Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Czech Republic -- Pavek Bobek

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

Last night in Prague I attended the launch concert for the new CD by the Czech singing legend Pavel Bobek. The CD is Czech language covers of Johnny Cash songs and much of it was recorded in Nashville. This sparked the main Czech TV news to feature it on its broadcast on Sunday.

I found the concert poignant: the passage of time and all that. Bobek, who is in his 70s, had a bout of bad health in recent years. He got his start in the late 50s/early 60s as "Mister Rock and Roll." I watched videos of his youthful performances before going to see him live....

Backed by the Malinaband (mainly members of Druha Trava), Bobek performed some of his big hits -- covers of Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen songs, and also the perennial fave "Country Roads".

He encored with the duet "Jeste neni tma" from DT's Dylanovky CD, with Robert Krestan -- a Czech cover of Bob Dyland's "It's not dark yet"

The hall, at a local culture center, was packed with fans of all ages, and they cheered and whooped -- giving him a standing ovation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Farewell Davy Crockett -- RIP Fess Parker


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The actor Fess Parker, who immortalized Davy Crockett, "king of the wild frontier," on TV in the 1950s (and became one of my first media heroes) has died at the age of 85. As this obituary says, he and his character (to me they were inseparable) became an icon for us baby-boomers....and he was so handsome! I well remember sitting with the whole family on the sofa watching the show --and somewhere at home there are photos of my brother Frank in his coonskin cap.
The first installment of "Davy Crockett," with Buddy Ebsen as Crockett's sidekick, debuted in December 1954 as part of the "Disneyland" TV show. The 6-foot, 6-inch Parker was quickly embraced by youngsters as the man in a coonskin cap who stood for the spirit of the American frontier. Boomers gripped by the Crockett craze scooped up Davy lunch boxes, toy Old Betsy rifles, buckskin shirts and trademark fur caps. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" ("Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee...") was a No. 1 hit for singer Bill Hayes while Parker's own version reached No. 5. The first three television episodes were turned into a theatrical film, "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," in 1955
Read full story
  I myself had a fringed leather jacket, plus cowboy clothing. And of course we all know the song....

Here's the full version -- with lyrics.

Berlin -- Modern Earl and Gentle Line-dancers at the Country Music Messe

One of the bands I liked a lot at the Berlin Country Music Messe was a Berlin-based, mainly American group called Modern Earl who play a sort of demented country rock -- and, after starting up here just 2 years ago have proved very successful, touring all over Europe and playing at all kinds of venues ranging from clubs and saloons to country and biker festivals.

There are four stages at the Country Music Messe, where acts perform simultaneously. The scene was quite different on this stage -- just minutes after the end of Modern Earl's performance -- where things were more...traditional. Similar hats, but gentle line-dancing to a band called Duo Diesel that plays "country, oldies & more."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Yeehaw Berlin -- Country Music Messe Scene Video

Here's a quick video showing some of the scene in one corner of the Country Music Messe in Berlin. I love the "YeeHaw" advertisement....(the ad is for a German Trucker magazine)

India -- Cowboy Hats Are the Rage

Photo: IndiaGlitz

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I love stories about the Indian "Cowboy" films and embrace of Wild West trappings by "Kollywood" (southern India's Tamil-language  film industry) and the vast subcontinent as a whole: they demonstrate the universality of the American foundation saga and the global embrace of the mythology and its trappings.... Here's another. According to a web site called IndiaGlitz, cowboy hats are currently all the rage  -- "that essential Prop" even in movies that do not have a cowboy or western theme.
Its retro mode in Kollywood and guess what is the most happening ‘property’ our stars are using, eh sorry, wearing!
Call it the trend or a fashion statement - our heroes are wearing the Cowboy hats., more often than not All you Tamil Film loyalists, rewind to times of Jai Shankar, possibly one of the first cowboys of Kollywood, He wore it for his most coveted cowboy role and then continuing his legacy was Rajinikanth in ‘Thaai Meedhu Sathyam'.
Well those were the days when stories were given the importance and costumes were naturally imbibed in the story. And now, Cowboy hats everywhere. The hero wears the cowboy hat and dances with the heroine in hilly areas, or you see him wear the hat as a ‘prop’ (short for property) and smoke a puff, typically wild... wild... west! [...] 
Cowboy hats are a style symbol. Hats have always been an accessory to mankind, but as a property in movies, especially songs, cowboy hats fill the blank. Spot the actors, be it the hero, the heroine or even the villain in the movies with the cowboy hats on, in upcoming releases. The tradition has been continuing for ages now and just like sky, the hats are here to stay. At least in Tamil Cinema.

