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

Win a copy of Mythica!

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews | 31 Comments

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.

Mythica poster

Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Stone), and as the first film of a series, it sets things up nicely. Moreover, it offers two strong female characters (Stone and Nicola Posener) who drive the action and motivate the plot without devolving into cliche or romance.

Now Arrowstorm has slipped me five copies of Mythica to give away.  If I’ve piqued your interest, then just leave a comment below telling me about your favorite fantasy heroine for a chance to win one of these.  Deadline is Sunday, February 14 at midnight.

Mythica giveaways

Some thoughts on the Ghost Brothers

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writers, writing | 3 Comments

ghost brothers cover

Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp’s, and an admirer of King’s (there’s a difference, and I’ll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they’d come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before.

The results, for me at least, were disappointing.

The story involves two sets of brothers, one alive and one dead. The ghost brothers died in the Sixties, and their still-living baby brother, now the dad of the other pair, is trying to prevent history from repeating itself. Got that?

The actual ghost brothers of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

The actual ghost brothers before they become ghosts.

The story was inspired by Mellencamp’s purchase of a haunted cabin in Indiana, which struck Maine-born-and-bred Stephen King as a great spark to a story. So where did they decide to set their play?

Mississippi.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that, since neither is a native Southerner (references to Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding) they get the dialect and vernacular pretty much all wrong (and don’t get me started on the accents the cast uses on the recording). For example, the living brothers’ mom uses the Yiddish word, “schtupp,” when she walks in on one brother and his girlfriend. Since she’s established as an alcoholic, church-going traditional Southern wife, this feels totally wrong, like the kind of joke a New England Yankee might make about the South. Oh, wait….

But there are more general issues. As I said above, I admire King for his willingness to push his own boundaries, when he could simply write the same books over and over and continue to add to his fortune. But he’s far from a flawless writer, and there are a lot of flaws here.  Chief among them is the presence of The Shape, a character (played by Elvis Costello on the recording) who is supposed to be the devil, or at least a demon. He has several solo numbers extolling his own virtues, and we’re supposed to enjoy his manipulation of the other characters, whispering unseen in their ears throughout the show.

From left, T-Bone Burnett, John Mellencamp, Stephen King.

From left, T-Bone Burnett, John Mellencamp, Stephen King.

The thing is, by including this character, it totally obviates the tragedy. In real tragedies, the downfall of the hero is due to something innate in his or her character; here, it’s due to Satan. Both sets of brothers, alive and dead, have their animosity stoked not by their own personalities, but by this outside force. What is King trying to tell us by that? That nothing awful we do is really our own fault? That’s not tragedy. That’s Calvinism.

There’s also the old King standby of having one character, in this case one of the living brothers, be a misunderstood writer. As voiced by Matthew McConaughey and sung by Ryan Bingham, his main issue is that his brother, the failed musician, has always been mommy’s favorite. It’s disheartening to have a writer like King still putting obvious Mary Sues into his work.

Mellencamp’s music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is a different issue. According to various interviews, the songs were designed to provide all the character development, while King simply worried about moving the plot forward. But that creates its own problems, most notably the songs’ collective obviousness.

For example, when Anna, the live bitchy girlfriend, sings to explain herself, her song is “That’s Who I Am.” When Jenna, the dead bitchy girlfriend, sings of the pleasures of visiting juke joints, it’s called, “Jukin’.” When the two living brothers sing about their contentious relationship, it’s called “Brotherly Love.” Their mother’s song about how no one in her family really knows her? “You Don’t Know Me.” And so forth.

Not that most audiences would notice, since the music is produced by T-Bone Burnett, whose talents are so important he’s given equal billing with King and Mellencamp. Some of the songs are really good: “So Goddam Smart” and “How Many Days,” for example. And on a surface level, King writes an entertaining libretto, with many poignant and funny lines. But there’s no denying, as the New York Times said in its review of the initial Atlanta production, “it has the feel of something devised over Skype.” Still, as Mellencamp told the Baltimore Sun after a November performance, it’s a work in progress: “this thing will only be done when Steve and I go, ‘It’s done.’ He’ll continue to make changes, I’ll make changes. That’s what art is. It’s just constantly in motion.”

