Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:

 

and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

Winter Passing: between the reaching and the touching

Posted on by Alex in adam rapp, ed harris, isolation, will ferrell, winter passing, writers, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Movies about writers tend to be pretty dull, because unless you’re sitting inside our skulls, what writers do is pretty dull. We stare at blank paper or screens, mutter to ourselves a lot, pace mindlessly and drink way too much (coffee and otherwise). Even writers with exciting lives don’t always make exciting films. For example, the atrocious In Love and War wants us to believe that dewey Chris O’Donnell could grow up to be Ernest Hemingway; I suspect just one of Hemingway’s sperm could kick Chris O’Donnell’s ass. But I digress.

I actually want to praise a wonderful movie from 2005 called Winter Passing. Written and directed by Adam Rapp, it tells of a New York actress faced with the chance to sell love letters from her father (a J.D. Salinger-like recluse) to her mother (a recent suicide). This entails visiting her old home in Michigan, and reopening old family wounds.

So far, so trite. But it’s the execution that makes this film stand out. Thematically it’s about the difficulty of expressing feelings, and because none of the characters are very good at it, the film has a firm sense of reserve. The scenes draw you in: you have to pay attention to subtle changes of expression, slight inflections in words, and the rhythms of body language. There are moments that could be played as full-blown Lifetime Network scream-and-sob fests, but instead are pitched as mild, realistic conversations true to the characters having them.

The cast gets it exactly right. Zooey Deschanel, whose minimal style has been problematic in a lot of her roles (i.e., SciFi’s miniseries Tin Man), is spot-on as the daughter who, it’s implied, has become an actress because she can express none of her own emotions. Ed Harris plays her father not as a egocentric tyrant but a kind-hearted yet befuddled man overwhelmed by his life. Even Will Ferrell backs his energy way down as one of Harris’ housemates, a sad outcast looking for purpose.

I know it sounds like a downer, but Winter Passing is not at all depressing. Nor is it a cheesy “love conquers all,” hugs-and-lessons fest. The characters don’t overcome their adversity, they just make small steps forward, and it’s that understatement that makes this so affecting.

For example, Deschanel has nursed a long-held grudge because her parents only came to see her perform once, in high school. A lesser film would have Harris in the front row on opening night of her next play, smiling with paternal pride as the music swells triumphantly. But instead, here he sends her an inscribed copy of one of his books, all he’s emotionally capable of doing. And she understands this, and accepts it as intended.

I think the central dilemma, the inability to really connect with other people (especially family), is something a lot of writers face. The distance between our inspiration and the effect we have on our audience is considerable compared to the more immediate arts. Musicians can play their song for you in three minutes; a painter’s finished product can be taken in at a glance. It takes a long time to write a book, and a long time to read one. So there’s often quite a lag between the reaching, and the touching.