject matters I discuss are common to all people doesn't make them any less overtly Islamic. If what is meant by “overtly Islamic” is the mentioning of Arabic words and specific religious figures, that kind of music is better left to the great Sufi writers who are far better at writing devotional works for the traveler on the path.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I'm Interviewed on Czech Radio

Rattlesnake Annie and Petr Kocman, Prague Country Fontana, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

When I was in Prague last week, I was interviewed by Jan Richter for the English language service of Czech Radio -- on subjects ranging from Jewish heritage to European country music. I tried to keep my answered pegged a bit to the Czech experience, so I discussed positive developments in the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in CZ, and (in the country music segments) the collaboration between CZ country star Michal Tucny with the American Rattlesnake Annie, as well as the American reception of the group Druha Trava.
“I think Rattlesnake Annie came here on an invitation, and she and Michal Tučný just simply clicked. They performed together, they got along very well and she began a career over here. She was recognized, she toured not just Czechoslovakia as it was but she also played in East Germany and West Germany; she played with a lot European country music acts. She wasn’t the first but she was one of several American artists who made their careers in Europe. The most famous, or infamous, was Dean Reed, who sang a sort of rockabilly, rock, country songs and also appeared in the East German wild west films. But Rattlesnake Annie was unusual because she did this in the communist block. Year before last, which would have been the 60th birthday of Michal Tučný, the country Fontána Festival was held to honour that date, and Rattlesnake Annie came back and sang the duets that she used to sing with Michal Tučný, she sang them with contemporary Czech artists like Petr Kocman and others. It was a very moving moment and the crowd just went wild.”
If you go to the site, you can click a button to hear the interview.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

UK Newspaper Debate Country Music's Potential

Dierks Bentley at Country Rendez-vous Craponne, France 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Two major British newspapers have just published articles about the potential and market (or lack thereof) for country music in the UK, both of them pegged to an upcoming tour by Sugarland.

The Financial Times runs a story by Jon Lusk called "Can Country Make It in Britain?"

In the piece, he deals with many of the issues that country fans, musicians and promoters have described to me in various European countries, and which I have noted in my own articles and on this blog -- see my December post Country Music -- questions (and answers?).

Even though the UK market for country is best described as a “niche”, there are almost 30 specialist radio shows and three magazines (Upcountry, Country Music People and Maverick) devoted to it. But the lack of coverage by the British mainstream media suggests that country music has something of an image problem.

Alan Cackett, editor of Maverick, says country is now at its lowest ebb in the UK since the early 1970s, when it was often on television and high in the pop charts. The last country star to make it really big internationally was Shania Twain, whose Come On Over album sold 4m copies in the UK alone – after it was remixed as a “pop crossover” product in 1999.

One problem that Cackett identifies is that country music is not being marketed to young people, and the average age of most country music gig goers certainly bears this out. Indeed, whether country music is even being marketed at all is an issue for most mainstream (Nashville) artists, who almost never get covered by the broadsheets.

The Independent, meanwhile, runs a piece by Nick Hasted -- "Far from the old country music," that addresses issues of crossover, authenticity and commercialism, pegged to the success of Taylor Swift as well as the Sugarland tour.

More than any other music, country's whole history has been defined by this battle between commerce and authenticity. Its greatest artist, Hank Williams, wrote slick pop songs such as "Hey Good Lookin'", and bone-chilling laments straight from its Appalachian mountain roots. He died aged just 29 in 1953, a burnt-out proto-rock star. The very next year, Elvis Presley took country's rebellious tendencies for rock'n'roll. The country establishment, centring on Nashville's 16th Avenue (dubbed Music Row), reacted with the slick, string-sweetened "countrypolitan" style which dominated country in the 1960s.

"Nashville is Cashville," Time magazine declared in 1964, noting that, in the year of Beatlemania, the city's studios made 30 per cent of the nation's hits. Splashes of steel guitar and fiddle were deemed enough to suggest the music's rustic roots. The banjo in the video for Taylor Swift's "Picture to Burn" follows this precise formula.

