Thursday, December 26, 2013

Czech bluegrass -- 1983...

I can't resist posting this rather fantastically bizarre video from 1983 of the seminal Czech progressive bluegrass band Poutnici....oh, that communist-era sense of humor!

The video shows several members of current Poutnice line-up and also Robert Krestan (heavily bearded on banjo) who went on to found Druha Trava in 1991.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

RIP Czech singing legend Pavel Bobek

Pavel Bobek at the gala Prague concert in 2012 celebrating his 75th birthday

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sad news in the Czech music world....the singing legend Pavel Bobek died in Prague today (Nov. 20). He was 76, and had been in declining health for some time.

I got to know his music -- and him, a little -- in recent years as he performed frequently with Druha Trava and with Lubos Malina, who also produced Bobek's last CDs. Last year, he was inducted into the Czech popular music award "Andel"'s hall of fame.

Bobek got his start in the late 50s/early 60s as  the Communist era's "Mister Rock and Roll," and also became a star in the Czech country scene. He had big hits with covers of American songs by Kris Kristofferson, Jon Denver, Bruce Springsteen and more -- like this Buddy Holly cover, very early on.

Another early clip -- a Czech version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down"

And here he sings another of his big hits -- a Czech version of Springsteen's "My Home Town." The video sets it against the bleakness of a Czech Communist-era "panel house" apartment complex...

Bobek's duet with DT's Robert Krestan of "Jeste Neni Tma," Robert's Czech version of Bob Dylan's "It's Not Dark Yet"  from the 2007 Dylanovky CD, is one of my favorites. Here they are, performing it in 2010 during a concert  in Prague.

As I wrote at the time, the concert was very poignant, as his health problems were evident even then, three years ago -- but the packed audience gave him thunderous applause.

Last year, I attended a gala concert marking his 75th birthday. Again, it was a very poignant, very moving experience, as he appeared very frail onstage. Again, he performed for a full, enthusiastic audience.

Another Czech singing legend, Karel Gott, joined Bobek on stage at the birthday concert.

I have to close with Bobek's Czech version of "Country Roads"....

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bulgaria's Lilly Drumeva reports on her Fulbright work researching bluegrass in the US

I've posted several times about Lilly Drumeva, the Bulgarian singer and instrumentalist who founded and anchors the Bulgarian country/bluegrass group Lilly of the West, and who is in the United States for five months on a Fulbright scholarship to study bluegrass music and the bluegrass music industry. (The video above shows here on the Viva! NashVegas® Radio Show.

Lilly has just posted her own report of her recent research and activities -- and with her permission I am reposting it here. She's been busy!

Her research is to result in a book on the history, industry and social contexts of bluegrass music.

Here's her report (updated from Nov. 3)

Since August 2013 I have been working in the US as a Fulbright scholar, researching the history and industry of country and bluegrass music. I have read a number of books and conducted around 50 interviews with music professionals, asking questions such as: Why do you like country/bluegrass music? What is so special/exciting about it? What are the songs about? How did you get involved? What is the future of these genres in a digital world? When I return to Bulgaria I am going to write a book on the subject in Bulgarian language. A summary of it and a survey in English will be published in several European magazines and internet blogs.

August: I spent it mainly in Bowling Green, KY at Western Kentucky University (WKU), where I researched the history of bluegrass music. I worked closely with Prof. Erika Brady, at the Department of Folk Studies. I studied many books from the extensive library collection and had informal conversations with faculty professors and fellow students.

My research also involved traveling to Owensboro, KY, visiting the International Bluegrass Museum and of course the birthplace of Bill Monroe. I had memorable meetings with Gabrielle Gray (museum director) and RaShe Jennings (curator of collections). Gabrielle offered me an amazing hospitality and we discussed future collaborations.

I attended a small bluegrass festival in the town of Annetta, near Leitchfield as well as several jam sessions around Bowling Green. I was humbled by the attention I received by the local press and media including Radio TV and Newspaper. Here are some links to the interviews:

Live on WKU radio, hosted by Kevin Willis:
Article at the “Messenger Inquirer”:,

Article in the WKU Herald:
September and October were two busy months for me, spent mostly in Nashville!, TN It included many interesting meetings, conferences, music festivals and concerts while absorbing interesting material from books and magazines to further my research. I visited two States where I had not been before: North Carolina and Colorado.
Early September I moved from Bowling Green, KY to Nashville, TN where I established contact with my host institution, the International Bluegrass Music Association. At my hotel, the “Scarritt Bennett Center” I attended part of Darrell Scott’s songwriting seminar. Later in the same month, I watched his show together with Tim O’Brian at “3rd and Lindsley”, a renowned Nashville live music venue. I enjoyed an Italian lunch with my friend, singer/songwriter and teacher at Belmont University, Kathy Chiavola.

I attended two interesting jam sessions, at Andy Wyatt’s house (bluegrass) and Brian Christiansen’s “Fiddle house” shop (old time). I interviewed legendary fiddle player Buddy Speicher, who performed with some of the major country music stars in the 60s/70s. I attended also the “Grandmasters fiddle championship”, held at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where I spoke to the event manager Harold Harries.

Twice I watched shows at the Grand Old Opry, featuring Thompson Square, Craig Morgan, Love and Theft, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jim Lauderdale, The Whites and others. I had an interesting conversation/interview with Sharon, Sheryl and Buck White backstage, which was made possible through my friend Mike DeVillez.

My interview program continued with feedback from Don Cusic (professor at “Mike Curb College of Music”, writer of many country music books), Bart Herbison (Nashville Songwriter’s Association), Craig Havighurst (radio DJ “Music city roots” and IBMA board member), Jeff Walker (music industry professional, head of “Aristomedia”, CMA board member).

