Sunday, December 11, 2011

Italy -- Country Christmas. The imaginary Wild West in Italia

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Looks like the second annual Country Christmas in Pordenone, Italy is in full swing; actually the Dec. 8-11 event is winding up today. And here I am in Budapest, not northern Italy....
Buddy Jewell

Country Christmas is a full-fledged country and western festival, like those in Germany and France -- with rodeo-style competitions, shops, other events and even live country music (Buddy Jewell), an element that has been largely missing from the horse and cowboy-action-shooting dominated Italian imaginary western scene.

The Festival web site calls it "the perfect mix of culture, entertainment, spectacle and nature, the ideal occasion for everyone who loves horseback riding and  approaches 'country' also as a real lifestyle. The 'look' of visitors is de rigueur -- jeans, shirt, vest, cowboy boots and Stetson hat, with an attentive eye to the American style of the 1950s."

Insomma, Pordenone diventa capitale del West, tra dimostrazioni con cowboy e cavalli americani, prove di roping (tiro con lazzo) gare di toro meccanico e naturalmente, tanta musica country con dj e gruppi dal vivo che faranno ballare il pubblico dall’alba fino a notte fonda sulla pista più grande d’Europa, oltre 1.500 mq. Proprio qui si sfideranno le scuole di ballo country di tutta Italia, in arrivo gruppi dalla Sicilia come dalla Valle d’Aosta, che si contenderanno il terzo trofeo italiano di ballo country in programma sabato 10 e domenica 11 dicembre. Ma tutti potranno scendere in pista, e partecipare agli stage e corsi per imparare i passi giusti. E magari entrare nel Guiness dei Primati: Country Christmas infatti cercherà di battere il world record di Barn Dance (sabato ore 16.00)2, ovvero il più alto numero di coppie che si lanceranno nella barn dance, lo scorso anno il conteggio si è fermato a 465 coppie in pista contemporaneamente. Country Christmas 2011 lancia una nuova sfida ai suoi visitatori: la maratona di two step, primo premio una vacanza stile “Scappo dalla città” in un meraviglioso ranch in Wyoming.

Ad accompagnare le danze saranno alcune delle migliori band italiane e americane di country music. Star della manifestazione sarà Buddy Jewell, cantante leader della musica country americana, che sabato 10 alle ore 21.00 salirà sul palco con una miscela di musica e stili che richiama l’anima musicale dell’America Bianca. Da non perdere, domenica 11 dicembre, il 2°raduno italiano delle leggendarie auto americane degli anni ’50 che, dopo una sfilata nel centro di Pordenone, potranno essere ammirate nell’area esterna ai padiglioni della fiera. In un ambiente western non potevano mancare i saloon dove gustare i tipici piatti dei cowboy: t-bones, carne secca e fagioli, specialità tex-mex e ottima birra. E per concludere, niente di meglio di una puntatina al Country Market, con tanti stand per lo shopping, e per i più piccini tante attività a loro dedicate: la visita al villaggio degli indiani d’America, il recinto degli asinelli e il battesimo a cavallo, per coloro che salgono in groppa per la prima volta.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

England et al -- February International Country Music Festival Line-up Expanding

Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The program for the International Festival of Country Music to be held in February in London's Wembley Arena and other venues is expanding -- Charlie Pride and Asleep at the Wheel have been added to the line-up.  Acts now include headliners  Pride, AATW, Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, and Lonestar, as well as supporting acts Narvel Felts, John McNicholl, Jo-El Sonnier, Will Banister, George Ducas, Sandy Kelly & George Hamilton IV, Raymond Froggatt, and Tim McKay.  

The Festival kicks off  Feb. 26, 2012 at Wembley -- scene in the 1970s and '80s of famous country music festivals  -- and then travels to Belfast, Zurich and Germany.