So there’s hope. But like so many musicals–and this is the reason I don’t like them–everything good is on the surface. Dig deeper, and you simply don’t find much of anything. Because the biggest ghost in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is the ghost of something meaningful.

Here’s the trailer:

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews | Leave a comment

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn’t find anything.

Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus.

Exorcismus poster

No, I can’t explain the title, either. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, but as far as I know, it’s gibberish. It was also released under the even worse generic title, The Possession of Emma Evans.

But don’t let that throw you. The film is wonderful. It’s about a possessed teenage girl, and her uncle the priest who tries to help her, and yes, that’s about as basic as it comes. But as with many horror movies working in well-established genres, the fun–and the originality–is in the details.

Exorcismus 1

The movie is set in England, and despite being a Spanish production, is performed in English. Teenage Emma (Sophie Vavasseur) is, along with her brother Mark, homeschooled by well-meaning but oblivious parents (Richard Felix and Jo Anne Stockham). Right off the bat this is interesting, because the kids are not homeschooled out of religious beliefs, but out of a sense that the public schools are inadequate. Emma wants to attend regular school with kids her own age, since her only friends are her cousins Alex and Rose. She’s an unhappy, isolated but basically good girl whose possession is unexpected and, as it turns out, surprising for a number of reasons.

What makes this film work, and puts it leagues above the many other films that feature a similar plot, are the acting and the demonic manifestations. Every performer is spot-on, creating low-key, complex characters. You believe them as individuals, and as a family. When things fall apart, they do so with believable emotions: there are only a few moments that don’t ring true.

Exorcismus 2

We’ve all seen The Exorcist, so we know how possession usually manifests. Most of those tropes are here, but instead of being cranked up, director Manuel Carbalo dials them way down: when Emma levitates, it’s only about a foot off the floor, and when the demon takes control and makes her do things, they’re small and insidious, not grand gestures of evil.

And the plot, by David Muñoz (who also co-wrote Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) really doesn’t go where you expect. The first exorcism session occurs pretty early in the film, so you know immediately that the story is about something other than the standard good versus evil.  I won’t spoil it by giving away more, but trust me: although the initial build-up is slow, the payoff is worth it.

Currently, Exorcismus is streaming on Netflix. You can find the trailer on YouTube, but if you really want to be surprised, don’t watch it: since, as I said, the movie is so low-key, they’ve had to cobble together a lot of the high points.

And if you do see the movie, come back and tell me what you thought.

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.

 

Pout Pout 1

 

So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2

 

I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.

 

Pout Pout 3

 

This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4

 

The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…

Elizabethtown…

Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews, writing | 6 Comments

Warning: SPOILERS pretty much throughout.

If you’re a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you–like me–have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous “Let It Go” song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can’t make up my mind about.

Hans.

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Hans is the villain, but you don’t know it until just before the end. Up until the big reveal, he not only seems like a decent guy, he seems like a great guy. He steps up and holds down the fort in Arendelle while Anna goes off to find Elsa, and that includes keeping the population safe and calm. He even saves Elsa from assassins, which ultimately seems counter-productive. In fact, although the movie goes to great pains to remind Anna that it’s a bit insane to plan to marry someone you’ve just met, we’re led to think that Anna might be right after all. Hans is awesome.

Until, of course, the big reveal that he’s not. And his moment of Blofelding, where he explains his evil plan.

Frozen5-updated

“Oh Anna, if only there was someone out there who loved you.”

Now, I (and every writer I know, and a huge number of fellow bloggers) have wondered about this moment ever since. Was this on purpose, and part of the deliberate design, or did the decision to make Hans the villain come so late in the game that there wasn’t time to drop clues earlier in the film?

I’ve done extensive (i.e., half an hour while the kids were eating breakfast) online research into this, and it does seem that the change in Hans was intrinsic. From Wikipedia:

“…according to Hyrum Osmond, one of the supervising animators for Hans, Hans is this handsome, dashing character. The crew wanted the audience to fall in love with him and the relationship he could have with Anna. Then they’d get to turn him around towards the climax and make it a big shock. According to Lino Di Salvo, Hans is a chameleon who adapts to any environment to make the other characters comfortable.”