A real highlight in my career was when I was called to perform on stage with the Time Jumpers, a fantastic western-swing band, that featured Kenny Sears (fiddle), Paul Franklin (pedal steel guitar), Vince Gill (electric guitar and vocals) and other top notch musicians.

My live performances continued with a slot on the Viva Nash Vegas show, hosted by George Hamilton V at Handy Hardware Store in Franklin, TN.
Middle of September I attended the Americana Music Conference, which was held at the Sheraton hotel, Nashville with gigs in the famous music venues downtown. I was at the Ryman during the Americana awards ceremony and enjoyed performances by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Duane Eddy, John Fulbright, Holly Williams, Liza Marie Presley and others. I made friends with Texas singer/songwriter Kim Townsend and “Music row”, “Nashville Sports and Entertainment” journalist Steve Morley. I discovered a very talented singer/songwriter named Nora Jane Struthers, whose acoustic music really impressed me. Her voice reminds me of Natalie Mains’ of the Dixie Chicks.

Right after “Americana” I flew to Raleigh, North Carolina in order to attend the International Bluegrass Music Awards. I performed my original song “Turn away”, which was selected for the songwriters’ showcase; I teamed up with Japanese mandolin virtuoso Akira Otzuka for couple of showcases in the pubs. A memorable event was to meet the mayor of Raleigh, Nancy McFarlane. I conducted also several interviews with leading bluegrass music professionals: Ken Irwin (Rounder records), Fred Bartenstein (award winning author), Tom Gray (bass player of legendary band “Seldom scene”), Chris Jones (musician, songwriter and radio presenter) and many others.

I returned to Nashville early October and continued to meet and interview interesting people. Among them were: Paul Kingsbury (writer of the “Country Music Encyclopedia”, Country Music Hall of Fame), John Lomax III (music writer and music distributer, grandson of America’s first musicologist. John Lomax I), Don Light (legendary music agent, worked with Keith Whitley, Jimmy Buffett, Dailey & Vincent). I had interesting conversations with John Pannell (musician, writer, author of Alison Krauss’ early hits), and Russ Barenberg (acoustic guitarist and composer, part of the “Transatlantic sessions”).

I thoroughly enjoyed the concert of Irish singer Maura O’Connell at the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, TN in the company of my friend, Dobro player Al Goll. We attended also the famous “Music city roots show” at the Loveless barn, hosted by Jim Lauderdale, who also contributed to my research.

My work continued in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I stayed with my friends Carl Hammerdorfer and Kathy Lynch, who lead international programs at the Fort Collins State University. I focused on reading during the days. In the evenings I played music and enjoyed the company of local singers and musicians such as Barbara Clark (singer/songwriter) and Chat Fisher (mandolin). One of the musical evenings was dedicated to John Denver, one of Colorado’s most significant artists, writer of “Take me home country roads”. I performed live on the radio with Colorado bluegrass band “Lineage”, a program hosted by Vincent Burkhart.
I had a glimpse of the nightlife in Fort Collins, visiting the “Swing house” and watching local band “Bluegrama”. A highlight of my time in Colorado was the concert of Boston singer/songwriter Katie Curtis at Avo’s, Fort Collins.

Exhausted, but happy I returned to Nashville where I resumed my meetings and interviews. It was a real honor to meet Robert K. Oermann, a renowned music journalist (“Country Music Journal”), author of several books and documentaries. At lunch I talked to Kari Estin, an artist manager and consultant, who worked for many years with Tony Rice. I had an informative conversation with Mike Drudge, one of the leading bluegrass music agents, who shared some interesting inside stories. At dinner with IBMA’s director Nancy Cardwell I learned everything about the organization and preoperational work for its annual conference. A memorable day was my visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the meeting with its chief historian John Rumble. I interviewed Douglas Green (“Ranger Doug”, of the legendary western band “Riders in the sky”), who is also a renounced writer and scholar, lovely singer/songwriter Irene Kelly, who had a brand new album out.

I was invited back to perform on the Viva Nash Vegas show in Franklin, TN, where I interviewed George Hamilton IV (legendary country singer from the 60s/70s) and Kayton Roberts (steel player of country legend Hank Snow)

The Bulgarian community around Nashville organized a party in my honor on which I performed a mix of Bulgarian folk songs. Stella Antony, a moving spirit among the Bulgarian group, had prepared a delicious Bulgarian dinner. The night before, Stella treated me to a wonderful performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The importance of being Ernest” at the Johnson Theater and to a memorable visit of President Andrew Jackson’s residence at the Hermitage. I spent also wonderful evenings with my friends Emmanuel & Suzan Lozanov and Alex & Susannah Petrunov who live around Nashville.

At the end of October I had lunch with Nashville musicians/songwriters Barry and Holly Tashian (The Remains, Emmylou Harris) and Nashville cat Scott Newbert (Hal Ketchum, Trace Adkins). I interviewed also Jeremy Garrett (top fiddle player and founder of the “Stringdusters”), Becky Buller (top fiddle player, singer and songwriter).

In November I had interesting meetings with award winning sound engineer Bill VornDick, renowned music journalists David Ross (Music Row), Peter Cooper (The Tennessean), IBMA board member Jon Weissberger, well known bluegrass festival MC Sam Jackson (Bean Blossom), editor of CMA’s trade magazine “Close up” Bob Dorschuk, legendary country music TV host and writer Hazel Smith and many others. I had the opportunity to visit legendary recording studios such as RCA Studio B (Elvis, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton), Ocean Ways (Faith Hill, Tim McGraw), Studio 19 (Tony Rice) as well as world famous music venues: The Ryman, The Station In, Robert’s, Tootsie’s and many others.

I watched the Country Music Association Awards live on ABC television in the company of my friend Maya Campbell. I attended also the CMA Christmas party, live at Bridgestone Arena, featuring top country music acts. Before the show I could network at the CMA International reception, meeting music country music professionals from around the world. I was delighted to talk to Bobbi Boyce (CMA’s international director), Bob Harris (BBC Radio 2), George Lang (RTL, France).

