movie: The Winding Stream

The Winding Stream is a documentary about the contributions of the Carter Family (plus Johnny Cash) to music as we know it. I was deeply impressed, and learned a lot, and was reminded here and there of another excellent music-history documentary, Muscle Shoals.


source (click to enlarge)

The Carter Family began with the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (also a Carter by marriage to A.P.’s brother), who began playing music together in the 1920’s. The scope of the story is astounding, how many of these Carters there were and are, how many songs they recorded – the original trio left 260 recordings behind as their legacy, if I remember correctly. A.P. was an early music ethnologist, who traveled throughout his region – the Appalachian mountains of Virginia – seeking out old songs, “mountain music” as they called it (there was no “country music” yet). He noted the lyrics and the tunes and took them home, where he and Sara and Maybelle arranged them, rebuilding them somewhat, and then recorded them for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Today it occurs to us to wonder about the ethical implications of all these songs ending up being Carter songs; but as the movie points out, back then there was no concept of music being “owned” by anyone in particular. And but for A.P.’s avid, even obsessed calling to save this old music (even at the cost of his family life), many of those songs would have been lost to history in the Appalachian hills.

The trio eventually became part of a radio empire in Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas: “border radio” sprang up to avoid U.S. regulations, and used a high-powered frequency to send their programs across the States. (Stranger than fiction: the founder of the Del Rio border radio station was a doctor famous for his goat gland transplant procedure that supposedly boosted men’s sexual function and who promoted female circumcision [to make women less frigid, he claimed].) This is how a young boy named Johnny Cash first heard the Carter Family singing their old-timey songs. The group by this time involved some of the next generation, including Maybelle’s three daughters who would eventually be the Carter Sisters; one of them was little June. As Johnny Cash grew in stature, he kept Mama Maybelle close: in footage from his late life, he calls her the biggest star he ever knew.

The story goes on from there. You’ve heard of Johnny’s daughter (June’s daughter-in-law), Roseanne Cash. Their only child together, John Carter Cash, appears in the movie with his wife, an avid student of the Carter Family history who inspired him to learn more about his own legacy. These contemporary Carters still play the old music. In fact, one of the impressive details is in how many Carters there have been, and how they all seem to have had that music running in their veins: it was just a part of their lives, it appears, and they all could play. For example, Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s daughter, appears throughout the documentary, recalling her parents and their career. Only late in the movie do we learn that A.P. asked her on his deathbed to continue the legacy – and so she opened a dance hall and picked up her guitar and played. All of these characters – so many Carters – are rich, colorful figures in a compelling history.

As with Muscle Shoals, this film inspired a purchase: we went out immediately and bought an album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops after discovering them onscreen. One of the points made throughout is that the Carters have influenced all the music we know today. Like the (better-known) Beatles, everything that came after had a note of Carter Family in it.

Not only an extraordinary story, The Winding Stream is a well-produced and visually pleasing documentary, rich with family, detail, and emotion. I will say that in the animation of old black-and-white photographs of the original trio performing their music, the moving, blinking eyes were entirely creepy. But this was a rare treat of a movie. I learned a lot, and the music was outstanding.

Rating: 9 songs saved from extinction by A.P. Carter.

movie: Montage of Heck

Montage of Heck is the recently released documentary about Kurt Cobain’s life, and we got to see it in the theatre during Pickford’s Doctober. In a word, it was an unsurprisingly depressing, but compelling glimpse into an interior life that I did not know a whole lot about. It was well put together and enjoyable (in a depressing way) to watch. It was also fairly interpretive, on which more in a minute.

montage of heckAs a piece of art in its own right, I found this to be a fine film. I like the collage effect, of old home videos, recent video (of interviews with Kurt’s parents, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, among others), concert footage, stills and animations from Kurt’s journals and sketchbooks, and animations of Kurt’s life. It was dynamic and expressive, like him. I learned a lot about him (I like Nirvana but am no super-fan, and no expert on his life), like that all-too-familiar combination of genius creativity, hyperactivity, and disturbance. I didn’t know about his stomach problems or the ex-girlfriend Tracy. It’s an enthralling story, and this movie made it immediate, and moving.

