Wednesday, July 27, 2011

At The Rural Sociology Society Annual Meeting

beautiful Boise, Idaho

Folks, I'll be in Boise over the next two days for the Rural Sociology Society's Annual Meeting. I'll be a part of an interdisciplinary panel on "Real and Simulated Rural Culture," presenting a paper called "Important Places, Important Times: Claiming a Rural Modernism." I'm honored to have a place next to moderator Barbara Ching, Lisa Pruitt of UC-Davis (and editor of Legal Ruralism) and Gregory M. Fulkerson of SUNY-Oneonta. If any readers of this site happen to be in Boise for the proceedings, please send me an email: it would be great to hear about your work. 

Posts over the next few days may be slow, or may occur at random parts of the day, so thanks for your patience. All the best, Matthew Fluharty.

Alan Lomax And The Southern Journey

Alan Lomax with Wade Ward; August 31, 1959

Some of the young folkniks, who dominated the New York scene, asserted that there was more folk music in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon than there was in all rural America. Apparently, it made them feel like heroes to believe that they were keeping a dying tradition alive. The idea that these nice young people, who were only just beginning to learn how to play and sing in good style, might replace the glories of the real thing, frankly horrified me. I resolved to prove them wrong.
          - Alan Lomax

I imagine that, for many of our readers, Alan Lomax is a familiar face and a kindred spirit--and that folks may already have a close relationship to the Southern Journey recordings he conducted in 1959 and 1960. My story of coming to these records might be similar to many from my generation: at a crucial point as a young adult, when I was looking to encounter a broader range of musical expression, I discovered the Southern Journey CDs at my local library. While I had heard (and loved) Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, these recordings felt immediate, intimate and transporting. As Mr. Lomax would say above, once I heard "the glories of the real thing," nothing about my attitude towards music, art, or even community, was quite the same. And, again, I'm sure I'm not alone on that count. 

Here's John Szwed, from his recent well-reviewed biography of Alan Lomax, on the recording trip:
Alan's work made it possible to grasp something of the history of American vernacular music, especially since the few writers who had attempted to approach it had neither the sheet music nor the recordings on which to build such a history. The rough and powerful origins of white American Protestant music were audible on these recordings, some of which still had traces of eighteenth-century elements. You could hear the mutual influence of black music and white. You could discover instruments and musical techniques derived from Africa, such as gourd banjos, quills, homemade drums, and polyrhythmic clapping, and perhaps understand the influences on jazz and rock and roll; or just experience how witty and complex children's songs and games could be.
Selections from Alan Lomax's Southern Journey recordings were recently remastered in a partnership with The Alan Lomax Archives at The Association For Cultural Equity and Mississippi Records, a label operating out of Portland, Oregon that exclusively releases its work (a stunning catalog of folk, blues, gospel, and international music reissues) on LP, and occasionally on cassette. These 5 LPs sound amazing, a true testament to the advancements in remastering technology since the previous Rounder CDs. (Vinyl lovers, act fast. These LPs are close to being out of stock.)

At the close of 2010, these Southern Journey remasters were also made available for download at a very reasonable price. They stand as the first releases from Global Jukebox, an independent label which will offer material from the Lomax archives to listeners in both LP and download format. This effort is led by Nathan Salsburg, an archivist and editor at the ACE who has also curated some outstanding projects on his Twos & Fews imprint and shared a wide range of vernacular music on his popular Root Hog Or Die internet radio show.