A Fulbright alumni meeting took place in Nashville as well, thanks to the efforts of Fulbright alumni Molly Chatterjee and Kathryn Skinner. I met interesting scholars from Finland, Germany, China, India and Bangladesh.
The second week in November I spent in Baltimore, Maryland where I continued with my research and worked closely with music promoters and close friends of mine: Archie & Priscilla Warnock (Delaware Valley Bluegrass Music Festival). I met and interviewed also award winning journalist Stephanie Ledgin and banjo player of the year Mike Munford.

All in all, a most memorable time. More on

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Filming at Pullman City Passau

The Star-Spangled Banner, during the American History Show. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

As  posted earlier, I was back in  Pullman City, a wild west theme park in Bavaria, near Passau, a few weeks ago for some filming on a documentary on “Cowboys, Indians and Europeans” that is being made by the New York filmmaker Riva Freifeld, whose past work includes a documentary on Annie Oakley.
I’ve been exploring and researching the American wild west/American frontier in the European imagination for some years now. Good lord, 10 years in fact — I researched my first article on the topic (a travel piece on Pullman City and other European wild west theme parks for the New York Times) back in the summer of 2003, and already in 2004 I had a visiting scholar fellowship at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles to look into the marketing of the Frontier Myth abroad.

With Riva at Pullman’s Mexican restaurant, after the shoot. Photo: Stefan Grandinetti
What can I say about this latest visit to Pullman? In short -- it was fun — and a bit of old home week, as I caught up with some folks I had met years ago. Best of all, Riva thinks we got some good footage. She and her cameraman, Stefan Grandinetti, filmed me interviewing a variety of people who work (or hang out) at Pullman — from an “18th century minuteman” who has built a cabin in the “authentic section” of the park, where hobbyists and reenactors can construct their own dwellings, to Hunting Wolf, the “half blood Cheyenne” who conducts programs based (in part) on Native American lore; to Detleff Jeschke, a former prize-winner rodeo rider who has long been the park’s program director.
The scene was much as I found it in 2003 and on my subsequent visits (the last time I had been there was at Xmas in 2009, when my country singer friend Willie Jones played Santa -- I posted about that on this blog.
Here are some pictures from the shoot last month:

Hunting Wolf and his buffalos. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Riva and Stefan filming the American History Show. That’s Detty Jeschke on the horse. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The minuteman hobbyist “Richard Baker” reads the Declaration of Independence during the American History Show. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the saloon…. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I always enjoy going to Pullman City Passau…and also to Pullman City Harz, a sister wild west theme park in north-central Germany. These places become a world of their own.
At Pullman City Passau, the organizers are keen to emphasize that it is a “living” western town, because of the “Authentic Area” where hobbyists actually live — on weekends and vacation time. Some come even in the winter, modeling their “real imaginary” lifestyles on the 19th century past, even in the bitter cold.
A number of songs have been written about both Pullmans.  They tend to play on the country music trope of “home” that make “Country Roads” and “Sweet Home Alabama” so popular….
Here’s the official Pullman City song, declaring that Pullman City is “my home town.”

And this one seems to have been written by a fan


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

RIP Spaghetti Western Screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni

Luciano Vincenzoni, who wrote (or co-wrote) Sergio Leone's iconic spaghetti westerns “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,”and “For a Few Dollars More” , as well as many other movies, died in Rome on Sept. 22, aged 87.

The New York Times obituary states:
Mr. Vincenzoni contributed to about 70 films, chiefly as a screenwriter or script doctor. His humorous touch could be found in films like “Seduced and Abandoned,” which he made with Pietro Germi in 1964, and “The Best of Enemies,” which Mr. De Laurentiis, the producer, released in the United States in 1962.
But to the general public Mr. Vincenzoni was most associated with“For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” two hugely successful Italian-made westerns directed by Sergio Leone that are now recognized as classics.
“I have written movies that won prizes at Cannes and Venice,” he told Sir Christopher Frayling, a cultural historian and Leone biographer. “These were screenplays for which we suffered on paper for months. Do you know how long it took me to write ‘For a Few Dollars More’? Nine days.”
Read the full obit

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Broken Circle Breakdown -- Belgian film set in the European bluegrass scene

For some reason the Belgian movie "The Broken Circle Breakdown" never appeared on my radar. It should have -- it sounds fascinating: a love story/drama set against the background of the European (and particularly Belgian/Dutch) bluegrass scene. Directed by Felix Van Groeningen, it is based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, which was published in 2008 in book form.

The movie came out in 2011 and got great reviews, and the sound track can be downloaded from ITunes. The band tours with live concerts in mainly Belgium and the Netherlands.

John Lawless has just written about the movie in Bluegrass Today, as the film, which been shown at festivals, is about to hit selected theatres in the U.S., with screenings at 13 art house cinemas in the south next month and then limited engagements elsewhere in November and December:

The two primary characters in this dark drama share a passion for each other, and for American music. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) plays banjo in a bluegrass group, and Elise (Veerle Baetens) runs her own tattoo parlor. She sings with the band, and the pair falls hard for each other, a romance that is followed both on and off the stage. Things runs smoothly for these two, until a tragedy tears them apart.
Original music for the film was composed by Bjorn Eriksson, but all the music in the band scenes is performed by the actors, a testament to the active Dutch and Belgian bluegrass scene.

Here's the trailer, with English subtitles.

See U.S. screening dates and more on Bluegrass Today.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Filming in Pullman City!

This is a picture from several years ago, but some of these guys may have been in the Pullman City saloon last night! Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a quick note -- I arrived in Pullman City, the wild west theme park in Bavaria, to do some filming on Revia Freifeld's documentary on the imaginary wild west in Europe, The Old World and the Old West!