 I have posted in the past about some of the films and actors mentioned in this story -- such as the recent movie Quickgun MurugunI know very little of this subculture -- but the pictures and description of the film plots are wild (west)!

 Photo: IndiaGlitz

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Berlin -- Asleep at the Wheel Turns 40 (and I'm at the Country Music Messe)

 I look into the somewhat distorting mirror at the Country Music Messe in Berlin. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

As I'm currently at the annual Country Music Messe in Berlin, Germany, country music is on my mind... and here's a nice, long piece in Billboard magazine about the Austin, Texas-based Western Swing band Asleep at the Wheel celebrating its 40th birthday.
NASHVILLE (Billboard) - When Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson started a band in Paw Paw, West Virginia, in 1970, he had no idea that 40 years later he would still be at the helm of one of America's most adventurous musical outfits.

During a four-decade career, the band has earned nine Grammy Awards, launched a critically acclaimed theatrical production, performed with everyone from Willie Nelson to President Obama to the Fort Worth Symphony, released more than 25 albums and had an airport roadhouse named after its frontman.

"At times it feels like it was yesterday and at times it feels like a hundred years ago," Benson says. "If I look back to 1969 when I quit college and said, 'This is what we're going to do,' it's hard for me to believe that it all happened way beyond my expectations."
Read full article
I've know Ray since we were teenagers in suburban Philadelphia: he went to Antioch College for a bit while I (and Ray's brother) were at Oberlin, and we had a memorable time once hitch-hiking back to Philly together. We two hippies got a ride with a truck-driver who claimed to be "Col. Frank Savage" -- or General Frank Savage -- who was actually a character in the movie and TV show "Twelve O'Clock High". He scolded Ray when he said 'damn" or "hell" or something, telling him "not to use language like that in front of a lady" (i.e., me). He didn't like the fact that I was hitch-hiking (even if accompanied by a 6'7" man) but told me my Daddy should rest easy because Col (or Gen.) Frank Savage would take good care of me during the drive.

Ray Benson and me in Interlaken, Switzerland during the Trucker Festival, 2004

I've   seen Ray and the band perform many times over the years, most recently in Craponne, France in 2008 during the Country Rendez-vous festival. And I wrote a profile of him at that time -- click HERE.

Ironically, the fact that I knew Asleep at the Wheel became a factor, many years later, in my connection to the country music scene in Poland, and with Michael Lonstar -- whom I saw last night at the Berlin Messe.

Michael remembers that we first met in December 1982 at a party in Warsaw, where I was the UPI correspondent. I have to say that I don;t recall the occasion -- but Michael remembers that we "were sitting in the kitchen on stools, and we were talking about Asleep at the Wheel."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Berlin -- More Getting Ready for the Country Music Messe

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just heard from my friend, the Polish country singer Michael Lonstar, whom I have written about several times on this blog. We'll be meeting up tomorrow and over the weekend at the Country Music Messe in Berlin, where he will be performing (among dozens of other bands).

In past posts I've mentioned his song "What's This Country Thing," responding to skeptics who are turned off the by the rowdy Sauerkraut Cowboy get up that many country fans here affect.