There have been various insurgencies against this orthodoxy. In the 1970s, it was the outlaw country of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and self-destructive Austin songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The new country of the 1980s brought left-wing heroin addict Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and kd lang. They all failed in Nashville. Their fresh energy instead led to Garth Brooks. His videos, showmanship, and overweight, balding, Everyman appeal nodded to country's roots with his Stetson.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Country Music -- in Persian, Iranian Style!

Searching for something else on the web, I came across this article about American-style country music written and sung in Persian, by an Iranian band, Kiosk -- whose members are exiles from Iran now living in the USA.
Blues, country music, cowboy boots, and twang: welcome to the ever-widening world of Persian music.

The Iranian band "Kiosk" was awarded the Best Blues Band of 2008 by the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media in October (listen to their latest album, "Global Zoo," here).

Here's Kiosk in action:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

England? (Or at least Phil Collins) Obsession with the Alamo

Old Texas Town, Berlin, Germany, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Alamo fires imagination and inspires passions, in the Texas, the USA, and around the world.

The latest to succumb apparently is the British pop/rock singer Phil Collins, who seems to have taken his obsession to remarkable heights.

According an article in a San Antonio newspaper/web site, it's what he lives for.

"Singer Phil Collins said his life now revolves around the Alamo," writes Scott Huddleston in the Express-News.

Collins is in town, set to appear at local events commemorating the anniversary of the siege and battle of the Alamo. Though he's mulling the idea of recording a tribute cover album of 1960s songs, he said he's making the Alamo “my main thing” as a collector, history buff and possible author.

“Basically, now I've stopped being Phil Collins the singer. This has become what I do,” he said Monday, standing beside a 13-foot-by-15-foot model of the 1836 Alamo compound that will open to the public this week.

Collins, who is British, said he has “hundreds” of cannonballs, documents and other artifacts from the Alamo, possibly the largest private collection anywhere, in the basement of his home in Switzerland. He said he's collaborating with artist Gary Zaboly on a book about his collection.

Read Full Story

What would Davy Crockett say?

Ah well, it reminds me of my visits to Old Texas Town, the elaborate little wild west town that is the headquarters of a cowboy club in Berlin, Germany.

Exaltation of Texas is central to everything, and the site includes many tributes to the Alamo and its dead, including a specially built memorial.

Alamo monument, Old Texas Town, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Hungary -- country obsession

The Buffalo Bill restaurant, Szerencs, Hungary. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's a western outfitter shop in Budapest, around the corner from my apartment, and there's a country-western saloon or two...but country music is not huge in Hungary. Except apparently for the guy mentioned in this article I came across.

Police in Murfreesboro said a man from Hungary was so obsessed with a country music artist he walked into a home looking for her.

Read full article

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Willie and The Wheel -- on VOA

Asleep at the Wheel fans in France, 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel (led by my old friend Ray Benson) have come out with a new CD, "Willie and the Wheel," which has been receiving excellent reviews.

Here's a link to a report on it on Voice of America -- a government radio station aimed specifically at the international market. You can read to the report by clicking HERE or listen to it by clicking HERE.

I've known Ray since we were teenagers in suburban Philadelphia -- and I profiled him last summer after seeing The Wheel perform at the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne, France.

I posted pictures of that concert on this blog.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Australia -- Tamworth Back Story

Here's an informative article by K.C. Boey in The New Straits Times of Malaysia about the Australianness of Australian country music, exemplified by the Tamworth Festival....

"MIDDLE of nowhere mate," the young man is heard speaking into his mobile phone as he drifts past the row of seats on the train to Tamworth.

Tamworth is indeed in the middle of nowhere in the larger scheme of New South Wales, and continental Australia. Yet, every year, it plays host to a festival of music that is quintessentially Australian.

It's the Tamworth Country Music Festival, since its inception in 1968 held over the three-day Australia Day long weekend in January.

There is more to country than just the music. The music, ballads and poetry reflect the ethos of the land from which the artists draw their inspiration.

In good times, people make merry. In hard times, people are drawn to the solace the balladeers represent of the "big brown land" of their dry continent....
Read full article

Cowboy Ranch in....China

The Imaginary Wild West has no borders....Here's a link to a blog post about a cowboy dude ranch in China. Click HERE for the post and pictures....