I has been just over ten years since my first visit here, when I wrote about it for the New York Times. I've been here several times since then... looking forward to see what's changed and what has not....

This is what I wrote after my first visit, and it still stands!

IT'S nowhere near high noon, but a tough-looking hombre in a black leather vest, black stovepipe pants and a black cowboy hat is sauntering down the dusty length of a frontier Main Street, a gun belt slung low on his hips.
He strolls past the sheriff's office, the Palace Hotel and a saddled horse hitched loosely to a wooden railing, then pauses for a moment at the broad covered porch of the Black Bison Saloon.
Entering, he strides up to the bar and places his order.
''Ein bier, bitte.''
This is Pullman City, a theme park in southern Germany where more than a million visitors a year step out of 21st-century Europe into an American Wild West fantasyland of stagecoaches, gunfighters, mountain men and Indians.
Set on 50 rolling acres a two-hour drive northeast of Munich, near the Bavarian town of Eging am See, Pullman City is a compendium of mythic iconography engrained in the global psyche by well over a century of hugely popular adventure stories, movies, television shows and traveling Wild West extravaganzas.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Cowboy protest" for more country music on UK radio

Country music fans whooped  and line-danced in "cowboy protests" outside British radio broadcasters last week to press their call for more country music on UK airwaves. The protests were organized by a group called Cowboys for Country Music.

The New Musical Express reports:

The Cowboys For Country Music demonstrated outside the BBC's Broadcasting House last week as well as the headquarters of Global Radio in London - the company who own Capital FM. The group line-danced in front of the venues in an effort to make UK radio stations play more mainstream American country music, by artists such as the Grammy Award nominated The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum. The group ... were holding placards and wearing chaps and cowboy boots and danced to 'Cruise' (Remix) by Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly.

Here's a great video of the protest! (You may have to click over to YouTube to watch it -- at this link )

On the video, a cowboy-hatted fan says they were protesting because "It makes up such a big percentage of the music industry; it's extremely popular, obviously, Stateside, and there's a lot of demand for it here in the UK, but because the radio stations don't play enough of it, that's why we want to try and promote that."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bulgaria's "Lilly of the West" studying bluegrass in the USA on a Fulbright

Lilly Drumeva performing in Prague. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Congratulations to Lilly Drumeva, the Bulgarian singer and instrumentalist who founded and anchors the Bulgarian country/bluegrass group Lilly of the West, who is in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to study bluegrass music and the bluegrass music industry. She plans to write a book about bluegrass, for publication in Bulgaria.

Lilly has been profiled in or given interviews to several local publications, in which she has described her fascination with American bluegrass and country music and her experience in bringing this type of music to Bulgaria.

Here's an excerpt from her interview with Kevin Willis at Western Kentucky University NPR station:

What made a nice girl from Bulgaria get interested in American bluegrass and country music? 
“That’s a long story. It started 20 years when I was a student in Vienna, Austria. I was studying economics, and I heard country music for the first time when Emmy Lou Harris had a concert in Vienna. So I got hooked and started buying CDs. 
I had a boyfriend then who played guitar, and he taught me to play a few chords. And I started buying bluegrass and country music CDs, and when I returned to Bulgaria I formed a bluegrass band, and I called it “Lilly of the West”, because Lilly is my name and also my favorite flower. And—for the Bulgarians—I came from Austria, which is in the west, so I was the “Lilly from the West.” 
In 1998, we went to the Netherlands where there was a big bluegrass festival and competition. And we won it—we were voted “European Bluegrass Band of the Year.” And since then we started touring Europe, and we’ve released nine albums to date.” 
When you gathered these fellow Bulgarian musicians, did you have to explain to them what U.S. country and bluegrass music was all about? Did they have any knowledge about it before you spoke to them? 
“When I came back from Austria, I brought lots of CDs, so we had lots of material to learn from. But also, the three guys I found—a banjo player, a guitar player, and a bass player—they already knew a little bit about bluegrass, because in 1990 Tim O’Brien visited Bulgaria. So the American Embassy invited bluegrass musicians from the states to celebrate the fall of communism. So in 1990, the U.S. Embassy brought Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis, and Sam Bush who gave a concert. And that’s when my colleagues heard bluegrass music for the first time.”
Read the full interview, with a link to sound file

Another interview with her appears in

In June, she organized Bulgaria's first country and bluegrass festival, "Country West Fest," in Bankya.

"We had about 300 people," Drumeva said. "It was a little small, but it was great."

This year, she won a Fulbright scholarship to come to the United States to research the history of bluegrass and country music as well as the music industry.

She's been researching in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University's folklife archives. And Thursday and Friday, Drumeva was in Owensboro researching in the archives of the bluegrass museum.

"This is a bluegrass paradise," she said. "These archives are so great."

"Lilly is one of the rare beauties whose music is as gorgeous as she is," said Gabrielle Gray, the museum's executive director. "She has everything it takes to succeed in any form of roots music. She's an extraordinary talent, quite brilliant with a huge heart. She's the total package."

Earlier this week, Drumeva visited Bill Monroe's grave and boyhood home in Rosine.

There was also an article in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.

Lilly says she is humbled by all the media attention.

She reports here on her plans for September:
* I will move to Nashville, TN, where I will work closely with the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), researching bluegrass and country music as industries: record labels, promoters, management, publishing, songwriting etc. 
* I will attend the Americana Music Conference in Nashville (18-20 Sept.), where I will be part of Aristo Media's international panel. Before that I will make another trip to Owensboro, KY, where I will take part in the bluegrass mandolin camp (13-15 Sept.). 
* The main event of the month will be IBMA's annual conference in Raleigh, NC (23-28 Sept.). I am very proud that one of my original songs, 'Turn away', has been selected for the songwriters' showcase on Thursday 26th at 1.00 p.m. I will perform it then, and later the same evening I am part of the 'Foreign affairs' suite with a short set at 11.00 p.m. See this article.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Colosseum Country Festival (and more) brings imaginary wild west to Rome

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Italians seem to be succumbing to the public expression of the Imaginary Wild West.