Returning to Wembley after more than two decades thus really marks  a symbolic return of big-time country music to the mainstream arts agenda -- and signals a revival of popularity in the genre. As the web site says:

The International Festival of Country Music introduced country music to the British public almost 45 years ago.  The shows, promoted by the legendary Mervyn Conn, ran for 23 years from 1969 to 1991 at Wembley Arena.  Hugely popular, the shows always featured the biggest stars of Country music fans were treated to outstanding performances by artists including; Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Lee Lewis, Crystal Gayle and many more.

Now after a gap of 20 years the Festival is back, and one thing that has not changed is world class line-up.

International Festival of Country Music founder Mervyn Conn said:
“I’m bringing the International Festival of Country Music back after over twenty years due to popular demand. The regard for Country Music has grown significantly in the UK since the first year I promoted this event and I believe that now is the time to reintroduce this once hugely popular event to converted fans of country music and to a new and emerging group of country music lovers”.

Reba McEntire comments;
“My band, crew and I are really looking forward to going back to Europe to play our music. The last time we performed there was in 1999! We have been very busy for the last 10 years doing the REBA TV show and concerts in North America. Now, we are so excited to be able to travel abroad and do both our new and old songs for our European audience, who has always been so good to us.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Slovakia -- The annual Peter Dula Tribute Concert

Michael Lonstar and Dorota Krawczyk at the Peter Dula tribute. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This week I was in Kosice, in far eastern tip of Slovakia, to attend the annual concert and awards event held there to honor the memory of local son Peter Dula, a Slovak country singer who died of cancer in 2009 at the age of only 28. He had been diagnosed ten years earlier while in the U.S. playing hockey for a junior league in Boston, then got into country music while undergoing cancer treatment back in Slovakia.

I never met Dula (though we were friends on Facebook), but he was a friend of several of my friends in the central European country scene. Dula had fronted the band Veslari -- "The Rowers," Slovakia's oldest country music band, since 2004. With Dula singing, the band won a Slovak Grammy and other numerous  awards including the best European country band of 2007. They also played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2007.

After his death, Dula's friends in the country music scene over here decided to honor his memory by each year passing on his guitar to a chosen artist, who would be its custodian for the following 12-month period, creating a sort of "Wayfaring Guitar" as a living memorial.

The guitar is handed over at a concert event where awards are also handed out, inducting chosen artists into "Peter Dula's Country Music Hall of Fame."

The first two awardees, in 2009, right after Dula's death, were European -- my friends Michael Lonstar, from Poland, and Allan Mikusek, from Slovakia. Last year there were four Americans: songwriter Mark Trail, Billy Yates, Joe Diffie and Buddy Jewell.

This year the awards went to my Czech friends Robert Krestan and Lubos Malina, and their band Druha Trava -- I worked with the band on their latest CD, Shuttle to Bethlehem, which features Robert's original songs sung in my English translations.

The concert -- which lasted four hours -- was held in a big theater-type hall in some sort of anonymous facility (a driving school?) on the southern edge of Kosice. The theater was packed, and the atmosphere was good: not raucous, like a German or Polish country crowd; not "tramp" like the Czech bluegrass crowd can be. There was no bar in the place -- so no one was drunk, either! And the only person in a real cowboy hat was Lonstar. (Several of us wore cowboy boots, though....)

Lonstar, a young Polish singer named Dorota Krawczyk, and a Slovak band led by local singer Laco Sasak performed during the first half of the show. A mix of U.S. songs, and traditional-style originals (sung in English, Polish and Slovak) -- concluding the set with a Slovak version of the song "Cowboy's Gone," which Lonstar wrote in memory of Peter Dula. All the while, pictures of Dula were projected onto the rear of the stage.

Druha Trava was the headline act and played the second half of the show. I've seen them perform a lot, but I've never seen such an enthusiastic audience -- whooping and stomping and cheering, etc. Pretty wild. DT hadn't performed in Kosice in years, and it was as if the audience was just hungry for the music.

At the end of the show, the awards (framed citations) were present, and Peter Dula's wayfaring guitar was handed over into the care of DT.