Mr. Salsburg's lively and informative notes on these performances are available for each recording at the Global Jukebox/Southern Journey site. There's also a generous selection of photographs from these recording dates, and they range from the informal (see above) to the downright heartbreaking photos of inmates with their visiting children at Parchman Farm Penitentiary. Here's Mr. Salsburg, writing in his Root Hog Or Die blog, about the process and prospects of putting together this series:
When sequencing them, I tried my best to ignore the rather sizeable catalog in which performances from the Southern Journey had been previously reissued – on Atlantic, Prestige, New World, and Rounder Records – and approach the 70-odd hours of recordings as if they were virgin territory. A few previously unissued items were included, as were a number of oft-anthologized pieces that were just too good to leave out of a reissue ([E.C.] Ball’s “Tribulations” and Fred McDowell’s “Gravel Road Blues,” among them). A brand new job was performed by Timothy Stollenwerk of Portland’s Stereophonic mastering studio. Working from our digital archival masters made 2000–2003, he did a shockingly great job of teasing out dimensions of the performances that have elided previous attempts.
Lomax’s Southern Journey wasn’t the first recording trip south (although it was the first to be done in stereo), nor was it the last. It gave us the best recordings ever made, sonically speaking, of the Parchman work song repertoire, although earlier, mono performances were arguably stronger. Lomax did wonders with the Georgia Sea Island singers – they were made for stereo – but still couldn’t quite wrangle a good grasp on a Sacred Harp convention with just two mics (although they were the most successful shape-note recordings made theretofore). Since 1960 nearly every genre and region represented herein has been covered more deeply (some would surely argue more sensitively) by recording trips, doctoral theses, public-sector fieldwork. But none of this minimizes the transcendent beauty and humanity of so much of the Southern Journey, and its enduring, revelatory effect on fifty years of listeners. May it be received with wonder and joy for and by many more.
From my own perspective, having enjoyed these remastered releases while writing on the notion of "rural modernism," I'm left with the sense that Mr. Lomax's journey might be one of our culture's best analogs to that monumental twentieth-century odyssey: James Joyce's Ulysses. I'd never make that comparison lightly, but the range of emotion and experience we see across these songs is just the stuff from which Joyce made his modernist masterpiece, a novel about an Irish city teeming with an Irish rural diaspora. And, like Ulysses, we owe it to ourselves to return to this material, again and again, throughout our lives. 

Below I'll offer two videos from the new Southern Journey remasters found on the Alan Lomax Archive YouTube Channel, with the accompanying text from Mr. Salsburg's liner notes:

Lomax's "Southern Journey" field recording trip ended in October of 1959, but by April of the next year Alan was back recording in the South, this time in the capacity of music supervisor to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's film, Music of Williamsburg. The aim was to recreate the sound of African American music as it might have been heard in Colonial Williamsburg, and, according to a strikingly progressive 1962 press release from the Foundation, "to portray the important contributions of the Negro race to the nation's heritage." Lomax assembled a novel cast, comprised of many musicians he'd recorded several months earlier, and drawn from disparate locales. Ed Young came north from Como, Mississippi, to provide the necessary fife-blowing. Hobart Smith traveled east from Saltville, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with his four-string banjo and a clawhammer technique learned, in part, from an African American. Nat Rahmings, a Bahamian drummer and drum-maker, was brought in from Miami. And the Georgia Sea Island Singers were the vocal group at the ensemble's core. After filming was completed, Lomax wrote, the "musicians stayed on for what turned out to be a day of extraordinary music-making and musical cross-fertilization." Alan had turned up this tune years before, having gone looking for the oldest published black dance songs in Virginia----its references to the drinking gourd evince its slavery-time origin----and he taught it to the group. "I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed material," Lomax continued. "But the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval." The Foundation approved of it too, and featured it in the film.