The phenomenon isn't as widespread as in some other countries, but it's certainly now there, or beginning to be there -- as testified by the upcoming "Colosseum Country Festival" to be held near Rome at the beginning of October, whose main attraction seems to be line-dancing.

Western riding and horsemanship have long been at the heart of the trend in Italy

Already half a dozen years ago I attended the "Western Games" at a "ranch" near Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome, which was a mini-rodeo and riding competition set among displays, Indian dancing, and general wild west themed family entertainment attractions. There were even "live" American cowboys brought over from Oregon.

Western Games, Bracciano, 2005. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The prime mover behind that festival, Andrea "Drew" Mischianti, has long been a key figure in Italy's western, horse, riding and cowboy scene for many years and long wrote a column about the cowboy life for an Italian wild west magazine. He and his wife Natalia Estrada run a "Ranch Academy" to teach and take part in "buckeroo" skills and lifestyle. They also take part in competitions and exhibitions of skills.

But country music -- unlike in other countries -- had little, if any, attraction. At festivals I've attended in France, Germany, CZ, Austria, Switzerland and PL, for example, music and line-dancing were major and something THE major, draws. But at the Western Games, this band played to an audience of ZERO. 

Western Games, Bracciano, 2005. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Line-danging, bluegrass and country music now seem to be making some inroads in popularity, particularly in northern Italy, where there have been some festivals. The Genoa-based Italian bluegrass group Red Wine is considered one of the best in Europe and tours in the U.S. The Rome-based banjoist Danilo Cartia also has been making a name for himself. This month, the American banjo great Tony Trischka will be performing with Red Wine before going on to at banjo workshop in Urbino.

Even in the little village festival in Collelungo, in Umbria, a (sort of) country duo called Western Strings was one of the acts chosen to perform in the piazza. Among the songs they played were the two all time European favorites -- Country Roads and Sweet Home Alabama.

Italy also, of course, has a thriving Cowboy Action Shooting scene -- I'm a member of the Old West Shooting Society and have attended a number of events, which I have posted about.

OWSS match, 2009. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stunning 19th century photos of the American West

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Daily Mail newspaper online has published a series of stunning photos of the American west taken mainly in the 1870s by Timothy O'Sullivan, a pioneer of  U.S. field photography. Click the link to see the marvelous pictures of landscapes, raw towns and mining camps, and portraits of Native Americans.

"Not only was O'Sullivan one of the most intrepid and successful of the U.S. government expedition photographers who roamed the West under appalling conditions in the late 1860s and 1870s," wrote Margaret Regan in the Tucson Weekly wrote in 2003, "he was one of the best of the Civil War photographers. His photos of the war's anonymous dead, lying bloated in the bloody fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere, are emblazoned into the consciousness of Americans."

O'Sullivan,  Regan wrote, worked  with Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner.

Brady had a nasty habit of not crediting his photographers for their work, and Gardner soon broke away from the studio, taking O'Sullivan with him. The young photographer went on to shoot gripping images in the aftermath of most of the war's major battles, from Second Manassas to Appomattox.
"There are no actual battle pictures," Etherton notes. "He did camps, troops and atrocities, not the battle while it was happening. That would have been incredibly hard. With the camera and the wet plate negative in the field, that was not going to happen."
Until the Civil War, photography had been a refined, mostly indoor craft, geared toward people in their Sunday best stopping by the studio for a family portrait. The Civil War changed all that. Its photographers essentially invented photojournalism, though McElroy says they were not always above staging their scenes. In these days, the wet-plate collodion technique required them to haul around a portable darkroom--the soldiers nicknamed them the "what-is-it wagons"--to develop the glass negatives right after shooting the image. 
The drill, says McElroy, went like this: Set up the camera. Quickly coat a glass plate with gooey collodion. Put the glass in a plateholder. Insert it in the camera, expose it for some seconds. Rush the plate to the darkroom tent and immediately bathe it in the developer chemicals and the fixer.
Later, he accompanied survey and exploration missions into the West.

In 1867, Clarence King, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, hired the Irish tough guy for his Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Funded by the War Department, the plan was to survey the unexplored territory between the California Sierras and the Rockies, with an eye toward finding the best place to lay railroad tracks while gauging mining possibilities and the level of Indian hostility. In May, the party sailed to Panama, crossed the jungle by narrow-gauge railroad and continued on to San Francisco. There, O'Sullivan bought a leftover war ambulance to serve as his traveling darkroom, and four mules to haul it. 
Beginning the climb up the Sierra Nevada mountains in July, the team crossed the Donner Pass at night, "when the mountain air froze (the snow) into a crust firm enough to support them," writes Snyder. Most of the crew, excluding O'Sullivan, came down with malaria in a mosquito-plagued valley, and King himself was struck by lightning on Job's Peak and was temporarily paralyzed.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of On the Trails of the Iroquois Exhibition, in Germany

Prof.  Wolfgang Hochbruck, of the English and North American Studies department of the Department of English / North American Studies at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg visited the exhibition "On the Trails of the Iroquois" in Bonn -- the exhibit (as per my prior post) is soon to open in Berlin. 

He has given me permission to post his review of the exhibition, which was posted in the American Indian Workshop listserv.