Okay, fair enough. So why didn’t the filmmakers tip their hand earlier? Why not give us hints that Hans is secretly the bad guy?

Perhaps Stanley Kubrick has the answer.

In this interview on his film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick says:

“You could have had Barry give signals to the audience, through his performance, indicating that he is really insincere and opportunistic, but this would be unreal. When we try to deceive we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we?”

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Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon. The template for Prince Hans?

 

This was actually the very first thing I thought of when reflecting on Hans’ betrayal. And the whole Hans plot is so refreshingly anti-Disney that I hope I’m right, that it was a deliberate choice from the git-go, and not a last-minute tweak to provide a villain.

And if so, perhaps that inspiration goes back to Shakespeare:

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

(Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5)

 

Book Review: Belushi a Biography

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 1 Comment

A lot of people probably don’t remember John Belushi, but he accomplished the rare trifecta of simultaneously having the number one TV show (“Saturday Night Live”), number one movie (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and number one album (“Briefcase Full of Blues” by the Blues Brothers). He remains a unique figure in American popular culture, both for the way he lived and the way he died.

John_Belushi

I was a college freshman when he passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. My whole idea of college, in fact, was formed by Animal House, and I did the best I could to live up to that, to my detriment. I even dated a girl who named her dog Belushi, which she shortened to “Booshy” (one reason we quit dating).

So Belushi, beyond his skill as a performer, represented something to me and my generation. Each generation has a similar tragic icon, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, but those figures always seemed to end up on pedestals; Belushi, on the other hand, seemed to be someone you could approach if you happened to encounter him. Dan Aykroyd called him, “America’s guest.”

In 1984, two years after Belushi’s death, Bob Woodward–half of Woodward and Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame–wrote Wired: the Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. It painted a vivid picture of late 70s/early 80s drug use among celebrities, and pissed off pretty much everyone involved in Belushi’s life. That’s understandable: it focused on everything but the things that made Belushi memorable. Still, it’s a great book as a time capsule, and Woodward managed to get the cooperation of everyone involved in Belushi’s life. (If you can find it, there’s also a movie version, starring Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” as Belushi; it’s not good by any means, but it’s the kind of surreal disaster that has its own entertainment value.)

In 1990, Belushi’s wife Judy wrote the touching memoir Samurai Widow, about life after her husband’s death. And “The Best of John Belushi,” from his years on Saturday Night Live, is a great DVD primer on what made him a star in the first place.

belushibook

But if you want to know what Belushi was like, and why his loss was indeed a tragedy, you need to seek out the 2005 coffee table book Belushi. It consists entirely of comments and interviews with people who knew him, from his family to co-stars. In fact, the only notable absence is Robert De Niro, who saw Belushi on his last day. It’s also loaded with terrific photos. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years, but I’ve tap-danced around it, because I was pretty sure of the effect it would have. But over these Christmas holidays, I finally read it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. But it’s not an easy book, if you’re old enough to remember Belushi in life.

Doom hangs over it from the start, both because the reader knows what’s coming, and so do most of the commenters. It makes the memories of Belushi’s talent and performances that much more touching and vivid. And that’s where this book exceeds Wired: you do get a sense of the mess Belushi made of his life, and the cost to those around him, but you also understand why it mattered, both to them and to the world at large. It dwells far more on his talent and good qualities than it does his flaws. And it accomplishes the thing tragic biography always should: you miss him when he’s gone. You feel his loss the way you would someone you actually knew.

I was in tears by the time I finished. I cried for the loss of this unique talent, for the pain of those around him, and for the time in my own life that he symbolized and encapsulated.

And then I watched The Blues Brothers.

 

The First Drop of Blood: A Dream of Dracula

Posted on by Alex in criticism, Dracula, reviews, vampires, writers | Leave a comment

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It’s now possible to find gazillions of non-fiction books on Dracula, novel or historical character or cultural figure. I recommend anything by Elizabeth Miller. But in the early 70s, there was really only one:  A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, by Leonard Wolf.