Then, as the closer, Robert, joined by the other artists, sang the folksong "Wayfaring Stranger", with Dula's picture as a backdrop, which seemed the right way to end the show.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

India/Pakistan -- Country Music Goes to Bollywood...

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Shahvaar Ali Khan, a  musician based in Lahore, Pakistan, has infused the score of his friend director Rohit Dhawan’s upcoming Bollywood movie Desi Boyz with some US style country music...

Unmistakable country twang sets the tone of Khan's song titled “Filmain Shilmain” -- which also has elements of Pakistani and Indian music.

States an article by Rafay Mahmood in the Pakistani newspaper the Express Tribune:
The song itself has captivated the audience with its reminiscent feel. It takes the listener to the good, old carefree days, when sipping tea at roadside stalls and jamming at college concerts defined life.
Here's the song:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Italy -- A Wild West Restaurant Chain in Italia

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a note to highlight yet another chain of wild west restaurants, this one Old Wild West in Italy. The web site says there are 70 branches.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

UK -- The Best of British Country Music

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Telegraph newspaper runs an article on the best of British country music.  "Britain is renowned for its folk music," writes Martin Chilton, "but there also UK country bands strutting their stuff in proud style."

He highlights new albums by several groups:

Red Sky July: Red Sky July (Proper Records)
The Good Intentions: Someone Else's Time (Boronda Records)
Ahab: KMTV (Navigator Records)
Jim Harbourne: Hills Of Home (Borrowed Time Productions) 

Read the full article HERE

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Czech/US/Music -- Druha Trava and Shuttle to Bethlehem on U.S. national NPR radio

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

More DT and Shuttle to Bethlehem -- the band's English-language CD that mainly features my translations of Robert Krestan's original Czech songs.

A story on the band and the CD, by NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea, ran on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" show today. Read a short version of it HERE or listen to the full story HERE.

The first time I heard Druha Trava play was April 2009. I was covering President Obama's trip to the Europe. There was a big outdoor speech in Prague, and the band was playing Czech versions of Bob Dylan songs.

I did a short radio postcard story back then, figuring it was the kind of experience that every music fan knows: You stumble upon a great band somewhere and never see them again.

Now it's the fall of 2011, and I'm chasing candidates around Iowa. Who should be doing a show at the Czech and Slovak Hall in Cedar Rapids? Druha Trava.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

England -- Wild West ranch vandalized and robbed

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the English town of Hartlepool, thieves ransacked and robbed a wild west enthusiast's private cowboy ranch of £3500 worth of items in his collection of Americana.

Ged Parker, who runs Hartlepool’s Wild West Legends Re-Enactment Society, turned up to his site on the outskirts of town yesterday morning to find it had been ransacked.

Thieves had gone through all of his belongings and stolen much-loved authentic pieces, including saddles, bridles and clothes that he had imported from the USA.

They also made off with expensive tools, tried and failed to use a trailer to steal a vintage tractor and made a mess of the field off Dalton Back Lane where the group keep their horses.

Ged, who founded the society three years ago, called the thieves “mindless idiots” as they also left gates open for three horses to roam free – despite it being just yards from the A19 dual-carriageway.

. . . .

The society has more than 40 members who regularly visit their very own prairie town on the outskirts of Hartlepool.

It was set up by Ged and his friends to recreate life on the range and he hoped to use it to educate people about American history.
 Read full story HERE

Friday, November 4, 2011

Belgium -- "Nudie Suits" exhibit/Bobbejaan Schoepen

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Fashion Museum in Antwerp, Belgium is presenting the first exhibition in Europe of the flamboyant clothing designed, mainly for country music stars and other popular entertainers, by Nudie Cohn, the "Rodeo Tailor" (and king of sartorial rhinestone glitz).

The show, called "Dream Suits", opened Oct. 28 and runs til Feb. 12. It features clothing owned -- and worn -- by the popular Belgian entertainer Bobbejaan Schoepen, who died in 2010 at the age of 85.