I saw this exhibition with my 11-year old son yesterday in Bonn -- a four-hour trip each way, but worth the time and the effort at least for me: this is easily the most comprehensive collection and presentation of things Haudenosaunee ever to be seen in Germany so far. Or elsewhere, for that matter.
The fact that the Seneca Art Project in the 1930s left so many reconstructions and reminiscences of earlier arts and crafts is of course an historical factor that aided the curators, but the wide variety of artefacts and documents brought together from North America and a variety of European countries including Russia is still amazing.
There are a number of gems and rarities -- the Iroquoian show troupe members on 1920s postcard photographs from Munich, all decked out in the obligatory 'indian' headdresses. The treaty of 1701 at the end of the Beaver Wars and the years of fighting the French. 
 Some items remain puzzling -- are the bows and arrows sports and childrens' toys? With their wooden tips they couldn't have been used for serious hunting. A bit more on military strategies might have been helpful to explain, how and why the Iroquois managed to keep their position of power between the Colonial forces for so long. Their early acquisition of guns from the Dutch, and formation of rifle units. Or else the fact that in Pontiac's Rebellion Iroquoian and Wendat/Huron fight side by side, but then the whole topic of trans-tribal alliances still needs research. And i might have provided a couple of old copies of the Akwesasne Notes. 
Never mind. 
The exhibition is quite big anyway -- anyone wanting to see everything in detail should count on at least three hours, and allow for breaks. And unfortunately, the whole setup and layout is a lot more scholarly and conservative than the Iroquoian warrior and his graphic-story background at the entrance makes one assume: There is very little for even an interested 11-year old to keep his attention focused for hours and hours of showcases upon showcases and gargoylish museum wardens to ward him off any painting that he came closer to than a foot-length distance -- maybe, upon second thoughts, it is a good idea that the measly museum shop did not sell replicaed war clubs (but all sorts of junky books and movies, and the very detailed and highly recommendable catalogue only in German). 
It is to be hoped that the traditional-style Longhouse erected outside on the premises somehow goes along to Berlin; it is absolutely magnificent and for once kids can sit on the mats and touch things - if they still dare to do that after the experience in the museum. Also, the Bonners charged extra for a visit inside; not a nice move after you have shelled out 16.- € for two family members already. 
Summary: definitely worth the visit, but as an educational experience more arduous than would have been absolutely necessary.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Upcoming exhibition on the Iroquois, in Berlin

This looks as if it will be a fascinating exhibition -- it already has been shown in Bonn.

On the Trails of the Iroquois

18 October 2013 to 6 January 2014


Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin ‎

Of the hundreds of Native American peoples, only a few have over the centuries engaged the European and Euro-American imagination to the extent that the Iroquois did. This fascination is in a large measure due to the outstanding role the Five (and later Six) Nations played in the arena of colonial encounters in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, which gained them a reputation as fierce warriors and skilled diplomats and is also reflected in a host of fictional literature. But European interest has always far exceeded this pre-occupation with political and military excellence. Western intellectual struggle with Iroquois culture has left enduring imprints not only on the history of anthropology, but also on popular culture, the peace and women’s movements, and even efforts to establish the foundation of alternative lifestyles. 
The present exhibition will attempt to trace the development of Iroquois culture from its origins up to its vibrant articulations in the present-day United States and Canada, following their varied history through colonial times characterized by war, trade, and European missionary efforts; the subsequent weakening of their power through loss of land and political autonomy and the eventual break-up of the League after the American Revolution; the cultural transformations during the Reservation period; and their strive for sovereignty in the twentieth century up to very contemporary concerns.
Presenting approximately 500 objects this large-scale exhibition On the Trails of the Iroquois brings together for the first time historical paintings and drawings, precious ethnographic objects, and extraordinary examples of Iroquois contemporary art from major collections in Europe, the United States, and Canada.
Conceived in close cooperation with Iroquois artists, curators, and intellectuals, the exhibition aspires to a multi-layered representation of Iroquois culture as well as contemporary indigenous voices on their history and present-day identities. As Tuscarora artist and writer Richard W. Hill expressed it, “it can safely be said that today, the Haudenosaunee [self-designation of the Iroquois as ‘People of the Longhouse’] define themselves through their diversity”, as each generation “adds to that layered definition, taking the artistic expressions of the past, the oral traditions of their ancestors, and add that to their own life experiences”.
Aside from Prof. Dr. Christian Feest, former director of the Museum of Ethnology Vienna, it was possible to cooperate with important Iroquoian scientists and artists from Canada and the USA, including Dr. Thomas Hill, former director of Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario, and Peter Jemison, manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site, New York. 
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition (published in a German as well as an English edition) provides insights into the historical and cultural context of the exhibits and their makers. In addition, it also highlights the importance of the ethnographic collections held by museums today for an understanding of a fascinating people and their culture. The catalogue is published by Nicolai Verlag Berlin.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lonstar & Ray Scott -- High Road Tour in PL, DE, CZ, DK

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My old friend, the Polish country singer-songwriter Michael Lonstar is currently teamed up with American Ray Scott on an eight-concert tour with appearances in Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark. Upcoming gigs can be seen on Ray Scott's web site.

They are playing clubs, festivals, including the Mragowo Country Piknik in Poland;  the Good Old Western festival is Vsetin, CZ, and the big Silkeborg festival in Denmark -- and even, emulating Johnny Cash - a prison, as Polish TV reports here in a piece that also reports on Mragowo :

Lonstar wrote on Facebook before setting out:

Fresh sets of strings for my guitars, equipment check, set lists with the charts and respective keys, last double-check phone calls and e-mails... Start packing for the road. Not just A road...
... a "HIGH ROAD" 2013 TOUR with awesome RAY SCOTT!
Eight shows in four countries: Poland, Germany, Denmark and Czech Republic - festivals, club dates and even two prisons - plus one live radio appearance and nearly 7.000 kilometers to cover.
I anticipate the meetings with my old road-tested friends and die-hard fans. I also hope for making new friends and fans. There's so much music, stories and emotions to share with all of you!
And there's Ray Scott... It's an honor, a pleasure and a challenge to share stage with one of the damn best country singers / songwriters on planet Earth...
The itinerary includes Mragowo Country Piknik, then 2 prison shows, next - Langenau, Germany, next - layover in Prague and on to "Good Ol' Western" festival in Vsetin, next - back to Warsaw via Cracow, and then - Silkeborg, Denmark.