On the other hand, I am troubled by my lack of understanding of how real any of this is. I said earlier that the film is quite interpretive. The soundtrack includes synthesized and orchestral renditions of Nirvana songs: what would Kurt think about that? And the animations of his journals and sketches assume chronology and intention; who knows for sure? Contemporary footage of Kurt’s father and step-mother leaves the former looking nearly catatonic; I can’t believe there isn’t an editorial angle on that. Kurt’s daughter Frances is a co-executive producer. She’s family; she has as much business here as anyone. But she never knew him, as she was not yet two when he died. Even with the best of intentions, who knows how much she got right? Not to assume she had total control over the content…

Any time an artist dies, their work will be interpreted and presented to the public by someone else. And all artists die, although not all so young as Kurt Cobain. This is not a new concern. But this film did more interpretive work than it necessarily needed to do, and that just got me a little curious, and a little anxious. I like knowing where the line is drawn, and here I don’t know. If I knew more about his life beforehand I’d be better equipped to make judgments, but of course that would come with preconceptions and bias, too. And then there’s this guy who says it’s all a load of sh*t, and who do we believe?

As Husband pointed out, the footage of Kurt and Courtney in their apartment with baby Frances was hard to watch. Some of their home life goofing off was sweet, in a messy way – it really looked like they had fun together – but once there was a baby around it got more straightforwardly disturbing. What did we expect, though?

While I’m exploring expectations: the movie does not deal with his suicide at all, other than stating it in plain white text on a black screen. I’m sure some of us came for the sensationalism of learning more about his death, and those folks will be disappointed. But I can’t argue with the dignity – or maybe just the shying away from pain – involved in turning away. At what point should we expect his family or anyone who loved him to turn his death into movie theatre entertainment? What do we want, crime scene photos of splattered brain matter? I’m okay with this treatment.

This was a pretty great movie, unto itself. But it left me with more questions than answers, and feeling a little unsettled about the idea of Truth. Maybe that’s not the point. Beware Montage of Heck as an authoritative source on the life of Kurt Cobain; but for visual imagery and a moving experience, please enjoy.

Rating: a conflicted 7 unwashed locks.

movie: Muscle Shoals

muscle shoalsFollowing up on The Secret to a Happy Ending that we watched the other night, I finally found the time to watch this 2013 documentary, too. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two years and knew I needed to see it, and now I’m passing it on: go see this film now.

Muscle Shoals is about the town in Alabama of the same name, a small place, a backwater, where some of the greatest American music ever has been recorded. It’s full of beautiful cinematography portraying the natural beauty of the place, and full of impressive musicians talking about the special magic made there. The list of contributors is formidable: Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Rick Hall, David Hood (Patterson Hood’s dad), Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Spooner Oldham, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton… and that’s a who’s who of who is in the movie, not who recorded there. That list is longer and more impressive. There are also video footage and audio tracks from back when history was being made at FAME Studio and later at Muscle Shoals Sound. The whole thing is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can view clips here; but really, you want to go find the whole thing.

The morning after, I ran out to my local record store and bought albums by Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What will you buy?

Rating: 9 tragedies in Rick Hall’s life, whew.

movie: The Secret to a Happy Ending

From the band’s website:

This is a film about the redemptive power of rock and roll; it’s about the American South, where rock was born; it’s about a band straddling the borders of rock, punk and country; it’s about making art, making love and making a living; it’s about the Drive-By Truckers. This film documents the band and their fans as they explore tales of human weakness and redemption. With unparalleled access, this documentary encompasses three critical years of touring and recording as the band struggles to overcome trauma and survives a near breakup, in a persistent search for a happy ending.

secret to a happy endingThe Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands and one that has had an impact on my life and how I look at my world. It is a love I share with the Husband. We saw this movie in a theatre when it came out to town, back in Houston. We bought a copy of it on DVD, too, and now I am in this writing class and working on a long essay about the Truckers and what they mean to me; so as research, we watched the movie again at home.