It’s a long-form meditation on what vampires and Dracula mean to people in the (then) contemporary world. He talks to modern supposed vampires, visits Transylvania and sees an awful lot of movies. His insights are occasionally brilliant but often rather obvious; yet it has to be remembered, he was the first one writing this stuff for a popular audience. It’s like high school students who don’t like Hamlet because it’s full of cliche’s.

Wolf was actually born in Transylvania, and the book is a dive into both the legend of Dracula in popular culture, and into the psyche of Leonard Wolf. One is obviously more interesting now than the other, but even the personal asides and extended vignettes have their entertainment value. Wolf was writing at the end of the Sixties, so some of his interviewees actually use phrases like, “groovy” and “turned on.” He lets us into his sex life, which seems to involve younger women, including students (this was not considered so improper back in the full flush of the sexual revolution). He talks a lot about how his discoveries and insights make him feel. So it’s very much a book of its time.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Still, it’s got some value, and Wolf can turn a phrase and make a pithy observation. He calls Vlad the Impaler “a practical joker of agony” (p. 244). Of the heroes of Stoker’s novel, he says, “They were strange, one may suppose, even before Dracula came into the lives of the men” (p. 210). And on contemplating his own mortality in the mirror, he writes, “The man I see in the mirror gets a look of surprised misery in his eyes, as if he heard the flapping of leather wings bearing creatures through the darkness who will converge on the fluorescent-lighted silver rectangle of the mirror where his face is illuminated, trapped” (p. 92). Whew.

Reading it today, and as a fan of the topic, I’m especially swept along in the enthusiasm Wolf has for his subject. He knows, despite the critical consensus at the time, that there’s something valuable here in the conjunction of history and pop art, in the transformation of Vlad Drakul into Count Dracula. He may never quite articulate it, but he gets most of the way there, and he gives later scholars a good spot to start.

Book Review: Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 7 Comments

shipper-cover2

“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
anyone–performer or
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
(p. 11)

Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion.

The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.

And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:

Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
(p. 82)

Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:

“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“Top billing.”
“What?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
(p. 185)

And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:

Instant karma
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk

And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:

Woke up
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
Couldn’t
So stayed on the floor
All day long

Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:

shipper04

 

 

This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:

“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
(p. 252)

Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:

Pismotality

Rockcritics.com

Review: My Old True Love by Sheila Kay Adams

Posted on by Alex in family, folk music, folklore, reviews, writers, writing | Leave a comment

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Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.

The list of novels that do that well is fairly short. One of them, P.F. Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers, I reviewed here. Another, Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream, is on deck for a re-read and review in the near future. And Sheila Kay Adams’ My Old True Love is a third, one set in the Appalachian Mountains and about, among other things, the way songs can often speak for us when regular words fail.

Set in the years before, during and after the Civil War, it tells of two men, Larkin and Hackley, and the woman they both love, Mary. But it’s told by Arty, Hackley’s sister and Larkin’s foster mother, who’s barely older than they are. And it encompasses many aspects of the South that don’t get much attention, such as the idea that not every Southerner was gung-ho for secession or Civil War. And woven throughout all this is the music they sing, listen to, and share.

Sheila Kay is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  She’s a professional storyteller and noted ballad singer; you can find my review of a documentary that features her here. Further, she’s so embedded (by history, biology and choice) in the region she describes that the book reads more like a memoir than fiction. She brings Arty to life in a way that’s astounding in its simplicity and vividness.

And the story does not evolve in the way you expect. In fact, there’s a glorious moment near the end where one character says something very simple, but it has the effect of turning the reader’s expectations entirely around. It works the same way the climax of the Scorsese film The Color of Money works: by making you suddenly realize this isn’t the story you thought it was going to be, and yet now that you know, you can see that it could be no other story.

I write about Appalachia in my Tufa novels, and my father’s family comes from the region. But Sheila Kay lives and breathes what she writes, and because of that, there’s an amazing depth and verisimilitude to her words. In My Old True Love, she brings it to life and shares it with us, just as the folks in her stories share the songs they learn. And believe me, the book sings.

 

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).