Drawn from the personal collection of iconic Belgian entertainer Bobbejaan Schoepen and his wife Josée, this show — curated by fashion historian Mairi MacKenzie and designer R. Cerimagic — will be the first European exhibition to examine the work of the Ukrainian born tailor who revolutionized the clothing of Country & Western Music.

Originally a designer of highly embellished g-strings for New York strippers, Nudie Cohn moved to Hollywood in 1947 and originated the rhinestone cowboy look that has become visual shorthand for Country & Western style. His fantastical, intricately embroidered and heavily ornamented outfits adorned the backs of numerous music and film stars, including Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Elton John, Cher, John Lennon, Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash, and Bobbejaan Schoepen. Today his work is still sought after and admired. Contemporary musicians such as Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, Mike Mills from R.E.M. and Beck, fashion photographers such as Craig McDean and fashion designers from Tommy Hilfiger to Ralph Lauren have been inspired by his incredible designs. Bobbejaan Schoepen was a lifelong client and collector of Nudie Cohn designs. This resulted in a close friendship between the two men, and an exceptionally large and well-preserved collection of Nudie designs. This exhibition will celebrate both Nudie’s very particular aesthetic as well as the relationship between these extraordinary men.

Schoepen was a singer, actor and comedian whose career and style included a hefty dose of old-style comic country music -- including virtuoso whistling and yodeling. He got his first breaks entertaining American troops in Europe after World War II. He was one of the first Europeans to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, performing three times there in 1953 with Roy Acuff.

A short film made by Alice Hawkins to accompany the exhibit is very consciously retro -- but I find it fails to capture the joy, verve and dazzlingly ironic sense of fun that Nudie,  his often outrageous costumes and his over the top cars embodied.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Shuttle to Bethlehem"

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I just spent three days with Druha Trava in California (around the Bay Area) helping out with some of the PR for the new CD "Shuttle to Bethlehem" -- the CD showcases my English language translations of Robert Krestan's original Czech songs, and I also wrote the liner notes for the album.

It was fun. Three good and very well received concerts in three quite different venues as part of the band's current five-week U.S. tour (a sold-out gig at a coffee house in Santa Clara, a crowded concert in someone's house in Redwood City, and a lunchtime show at a Mexican Restaurant called Don Quixote's near Santa Cruz....see clip below

I also took part in a two-hour radio show on the local KRCB NPR affiliate in Sonoma country about the CD and the band, hosted by my friend Linda Seabright -- and ahead of the Don Quixote gig, I spoke on-air between songs during a live performance by the band on KPIG FM. (The studio is located in a former motel in Freedom, CA, and is decorated with layers of pictures and posters testifying to 40 years of rock...)

KPIG studio. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The band's tour has been getting good write-ups: to me it's interesting how the sets  they sing are  different in the States from what they do in CZ. Here in the US, most is in English -- new songs from "Shuttle" and a range of covers -- and there's more bluegrass. But in CZ, Robert's songs make up the major part of the onstage repertoire, with only a very few songs in English.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Czech/US/Music -- Druha Trava's English language CD is Out

 obal alba  obal alba  obal alba  obal alba

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Shuttle to Bethlehem, the new English-language CD by the Czech band Druha Trava, is officially out now in the Czech Republic -- and the band is in the US at the start of a five-week tour to launch it.  I take particular interest because I was involved with the CD production -- I translated Robert Krestan's songs and also helped out in the studio during recording. You can find the English lyrics HERE.

I'm eager to see how the CD is received -- so far, comments are very positive. One newspaper editor I know in Minneapolis called it on Facebook "a great album, and a wonderful introduction to the renowned "Czechgrass" band."

Saturday, October 1, 2011

France -- Paris Western Show!

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Paris Western Show last weekend! Oh man, why wasn't I there?? (Though there are actually not too many people to be seen in the video....)