Obviously and basically, I love the movie because it is a distillation of the band. The filmmaker was lucky to have the Truckers’ cooperation, and followed them to several shows, recording live footage; and interviewed all the band members repeatedly, as well as some of their families. Cultural authorities like a university professor (and obvious DBT fan) and music writer get screen time as well. This is a fan’s documentary, and I think fans can’t help but be pleased by it. Non-fans are liable to become fans… but then, I’m biased.

I like that the movie captures a moment in the life span of this long-lived band, reviewing the early years (including the band Adam’s House Cat, where the two lead men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally played together) and then getting into a few difficult years, when bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell divorced, and Isbell left the band. (He’s had an impressive solo career since. Look him up.) One of the things I’ve come to love about DBT is how many layers there are to love, investigate, and appreciate – like the people involved. The story of Shonna and Isbell breaking up is maybe none of my business; but you can bet all the band’s fans followed it and had feelings about it, nonetheless. For the record, I blame no one and wish them both the best.

It’s a hell of a good movie, and even if you’re not a Truckers fan, I think it’s a fine documentary about rock-and-roll (and other things too). It pulls my heartstrings.

Rating: 9 songs.

I hope this is not too off topic, but I want to share a short piece that didn’t make it into my longer essay about the Truckers and their impact on me.

I have a large tattoo covering my right arm and shoulder: a tree and its surroundings and inhabitants: fallen logs, grasses and flowers and mushrooms, a bunny rabbit, a snake, a squirrel, a turtle, a weasel, a fat yellow songbird. On the front of my shoulder, the tree’s branches part around a Cooley bird. Around the back of my shoulder, wrapping onto my back, a black owl with red eyes flies away, departing. It’s the same owl that my husband Chris has tattooed on his left bicep, flying above a leafless tree on a burnt yellow desert and under a spooky moon that looks down with knowing eyes and a slight smirk.

These tattoos borrow images from Wes Freed, a Virginia-based artist who has drawn all the art for all the Drive-by Truckers’ albums, posters, website art, promotional material, backdrops, and etc. since time immemorial (or at least the Southern Rock Opera album of 2004). He is the band’s brand. In a documentary about the Truckers called The Secret to a Happy Ending (whose cover art he also created), he says: “It’s always about the music. The music is the most important thing. But there’s so much going on with the records. It’s cool to be able to have the opportunity to illustrate the songs. That’s cool.” Wes Freed. I love that his named is a sentence: Wes Freed; or else a description: Wes, Freed. And the songs are themselves filled with dark and toothsome images. I did my own (very poor) copy of Freed’s illustration of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song based on true current events in which a Tennessee preacher’s wife kills her husband: in court, her lawyers then displayed “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear,” as evidence of how abused she had been before she just snapped. Freed portrays a woman in a see-through negligee and high-heeled pumps, blue hair piled and stacked high, holding a shotgun whose smoke swirls around to caress her against an enormous yellow moon. A monkey in a fez cavorts behind her. I’ve looked and looked for Freed’s illustration of this song on the internet, but it seems to have disappeared; all I have is my poor imitation.

Thanks for reading.

a few more photos: Drive-by Truckers in Nashville

Following up on my earlier Walk About Town post, Husband has graciously shared with us a few pictures he took with his magicphone. Thanks, Husband!

John Neff on the guitar

left to right: Brad Morgan on drums; Patterson Hood on vocals/guitar; Mike Cooley "the stroker ace" on vocals/guitar; and David Barbe on bass, recently replacing Shonna Tucker who we miss very much.

Neff on steel guitar


Lovely pictures, Husband. Thanks for sharing!

A Walk About Town: Nashville

A Walk About Town is hosted by Natalie over at Coffee and a Book Chick.

Y’all, I had the *BEST* time last weekend! Husband and I flew to Nashville on Friday afternoon to catch not one, but two back-to-back concerts by our favorite band, the Drive-by Truckers. And not only were the shows great, but we found the city to be very pleasant and attractive (although cold), and with some neat things to see, too.