When Lomax visited him in 1959, Raymond Spencer Moore was farming tobacco on his small acreage in Southwestern Virginia. "A family man," Alan wrote of him later. "Hospitable, slow-spoken, and as genuine as a rail fence." Although Lomax only made four recordings of him, Spencer has been said to know over five hundred songs----including blues, hokum, minstrel material, play-party ditties, contemporary country compositions, and a few topical pieces of his own devising. He also had quite a repertoire of ballads of recent vintage and regional application (such as "The Lawson Family Murders"), as well as this Americanized variant of a widely sung (and oft-parodied) item, first published in Dublin at least as early as 1806. As a child in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Spencer was bounced on the knee of legendary fiddler G.B. Grayson, who would stop by to visit with Spencer's father, James Moore, himself a fiddler and banjo player. In the late '30s, Spence and his brother Joe organized a close-harmony duet in the style of the Blue Sky Boys and the Delmore Brothers, appearing at dances and tent shows as far away as New York and Pennsylvania, and on one occasion sharing the stage with the Carter Family. After service in World War II, Spencer and his wife settled near Chilhowie, where he continued to farm and play music with his brother, friends, and neighbors for many decades, only recently (mid-2009) moving into a nursing home at the age of ninety.

Related Posts:
Cultural Equity
Root Hog or Die
Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way
The Alan Lomax Archive Channel

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Vernacular: A Freak Of The Wild And Woolly West

Casper, Wyoming
Sept. 6, 1914

Dear Ma:
At last I am here and like it very much. This is a great country. The people are so sociable one feels at home with them at once. This town has about 6,000 people in it, you ought to see the school building. They are simply great. The scenery around here is fine too. We are in sight of the Casper Mtns. Next Saturday all of us teachers are going to take a trip out to them + picnic there all day. The air here is so pure + bracing. The altitude is high as we are over 5,000 ft. I wish I could see all of your folks tho + have a good visit.

Much love,

Monday, July 25, 2011

In Brief: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Today at The Art of the Rural headquarters we are having some internet connection problems, so we'll post this wonderful video of The Carolina Chocolate Drops singing "When the World's On Fire" and hope that the internet will be more cooperative tomorrow. This clip is from the forthcoming documentary The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, which also maintains a lively Facebook page. I hope you all have a good start to the week.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Portfolio: Thornton Dial

photography by Stephen Pitkin; Rootcism

As a way of introducing Thornton Dial, we can turn to Karen Wilkin, writing from her "At the Galleries" column in the current issue of The Hudson Review:
The self-taught, prodigiously inventive "outsider" artist, born in Alabama in 1928, is acclaimed for his "collages" of improbable materials--loosely woven accretions of twisted fabric, thickly piled branches, discarded machine parts, old toys, dead animals, artificial flowers, and broken furniture, among many other things--salvaged and transformed into unignorable wall-mounted and freestanding constructions. Dial's impeccable sense of rhythm, his ability to orchestrate densities and forms, along with his gift for ravishing color, are put into the service of deeply felt political messages and comments on the vexed history of race relations, along with such themes as his personal heroes, ecology, or the essential role played by black women in the South. The potency of the result makes Dial's lack of conventional training irrelevant. His layered, confrontational structures defy categories. They demand and reward our attention, resonating in complex ways--aeshetically, conceptually, politically, emotionally.
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is on exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art until September 18th. Please visit the exhibition's microsite for more information and high-resolution images:

Trophies (Doll Factory), detail

The Last Day of Martin Luther King

High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man)

Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill)

Don't Care How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hick Hop: What, What?

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Contributing Editor

There’s a trend hitting the airwaves, Country hip-hop. Yeah, that’s right. Rarely do I listen to top 40 country, choosing rather to skirt the fringes of country’s by-gone days and to seek out the newer crops of alternative folk and country performers, but in seeking to get some local weather, I stumbled onto a very interesting song, “Dirt Road Anthem” by Macon, Georgia native Jason Aldean:

The song is definitely influenced by the commercial hip-hop genre mainly associated with the urban cultural landscape. In fact, a hip-hop musician and record producer from Meridian, Mississippi, Big K.R.I.T., co-produced the track, which has become a huge success for Aldean. His official website lists his influences as Aerosmith, The Oakridge Boys, and Tupac Shakur, and he says, ““I grew up listenin’ to all kinds of music—rock and Southern rock and country and blues and rap stuff, too. My cousin, who’s five months older than me, he went through his rap phase when we had 2Pac in the car all the time. Really, I’m a fan of all kinds of music.” The lyrics are a familiar mix of dirt roads, beer, cigarettes, etc. I must say, however, that I love the humor found in the re-mixed version provided by hip-hop giant Ludacris…“girls in bikinis, Kenny Rogers, penny loafers…” Nice.