Here is a video of him singing the song at last year's Messe (taken from Lonstar's myspace page):

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Berlin -- it's Country Music Messe Time

I'm in Berlin for the annual Country Music Messe (Fair) -- 10,000 or more sauerkraut cowboys, and maybe 100 or more bands, most of them from Europe. I think my first post on this blog was a little snippet from the last time I attended, two years ago:

Feb. 8-10 (2008) saw me in Berlin for the annual Country Music Messe, which this time was held in a new venue -- the "Postbahnhof" right next to Ostbahnhof. Til now, the fair had been held in the so-called Fontana Haus, a sort of community center in a concrete development way up on the northern edge of Berlin. Apparently, the Fair was moved out of there because of safety and security concerns. The new venue is much easier to get to, and this was reflected in the huge numbers of people who crammed the space on Saturday. Most appeared to be from surrounding areas of (former) East Germany; it was easy to come into town, arrive at Ostbahnhof and then just stroll across the street to the Fair -- rather then ride the Metro and bus for nearly an hour to get to the former venue. It led to the amusing scene of cowboy figures hanging out in the train station or jamming the fast food joints at the food court there -- the catering opportunities at the Fair left a lot to be desired. I waited for 20 minutes in line to get a Bratwurst and then decided to walk the 3 minutes to Ostbahnhof, where I had my choice of the finest in fast food offerings....I settled on actually quite good, freshly made Pad Thai at an Asian noodle joint.

Will try to give at least brief reports on a daily basis.

Meanwhile here again is a classic scene: Don Jensen singing his song Sauerkraut Cowboys from one of the Messe stages -- it still is my favorite evocation of the scene. Tom! Dagmar! Truckstop!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Red Dead Redemption game delay prompts music while you wait

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Rockstar game company is set to release a shoot-em-up, Wild West themed video game called Red Dead Redemption, which builds on a 2004 game called Red Dead Revolver. The release of the new game is set for May -- pushed back, apparently, from April.

For those who want to get in the mood, the Australian game news web site Kotaku has posted a wonderful collection of video clips of iconic Western and country songs -- the site calls it a "cowboy survival guide."
Kotaku has selected a handful of tunes that are bound to make you walk bowlegged, squint your eyes, smoke cheap cigars and drink strong whiskey — if you don’t already!
The clips range from Johnny Cash singing Ghost Riders in the Sky, to Ennio Morricone spaghetti western music to the Muppets.....

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Britain -- the Cowboy as Political Symbolism (again)

 Richard Hamilton's portrait of Tony Blair entitled Shock and Awe
 "Shock and Awe" by Richard Hamilton. Photo from Daily Mail web site

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

An image that stands out in a retrospective show by "The Father of Pop" Richard Hamilton  at the Serpentine Gallery in London, is "Shock and Awe" -- a portrait of Tony Blair portraying him as a gunslinger against an apocalytic landscape. It's such a cliche -- even critics point this out, as in the Times of London:
But are Hamilton’s political messages still relevant? Can his satire still sting? In one of several recent works produced for this show, his 2007 Shock and Awe, Tony Blair straddles the horizon, hands on hips like a Texan gunslinger, set against apocalyptic skies. The message is plain. Yet we have seen too many such pictures. This work feels more like a starting point for Hamilton’s unsatisfied intelligence.

What's different is that the painting uses the cowboy image to pillory a British prime minister not an American president. Says the Daily Mail:
The message of the image, which shows Blair in a cowboy shirt, jeans and boots with two holstered guns, set in front of an ominous, smouldering landscape, is clear. The portrait also has an undeniable link to one of America's ultimate cowboys, former U.S. President George W. Bush.
But such imagery directed against American presidents is ho-hum stock in trade that goes back many, many decades, long before George Bush. It is so predictable!

But fascinating.

The Autry National Center in LA held an extensive exhibit in 2008 exploring "Cowboys and Presidents" -- the positive and the negative  connotations. The exhibit web site is still up -- click HERE to visit.

The exhibit explained
how the presidency became intertwined with the emerging image of a heroic American cowboy at the turn of the twentieth century and will explore the ways that U.S. Presidents have used this powerful iconographic symbol to define themselves and their administrations to the nation and the world. It will also show how the press, foreign governments, and domestic political opponents have found cowboy imagery useful in criticizing presidential policy and leadership.