For example: did you know that Nashville is “the Athens of the South”? I didn’t. We visited Centennial Park, the setting for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 (the state’s 100th anniversary was actually in 1896, but it took them a little while to get the fairgrounds together!) – think Chicago World Fair (of the same time period) but on a statewide scale. They had a great many exhibits, including an Indian Village and a Chinese Village, etc. which would not pass PC-muster in modern times; and the park is still lovely today. But the real draw for me was the Parthenon. That’s right, Nashville boasts the world’s only full-size replica of the Parthenon of Athens.

Nashville's Parthenon in Centennial Park

After the Exposition, it was allowed to crumble and decay, ivy crawling up its walls, but they later restored it and just in the last 15 years built their full-size replica of the 43-foot-tall statue of Athena that resides within, making it a still more faithful copy. Also within are replicas (also full-size) of the fragments of the pediments of Athens’ Parthenon; the originals now reside at the British Museum. I am a fan of Ancient Greece, and this was an absolute treat for me. Husband was patient with me and even found it a little bit interesting himself I think!

the western pediment depicts Athena battling Poseidon for the right to patronage of this new city. (guess who won)

the eastern pediment depicts Athena's birth - you recall, she sprang fully-clothed and arms from the head of her father, Zeus.

the statue of Athena. they are careful to explain that the gaudy face paint and gold leaf is believed to be historically accurate.

And finally, the rest of the park was a nice outdoor space but not so pleasant while we were there at just-below-freezing temperatures and a biting wind. The Canadian geese (accompanied by mallards in the scenic waterway) did not mind so much.

Canadian geese - they let us get very close. quite tame, of course. I'm sure they're fed by a lot of tourists

can I show you one more picture of the Parthenon?

From Centennial Park we moved on to Antique Archeology. If the Parthenon was my choice, this one was Husband’s; he’s a fan of the show American Pickers, and this is one of several (I think) of their stores where they sell the goods they “pick.” It was funny to see the scene; what presumably used to be an antique shops or good-junk shop is now kind of a theme park for fans of the show. One whole wall is t-shirts. It was packed (on a Saturday – of course) and we didn’t stay long but Husband got a souvenir koozie and we had a nice chat with an employee. Here is Husband’s arty shot of the window sign:

just don't look if it hurts your face

The building it was in was really cool.

Marathon Automobiles houses Antique Archeology

From there we needed a break, so hit up Blackstone Brewery, where we had several good beers and a great lunch. Our bartender, Chris, was very friendly, and I do appreciate a chatty bartender as Husband can attest. It was a perfect way to warm up and while away our afternoon before napping and heading out for live music. Look, they even have a little library nook!

lovely! no actually we sat at the bar.

I did get around to reviewing the pub on Beer Advocate, where I’ve gotten lazy and done less reviewing in recent years. I don’t know if you can still view reviews there without logging in, though. It’s free to set up an account, but not everyone will want to. Try here and let me know. If you’re looking around, I’m texashammer and mine will presumably be the most recent Blackstone review at least for a little while.

But what of the live music, you say? That was our whole original reason for being there! I don’t really have too many pictures to share from that part of the weekend, for one thing, but I’ll tell you the story (and save the best picture for last).

We saw both shows at the Cannery Ballroom, which despite getting mixed reviews we found a great place all around. Beers are waaay cheaper than at the House of Blues in Houston where the Truckers have been playing every time they’ve been to town in recent years. (Boo hiss HOB.) The sound was good. (I finally remembered my ear-plugs on the second night!) Friday night’s opening act, Nikki Lane, was great – a country singer-songwriter with a gender-equal band and kind of a loungey feel to her twang. Saturday night’s opener was The Bobby Keys Band, and they were rad, too. The Truckers absolutely killed it; these were two of the better shows I’ve seen despite Cooley being (ahem) a little buzzed on Friday night. Both nights they played us an encore that must have been 30 minutes long – a real treat. My only complaint is the 9 or 10 songs I counted that we heard both nights. This is a band with too much material – even having lost bassist and songwriter Shonna Tucker recently (sob!) – to give us repeat material. But they’re all good songs. (If you want to hear about the night from someone with better rock-show vocabulary than I have, there’s a pretty good article here.)