Jason’s not the only country artist to dabble with urban-infused tracks. Once I was tuned in to the sound, a crop of young country performers incorporating hip-hop emerged. Eric Church recently had a hit with a tune called, “Homeboy,” which explores the dangers of rural youth getting gold teeth and baggy pants and forgetting about their Mamas. That’s a paraphrase, but you get the picture. Church doesn’t rap in this piece, but rather it serves more as a hip-hop cautionary tale, one which urges the young man in the song to “come home boy.” Feel free to explore more for yourself in the official video.

Probably the largest name in “hick-hop” is Colt Ford, another Georgia native and former professional golfer who’s been hitting the fair circuit and breaking it down across the country. He co-wrote and first recorded “Dirt Road Anthem,” and has recorded samples for many artists including John Michael Montgomery, Montgomery Gentry, and Jamey Johnson before stepping out into the spotlight with his last two records, Chicken and Biscuits, and Every Chance I Get. “Every Chance I Get” has peaked at #3 on both the Country and Rap charts according to Wikipedia.

“The New Country Yawlternative” is Colt Ford’s rival for “hick-hop” master, Cowboy Troy. Troy Lee Coleman III, aka Cowboy Troy, is from Victoria, Texas and a member of what is referred to as the Musik Mafia, a group of country musicians including Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, and James Otto. His website describes Troy in the “about” section by saying
When you're six feet, five inches tall you stand out. Add a cowboy hat and you stand out even more. Then, make the subject from Texas with darker than average skin and there's no question that Cowboy Troy (AKA Troy Coleman) isn't exactly an average guy.  
Troy points to his recording career as a natural outcome of his musical inspirations: country, rock, and rap. Here’s, “Hick Chick” from Coleman’s album, Black in the Saddle:

Coleman seems to be the only leading black voice in the “hick-hop” movement. Other African American performers are relegated to re-mixed tracks on albums or added for effect at various award shows.

It’s worth noting that the face of rural America is changing rather rapidly, though not reflected well within this movement. African American populations, historically part of the Rural Diaspora, are returning after the improvement of many southern race relations and there are many newer populations including Hispanic and Asian immigrants that are changing the cultural landscape of the country. These videos and songs certainly don’t reflect that cultural change, they just usurp the hip-hop form to re-enforce rural stereotypes and trite observations of parties, skinny-dipping, fishing, etc.

Other than the obvious lack of diversity in this commercially co-opted African American art form, there are much darker elements, which became apparent as I trolled the comments section of the YouTube videos associated with “hick-hop.” Certain songs incite feelings of racial superiority and have been adopted as racist battle cries leading listeners to spout racial slurs and call for Colt Ford for President.

Some of the more inflammatory comments connected with this cut have been removed since I first viewed it, thankfully. It makes me wonder if these sites are being policed? I was shocked and am still trying to make sense of the rationale, if there is any, which allows for bigots to co-opt an African American art form as an outlet for their hatred. Ignorance, unfortunately, is universal.

It is also worth noting that the rural/urban interface in country music is nothing new, “hick-hop” is merely its latest form. This cross-pollination goes back to the earliest commercially recorded country music and works in both directions. Here's Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong doing "Blue Yodel #9:"

Other examples include: the sophisticated orchestral arrangements accompanying Patsy Cline, the urban cautionary tales found in songs like Bobby Bare’s, “Streets of Baltimore,” the whole Kenny Rogers and Lionel Ritchie enterprise, The John Michael Montgomery cover of the boy band All-4-One’s “I Swear,” and who can forget Disco Country? Here’s Whispering Bill Anderson doing a simply sleazy, “Double S.” 