He is posting pictures and videos on FB that fans can follow. So far, sounds like a lot of fun!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gettysburg Battle Reenacted on Site -- photo essay

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

For all you hobbyists and Civil War reenactors out there.... here is a beautiful photo essay on a reenaction of the battle of Gettysburg, held on site in the US, on the 150th anniversary of the battle this month. It's also interesting to see the tens of thousands of spectators.

See the photos (in the New York Times) here

Lilly Drumeva's song to be featured at IBMA World of Bluegrass

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

More news from Lilly Drumeva of Lilly of the West -- she reports that her original song "Turn Away" has been selected for the songwriters showcase at IBMA's World of Bluegrass Conference 2013, in Raleigh, NC, which precedes the Wide Open Bluegrass festival. The song is featured on the album "Lovin' You" that was recorded in Prague with the Czech bluegrass band Monogram.

She will be performing the song on Sept. 26.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bulgarian country music (and Lucky Luke) -- new video by Lilly of the West

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Lilly Drumeva, who, with her band "Lilly of the West"  has carved out a niche as Bulgaria's leading (if not only) country/bluegrass singer has posted a new western swing video recorded live in a Sofia studio in May.

Lilly founded her band back in 1996.... here's a video from a couple years back promo-ing the first 15 years of the band.

A couple of months ago, Lilly performed at the opening of an exhibit on the cartoon cowboy Lucky Luke at the Karikatur Museum in Krems, Austria. Lucky Luke is an immensely popular comic book series created in the 1940s by the Belgian cartoonist Maurice De Bevere, better known as Morris.

Lilly appears for a few seconds in this Austrian TV video from the opening -- which looks at Lucky Luke but also shows the various reenactors and western fans who attended the opening.

The exhibition will run until November 17. It will include original drawings as well as material about the Imaginary Wild West (and -- maybe -- the historic one) and there are various events connected to it.

Enter the world of Lucky Luke on his web site.

For further information about the exhibition, see the web site or contact (or visit) the Museum:

Steiner Landstraße 3a
A-3500 Krems-Stein
T: (+43-2732) 90 80 20
F: (+43-2732) 90 80 21

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Eric Hobsbawm on the Mythic Appeal of the Cowboy

Fans at the Mragowo Country Piknik festival in Poland, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

When the communist historian Eric Hobsbawn died last autumn at the age of 95, he was putting the final touches on his last book, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, which was published in March in the UK. (It will be published in the US next year.)

The book is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics -- one of which is the creation and worldwide appeal of the myth of the cowboy.

This, of course, is one of the things I have been exploring in this blog and in the research I've been carrying out on and off over the past decade. 

When the book came out, the Guardian newspaper ran a lengthy excerpt from the Cowboy chapter.

There is ... no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why?
Our starting point is the fact that  in and outside Europe, the "western" in its modern sense – that is, the myth of the cowboy – is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: that of the wild west in general. Fenimore Cooper, whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication – Victor Hugo thought he was "the American Walter Scott" – is the most familiar version of this. Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles?
The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: the confrontation of nature and civilisation, and of freedom with social constraint. Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.

It is well worth accessing the Guardian web site and reading the whole essay (I don't have copyright permission to run it here). Hobsbawm elegantly touches all the expected spots, from Buffalo Bill to western imagery in advertising -- for a detailed discussion of this, see the essays in Western Amerykanski: Polish Poster Art & the Western, the wonderful catalogue of a 1999 exhibit at the Autry museum.  I'm not at all sure I agree with everything Hobsbawm says, but he makes some interesting points.

what carried the west into the hearts and homes of five continents was not movies that aimed at winning Oscars or critical applause. What is more, once the late western movie had itself become infected by Reaganism – or by John Wayne as an ideologist – it became so American that most of the rest of the world didn't get the point, or, if it did, didn't like it. 
In Britain, at least, the word "cowboy" today has a secondary meaning, which is much more familiar than the primary meaning of a fellow in the Marlboro ads: a fellow who comes in from nowhere offering a service, such as to repair your roof, but who doesn't know what he's doing or doesn't care except about ripping you off: a "cowboy plumber" or a "cowboy bricklayer". I leave you to speculate (a) how this secondary meaning derives from the Shane or John Wayne stereotype and (b) how much it reflects the reality of the Reaganite wearers of dude Stetsons in the sunbelt. I don't know when the term first appears in British usage, but certainly it was not before the mid-1960s. In this version, what a man's got to do is to fleece us and disappear into the sunset.

Artist tracks "end of cowboyism"

Not Arizona, but Death Valley... Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

An installation by the artist Ibrahim Quarashi uses the iconic American highway to track what he calls "the end of cowboyism."

Quirashi, described as a Pakistani now based in Europe (Berlin and Amsterdam) was born in Nairobi, according to the web site of a gallery that represents him. The "enigma of the Western cowboy" is said to have long been one of his obsessions.

His "Dreaming of Arizona" installation dates from 2009, when it was first shown in Amsterdam, but it has recently been mounted in Massachusetts.

It is yet another example of the many ways in which people around the world are caught up in the mythology of the American West and the Frontier; with the "highway" often playing a mystical as well and mythical role, redolent of all sorts of symbolism.

In Dreaming Arizona, Quarashi states on his web site

a metaphoric journey through the legendary Highway 64 is created to expose the end of cowboyism through a series of 7 films within 7 different time frames and 7 sets of photo prints.