 Cowboys, it noted
performed an important function as the United States expanded west during the nineteenth century, but they had an unsavory reputation. Cowboys were blamed for a variety of offenses, from shooting up cow towns to participating in range wars. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the image of the cowboy began to change. The popularity of dime novels and Wild West shows shifted the image of the cowboy from a violent outlaw to a hard-working, self-sufficient man of the people. No one did more to legitimize the image of the cowboy than President Theodore Roosevelt. With the help of fine art, film, and television, the cowboy ultimately came to be seen as the personification of America, both home and abroad. American presidents, not surprisingly, have used the image for a variety of purposes. Nonetheless, the negative association of the cowboy never fully disappeared. To supporters, a cowboy president represents bravery, ruggedness, and a love of freedom. To critics, a cowboy president is juvenile, reckless, and dangerous. The popularity of the cowboy image has ebbed and flowed with the politics of the time, and a white hat-black hat duality exists to this day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bluegrass -- EWOB Program is now online

 Bluegrass jam session at European bluegrass festival in La Roche, France, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The program for the annual European World of Bluegrass festival and trade fair is now online. EWOB takes place May 13-15in Voorthuizen, Netherlands. More than 40 bands, jam sessions, merchandise, books, CD, workshops....It is a focal point of International Bluegrass Month -- May.

I wrote about this last year in an article in the IHT/NYTimes web site about bluegrass in Europe:
In Europe, dozens of bluegrass concerts, festivals, workshops and jam sessions take place throughout the year. Homegrown bands take center stage, but American musicians also often tour. And local bluegrass associations, Web sites, blogs and publications promote the music and chronicle events. Scotland, the Czech Republic, Norway and other locations have even had bluegrass programs in public schools.
The scene is small but intensely active, said Dennis Schut, a Dutch musician who has been involved in bluegrass since the 1970s. “I see it as a sort of religion or something,” he said. “You get addicted to bluegrass. The first time you hear it, you’re hooked.”

Bluegrass -- schmoozegrass

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This audio "vox Tablet"  piece on Tablet Magazine (an online publication to which I sometimes contribute) by Jon Kalish about an orthodox Jewish bluegrass musician named Jerry Wicentowski is a bit off topic, but it combines several of my interests, including the way that Americana and Jewishness are interpreted, transformed and passed on.
As a teenager, Jerry Wicentowski rebelled against his Orthodox upbringing, but only to a degree. He wouldn’t take the bus from his Brooklyn home to Washington Square Park to join his friends for bluegrass jam sessions but instead he stayed at home, incessantly practicing guitar runs in his bedroom to the great frustration of his father. Now in his fifties, Wicentowski has stopped rebelling. He does not play instruments on Shabbat. But he’s a highly respected bluegrass musician who’s found a way to combine his passion for the music with his religious faith. His greatest limitation, it appears, is that he is unavailable for most weekend gigs. Reporter Jon Kalish profiles him in this week’s podcast.
The piece moved back in December -- and I'm delighted to note that the it has been nominated for a major magazine award.

The interview with Wicentowski highlights some of the problems he found -- including, as an Orthodox Jew, playing bluegrass songs with a pointedly Christian message. There are links on it to some great songs, including a bluegrass version of  Shalom Aleichem from an unreleased album called "Shabbos in Nashville," and other clips that show how he he united lyrics from Jewish prayers and songs with bluegrass music. He calls these combinations "bluegrass zmiros."

Christianity, gospel and Christian imagery are one of the backbones of traditional bluegrass. The Christian -- or at least sacred --  message in bluegrass is something I have on occasion asked non-religious bluegrass players  about (though I can't find my notes just now...) -- and Lee Bidgood has also focused on questions related to this in his research and writing on Czech bluegrass.

Though there are relatively few Jews in the mainstream country music scene -- the towering Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel stands out in more ways than one -- there  are quite a few Jews in the bluegrass (and folk) scene -- as musicians, songwriters, historians and fans.