I’ll end on a bright note…I did find a positive “hick-hop” song that I actually liked and could get behind! Country pop sensation, Little Big Town, recorded a live cover of Jessie J’s “Price Tag,” on their latest episode of Scattered, Smothered, and Covered. If you’ve taken the time to listen to the other clips, consider this one a palate cleanser.

And don’t forget to go to the band’s website and vote for “What Phillip’s Rap Name Should Be.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Brief: North Carolina Farmer Voices

Horse Collar Farm; NC Farmer Voices, Alix Blair

Thanks to The Southern Foodways Alliance blog for leading us to learn more about North Carolina Farmer Voices, a program sponsored by Rural Advancement Foundation International that tells the story, through video and still photography, of a number of "innovative farmers:"
North Carolina Farmer Voices [is] a project of RAFI-USA and its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. This program assists farmers and community groups in developing new sources of agricultural income through the provision of cost-share grants.

In this website you’ll find a collection of stories—in photographs, sound, and multimedia—about projects that are leading models for agriculture in North Carolina. These farmers are innovators, entrepreneurs, and small business owners on the frontier of agricultural innovation. We believe the wisdom of farmers is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring economic growth to North Carolina. Explore their stories!
The site offers 15 short documentary clips that combine the gorgeous photography of Alix Blair with the voices of the farmers themselves. Ms. Blair's photography galleries on NC Farmer Voices are also well worth exploring--both from a compositional sense, and for the story and the spirit of her subjects. Below, Sammy Koenigsberg of New Town Farms discusses his family's work and the poultry processing facility that a RAFI-USA grant helped to be built on-site:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Last Time This Season

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

July Sixteenth

People there are who shrink from touching a creature like the red triton, because he is such an eery, chill and impish little animal. To some minds he seems reptilian, to others fishy; to me he is simply very pagan. There is a sort of cool impudence about him; his grin acknowledges the jollity of his gross little love ways, the irrepressible power of life which has enabled so antique a type to survive into the present.

Also, he slyly implies that he is in the family. It is posted up on the very walls of life that he is an ancestor or very closely collateral at least. Haeckel it was who discovered the great biological law that ontogeny lives through philogeny--by which he meant that the embryo lives through a telescoped version of the actual evolution of its species through the ages. In its early stages the human embryo passes through a gilled stage like the aquatic newt larva or mud puppy; the adult newt, of course, breathes air as we do, so he bridges the gap between fishes and reptiles. The reptiles link to the mammals; so too the unborn child sketches this history, only losing his tail as the last moment, as it were.

The well tempered mind embraces these kinships without revulsion at the sight of one's ancestors still walking the earth. Appetite for life--that is symptom of a healthy soul, a readiness to accept its tastes, a disposition to try the new. If newts make you squeamish and you prefer to think about children as cherubin until they lie smiling in their cradles, depend on it, you are ailing.

July Seventeenth

I never hear the thrush now, without wondering if it will be the last time this season that he sings. After each burning day I feel sure that, like a flower of the field, the song will be wilted in the heat. All too soon the thrush will molt. He will be here hopping about silently in the woods and thickets, but he will not sing. Then indeed the dead of summer will be upon us; breathless heat and heavy-hearted silence will settle on the spots where now he still takes up his evening station to refresh the hour when the soul can breathe in quiet, the brief, brief moments between the fiery setting of the sun and the falling of the heavy-leaved darkness.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From Brooklyn to Clinch Mountain: The Carter Family Project

The couple's crib sheet to "Anchored in Love" 

We have to give a huge thank you to Beth Harrington, via her forthcoming film The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music, for encouraging us to discover The Carter Family Project
Fran Leadon and Leigh Anderson of Brooklyn, NY attempt to record every single song that the Carter Family ever cut.