It seems to me that he may actually mean legendary Route 66, since, coming from the east, Highway 64 stops at the Arizona border. Oddly enough, an article about Quarashi and the installation in the North Adams Transcript refers to -- and quotes Quarashi as referring to -- the highway at Highway 67, which in fact runs north-south and also does not enter Arizona....

The article, by Jess Gamari, quotes Quarashi as saying:
In Dreaming Arizona, I aim to simultaneously expose the structures that influence how we see the codes of an American Cowboy, with references from to Spaghetti Westerns, homo- eroticism, and pop culture like Andy Warhol [...] It gives a sense of how travel is so connected to the desire of an ideal that is perhaps never reached in the world of modern cowboys. I suppose Dreaming Arizona is a metaphoric journey through the legendary Highway 67 to expose the end of cowboy-ism through a series of seven films within seven different time frames, structure and inner sequences.

The exhibit, he added

looks at "the spatial analysis on the structures that influence how we see a world, a particular space wanting to metaphorically indulge in the illusions of a cowboys' hyper-masculinity without any of its real responsibilities," he said. " [Traveling through the American heartland] is a contemporary metaphor for an endless road trip that hold a very religious resonance is definitely subconscious but always present in the psyche.

Gamari writes that in 2007, Quarashi rented a white Bronco and traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and Colorado, and later took a closer look at Mexican cowboys in Yucatan, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Here is a video of the installation, from Quarashi's web site -- the text at the beginning and end of the film is also interesting as a description of the project.

Sauerkraut Cowboys has a Facebook Page

Rodeo, Boskovice CZ. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Folks -- as you can see from the sidebar, we have bowed to the inevitable and opened a Facebook page.

So like us!

Here's the link --

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction -- New Autry Center Exhibition on Guns

Cowboy action shooters in Italy. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles has a new exhibit that -- like other exhibits at this wonderful museum -- explores both the West of fact and the West of the imagination.

Called "Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction" it  "illuminates the sweep of American Western history" through what it calls its "definitive artifact -- the firearm," exploring the history, artistry and symbolism of guns, both in the "real" wild west and in movies, TV shows, literature, fantasy and romance. Specific themes include hunting and trapping, the impact of technology on firearms, the conservation movement, and the West in popular culture.

The exhibit is the Autry’s inaugural exhibition in its new Gamble Firearms Gallery.

The examples featured—by iconic manufacturers such as Remington, Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Winchester, among others—are some of the finest specimens of the gun maker’s art, in terms of historic value, provenance, and pure beauty, that have ever been brought together in the United States.  [...] 
From the Colt and Winchester firearms Teddy Roosevelt used in the West, to Annie Oakley’s gold-plated handguns with pearl grips, to a Remington revolver once owned by Gettysburg hero General George Meade, this evolving display reflects the real and imagined stories behind the people who owned those guns. The exhibition also features historical documents, artworks, and artifacts, including Winchester advertisement lithographs, colored-glass target spheres used in sharp-shooter demonstrations, and a gun belt once owned by actor Steve McQueen, all of which place the firearms in a rich cultural and historic context.

The opening of the exhibit coincided with celebrations July 27 marking the Day of the Cowboy and Cowgirl.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Report on the Czech Banjo Jamboree

Caslav massed banjos. Photo © Lilly Pawlak

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The annual Banjo Jamboree in the Czech Republic, held now in the town of Caslav, is the oldest bluegrass festival in Europe. It's one of the first festivals I went to when I started following the country and bluegrass festival circuit in Europe.  This year's festival, June 21-22, was the 41st edition of the event. It included concerts, workshops, jam sessions, etc. The line-up was almost all Czech bands, with acouple of Americans and others. And there was the tradition jam session -- and photo -- of as many banjo players as possible performing Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

I didn't attend this year. But Lee Bidgood -- whom I met at the Banjo Jamboree in 2004 -- was there, presenting a sneak preview of Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass that I helped on -- and in which I am featured as a "talking head" expert.

He gave a lengthy and thoughtful two-part write-up of the festival on his blog, with links and photos:

The oldest Bluegrass festival in Europe takes place in a suitably historic spot. The part of its history that you can see in this post is a bit more recent – the Republic of Czechoslovakia (founded in 1918 out of the still-warm ashes of the Hapsburg empire and the rubble of the first World War). The First Republic, as it is termed by Czechs (“Prvni Republika”) is a golden age, during which the country was the 10th larges economy in the world (think about who the major players were and weren’t in that period…don’t think folks in Europe were counting Indonesian or Chinese cottage industries in their tallies…). The traces of the first republic in Caslav include the site for the Banjo Republic festival, an outdoor letni kino (summer movie theater) and swimming pool. The building has the modernist flair of the first republic, including the elegantly minimalist metal railings that characterize villas and office buildings from the period. There is something slightly nautical mixed in with this style: an occasional round, porthole-like window, the railings that look like the top deck of the Titanic, etc. ...

Lilly Pawlak, bluegrass fan and expert extraordinaire, also covers this year's festival on the Czech music web site Music Open.

Her report is in Czech -- but google translate does a fair enough job of giving you the gist, and Lilly includes quite a few pictures.


Friday 21.6.2013 

1. Album
2. Taverna
3. Handl
4. Fámy
5. Poutníci
6. Sunny Side
7. East-West (CZ-SK)
8. Jimmy Bozeman & Lazy Pigs (USA/CZ)

Saturday 22.6.2013
1. Malina Brothers
2. Modrotisk
3. Twisted Timber
4. Abalone
5. Benefit
6. Blue Gate
7. Dessert
break + banjo players photo shooting
8. St.Johnny & The Sinners
9. Wyrton
10. BG Cwrkot
11. Goodwill
12. Black Jack
13. Vabank Unit
14. Louvat Brothers (Belgium)
15. G-Runs & Roses
16. COP