And here is the highlight: both nights I hung around after and got to talk to steel guitarist Johnny Neff, and he was so nice! People, I tell you I’ve been milling about after these shows for years, and this was my first reward. On Saturday night he even let me take a picture with him!

me with steel guitarist John Neff!

Johnny! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Keep up the good work!

Sorry for the long post but what a super great weekend I had. Thanks for the Valentine’s Day present, darlin! We love Nashville and I can’t wait to go back. Anybody else get up to anything cool this week?

A Walk About D-Town

A Walk About Town is a brand-new meme hosted by Natalie over at Coffee and a Book Chick. I liked the idea the first time I saw it, but wasn’t sure my life would be exciting enough to warrant a weekly post! This week I do have something to share, and Natalie, I love the idea. I’ll do my best to be exciting enough to keep up. :)

Last weekend I took a road trip with one of my very oldest, best friends, Barrett. You might recall that I am still recovering from knee surgery; when we left on Saturday, I was 8 days into recovery. So we took a borrowed wheelchair with us, and Barrett used that as an excuse to rent us a big ol’ Cadillac for the drive! (I wasn’t ready to drive my car yet, and it’s too difficult to drive for me to wish it on Barrett; and he drives a Vespa.) On Friday night we had been to see another friend play in Sunward, a band from Dallas. It was their very first Houston gig, and a bunch of old friends turned up for it. So we dragged a little bit on Saturday morning, but did get off, in the Cadillac, with the wheelchair, headed (by coincidence) for Dallas.

We had an uneventful drive and hooked up with another friend Jimmy for an evening that started with sushi and sake (SO good) and then took us on to the Polyphonic Spree Christmas Extravaganza. This awesome and totally unique (one might even say weird) band, complete with choir on risers and often staging as many as 30+ members, hadn’t put on a Christmas show in 3-4 years, so it was a neat reunion for us. The first set is Christmas music for the youngsters – and this was preceded by We’re Not Guys, a band made up of four girls, three maybe middle-school age and one I feel sure was in grade school! They weren’t terribly complicated musically but it was impressive as hell. Anyway, then came the Spree’s Christmas set, then the Syncopated Ladies performed – this is a group of ladies of a certain age who do a dance routine. And then we got the Spree rock set – and I have to admit, I was getting stiff and uncomfortable in my wheelchair by then, and maybe didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. But they do put on a show, with lots of positive energy, and I love watching ALL those musicians rocking their various instruments, and singing along. It was a neat thing to experience again, as it’s been several years since I’ve seen the Spree live.

From there we let Jimmy take us on to a dive bar whose name I’m not sure I ever caught – I think it started with an A – where I got a way comfier seat, and could elevate my knee; Jimmy brought me all the cans of Lone Star my heart desired, and a local classic-country band called the King Bucks was rocking out. And strangely – considering that the Spree had been the point of the trip – that was my favorite part of the evening.

The three of us stayed up too late catching up, and then started our day on Sunday with brunch and (for me) mimosas, then on to a decent beer bar in Jimmy’s neighborhood for the final moments of catch-up time with Jimmy. (Barrett and I had a 5-hour car ride together still to come.) It was action-packed – I never got Husband on the phone the whole weekend til we were halfway home! – but so good. I’m just sorry Jerko wasn’t able to join us in his own town (he had another gig Saturday night). I can’t wait to do it again. Thanks Barrett for driving and Jimmy for hosting; good times! I did find just one picture, only because I shamelessly stole from Barrett who hopefully will not sue me. This is Tim Delaughter (formerly of Tripping Daisy), the lead for the Spree, amid the confetti:

Thanks Natalie for the idea for today’s post. And what have you, lovely readers, done lately that’s interesting?


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