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Receive a High Honor from Poland

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm honored and delighted to report that at a ceremony at the Polish Consulate in New York last night I received the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit  -- one of Poland's highest honors awarded to foreigners. Poland's President Komorowski presented the awards -- alas, I was not able to be in New York, but my friend who stood in for me took a video of the moment when my name was read out:

Given my history with Poland, going back more than 30 years, it is quite an honor! As my old friend and colleague Doug Stanglin reported in USA Today, this award comes 28 years after Poland's the-Communist regime arrested me, threw me in jail, interrogated me and expelled me on trumpted up "espionage" charges.

At Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, 1983
What a difference a few years and the fall of the Berlin Wall makes.

In 1983, at the height of martial law and the Solidarity worker's movement, Poland's communist-led government detained American reporter Ruth Ellen Gruber on suspicions of "crimes against the state."

The then-bureau chief for United Press International was hauled in for questioning by police, then expelled from the country.

Thursday, the Polish government was at it again, with a new proclamation aimed at Gruber.

This time, it bestowed on her the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest honors awarded to foreigners.
.Read full story HERE

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Poland -- New CD By Lonstar

Michael Lonstar : Michael Lonstar &... (The Duets)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've been on the road on a very busy trip through central Europe and have had little time to post. But I did get to meet up with my Polish country singer/songwriter friend, Michael Lonstar, in Warsaw.

Lonstar and I met originally nearly 30 (yikes!) years ago, when I was a correspondent in Warsaw for United Press International -- he remembers us sitting at a party and talking about the Texas swing group Asleep at the Wheel (the Wheel's frontman Ray Benson is an old friend of mine).

In Warsaw, the weather was lovely and we sat outside at one of the city's plethora of sidewalk cafes and restaurants. He told me about some of the conflicts in the Polish country music world (rivalries, rival festivals, etc).

And he gave me a copy of his new CD, which was recorded in Nashville. It's called Michael Lonstar & (the Duets)  and features traditional country-style duets with various other artists, such as the American Billy Yates and German Mandy Strobel. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bluegrass -- Liz Meyer RIP


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The  bluegrass community on both sides of the Atlantic is mourning the singer-songwriter Liz Meyer, who has died at the age of 59 after a decade-long battle with cancer. Liz, an American who had lived  in the Netherlands for a quarter of a century, was a leading figure in the European bluegrass scene and a major organizer and promoter for the European World of Bluegrass Festival and Trade Show.

Liz performed and recorded with many of contemporary bluegrass's greats, including one-time roommate Emmylou Harris, guitarist Mark Cosgrove, banjo players Bela Fleck and Ron Block, dobroists Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas, fiddlers Glen Duncan and Stuart Duncan, bass player Bryon House and mandolinist Sam Bush.

From the CDBaby web site, about her 2005 Cd The Storm, in which she sang songs she had written that reflected on her illness.

Meyer is an American who is married to Dutch mandolinist Pieter Groenveld and who has lived in Holland since 1985. She’s been very involved with the European bluegrass scene, and months before its release, this album was in the Top Ten of the Euro Americana Radio Chart. All lyrics are included in the CD jacket. Liz’s songs have been recorded by such artists as Del McCoury, Mike Auldridge, Emmylou Harris, and Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum. Liz’s association with Emmylou goes back to the early 1970s when they roomed together in the D.C. area. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, Liz kept touring, underwent alternative treatments, and managed to beat the cancer. Liz attributes music with giving her the motivation and determination to keep going. “The Storm” is dedicated to the people who saved her life when the Storm was at its darkest. In her poignant closer, “Running Out of Time,” she says she wants kindness, love and to feel alive. Movies where they tell someone they have a few months to live had made a big impression on Liz as a child. Rather than write a song like “My Favorite Things” with a list of all the things you want to do while you still have time, she tried to find the most painfully poignant way to express these feelings--wanting to have a lover and feel passion one last time.
Read a full obituary on The Bluegrass Blog