Several musicians who became prominent in the klezmer music scene -- Andy Statman, Henry Sapoznik, Bob Cohen -- also play bluegrass: Sapoznik has a famous story about how an old bluegrass fiddler told him to explore the roots of his own music, and that's how he got into klezmer. There is also a great klezmer-Jewish band called the Klezmer Mountain Boys, and the onetime Czech bluegrassy band Teagrass also experimented with klezmer.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tourism -- Country Music Trail in Mississippi

This is a little off topic, but may interest readers planning a vacation -- Mississippi has just inaugurated a Country Music tourism trail, with historic markers denoting places of interest. There aleady is a "Blues Trail" with more than 100 markers.

The announcement was made during the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism under way  in Tupelo.
“As we continue to spotlight the state’s slogan, ‘Birthplace of America’s Music,’ we are excited to unveil such a key element in that message, the Mississippi Country Music Trail,” said Mary Beth Wilkerson, Tourism director for the Mississippi Development Authority. “Because music—and country music in particular—is such an important part of Mississippi’s cultural legacy, the Country Music Trail will help to increase awareness of Mississippi as a tourism destination for a diverse spectrum of consumers.”
The Country Music trail will include markers to 30 musicians around the state:

Ben Peters – Hollandale
Bob Ferguson – Philadelphia
Bobbie Gentry – Chickasaw County
Carl Jackson – Louisville
Charley Pride – Sledge
Chris LeDoux – Biloxi
Conway Twitty – Friars Point
Country Music Comes of Age (Jimmie Rodgers Day) – Meridian
Country Music Radio
Country Theaters (Sparta Opry) – Chickasaw County
Elsie McWilliams – Meridian
Elvis Presley – Tupelo
Faith Hill – Star
Hank Cochran – Isola
Hoyt Ming – Ackerman
Jerry Clower – Liberty
Jesse Rodgers – Waynesboro
Jimmie Rodgers – Meridian
Johnny Russell – Moorhead
Leake County Revelers – Sebastopol
Mac McAnally – Belmont
Marty Stuart – Philadelphia
Moe Bandy – Meridian
Namour & Smith – Avalon
O.B. McClinton – Senatobia
Paul Overstreet – Vancleave
Rod Brasfield – Smithville
Smith County Jamboree – Polkville
Tammy Wynette – Tremont
Tommy Cutrer – McComb

Monday, March 1, 2010

England -- an Englishman admits to loving country music and tells why (courtesy of the movie Crazy Heart)

 A British country music fan with a "God Bless Texas" tattoo, whom I met at the Equiblues rodeo and country festival in France. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the London newspaper The Independent, a "former cynic" named Simmy Richman asks the question "Will the movie Crazy Heart persuade Britons that there's more to country and western music than line dancing, Garth Brooks and rootin', tootin' Nashville?" His answer? Essentially, he hopes so, because he himself has seen the light -- and before the movie came out.

Richman's article is called "Another Country: Why everything you thought you knew about cowboy music is wrong."

In it, Richman tells about his own "conversion" to country fan -- which entailed overcoming the stereotypes associated with the music, and which -- as I have written on this blog -- are widespread.  His admission is almost like the confession of some secret vice at a 12-step program meeting.
It is the butt of musical jokes, but here's the punch line: my name is Simmy Richman and I love country music.
(See my posts about the Polish country singer 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. )

From Richman's article:
"The main hurdle I have to overcome is getting over the word 'country'," says Paul Spencer, curator and organiser of Maverick, the UK's only festival dedicated to this music. "Like 'folk', it's a word with negative connotations, but this music is an authentic combination of folk, gospel and the blues and, apart from the DJ Bob Harris, it gets no exposure in the UK." To combat this, Spencer sells his festival by emphasising the intimate setting, the good-natured vibe and its dedication to "roots" music. "Children love to see real musicians playing real music, and I want people to come and give themselves to me for the weekend and trust in my judgement about the acts I put on, many of whom they may never have heard of.

Is Maverick the only country music festival in England? There are certainly bluegrass festivals in the U.K. Check out the web links -- such as Country Music in Britain.  A lot of the music Richman likes falls under "" or "americana" -- see the Americana UK web site for listings. There are clubs and saloons all around the country, plus local artists. And big name groups also perform.

And let's not forget that, back in the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, there were huge country music festivals featuring Johnny Cash and other legends that filled Wembley Stadium in London.