Just like the original recordings, these are lo-fi and low-budget. We are using a H2 Zoom recorder propped on a chair in our living room. Fran plays a homemade D-18 guitar and sometimes a 1959 Martin 0-18. Leigh plays an early 1950s Epiphone upright bass.

We grew up listening to the Carter Family. The rules for this project are simple: record the songs in chronological sequence, beginning with the first 1927 Bristol sessions recordings, don't worry too much about flubs, and get everything recorded while the baby is napping.
Mr. Leadon and Ms. Anderson maintain a simple and elegant tumblr page for the project, which offers up their rendition of a new Carter Family song just about every day. Ms. Anderson writes that she grew up listening to the Carter Family in West Virginia (Mr. Leadon, in Florida); from their home in Brooklyn, this gives an intimate feel to the urban-rural dynamic of this wonderful DIY project. 

While the group sometimes offers up the song alone, with a few basic liner notes, other posts contain the some historical and contemporary context for the people and places of these songs. For instance, perusing the archive will reveal a picture of John Hardy on the scaffolds in Wheeling, West Virginia; I've loved this song, in all its renditions, for years yet never had seen a photographic record of the event. Combined with the fact that I also did not know that John Hardy met his maker in Wheeling (my family's farm is a few miles across the river in Ohio), this post was a revelation. 

What also interests me about this project is its process of recording, which (instead of musicians sitting in a studio) seems much closer to the way in which Sara, A.P., and Maybelle would have first encountered these songs. While Brooklyn is a long way from Clinch Mountain, there's a sense of family and community to these new recordings which can ease that geographical distance through a common musical experience. We might look to their first post (on June 19th) for evidence of this:
Today we finally began something we’d talked about for the last year: recording every single Carter Family song that the original lineup (Sara, Maybelle, A.P.) ever recorded, beginning with their legendary Bristol sessions in 1927.  We haven’t had a chance to start because our 14-month old, Ben, takes a lot of time and we’ve been working on writing projects and teaching.  But now it’s summer, and so after lunch we decided to try to “cut” a few numbers while Ben was taking his afternoon nap.

As usual, Ben’s timing was not lined up perfectly with ours, and he woke up from his nap right when we got tuned up and ready to go.  So we recorded “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” with him still in the crib.  Then we got him up, changed his diaper, gave him some milk, and plopped him into his playpen, about six feet away from the mic.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rural International: Art Cornwall

From Art Cornwall's interactive map

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Rupert White, an English artist and editor of, an online site that offers a host of ways for folks to explore the arts scene in his home county. Mr. White's organization is very interested in thinking about the dynamics of rural art--within England, but also globally; for those reasons it was a honor to have my recent piece How The Rural Could Save Modern Art reprinted for his readers, and it was exciting to hear of a site across the Atlantic that shares so many of our values and interests. 

Here's more information on, from their site description:
Art Cornwall is an online journal that was launched in Summer 2006.
It is an art journal compiled and edited in Cornwall: a county at the most South-westerly tip of England, UK.
Cornwall is unusual in being a pre-dominantly rural area with both a strong tradition of visual art, and a large number of galleries and artists.
Articles on are not only confined to art and artists in Cornwall, however, and we would like to hear from individuals from around the world who have an interest in a range of relevant topics e.g. rural art, 20th Century modernism, experimental art, landscape, anti-globalisation, internet art, folk traditions...
I recommend that folks give the site a tour; it has a rich archive of features, online projects, and interviews--as well as an interactive map and a online forum. As The Art of the Rural expands, provides a stellar example for us of how a site can offer a wide range of ways for an audience to engage with local, national and even international art-making.

There's so much material on therein, from local artists to conversations with noted American critics such as Lucy Lippard, that a summary here wouldn't get to the site's diverse perspectives. Instead, I'll include this interview and feature with Gareth Edwards on his Ars Poetica project. Mr. Edwards's take on the renewed place of the rural in contemporary art, as well as his spiritual and aesthetic attachment to landscape, should resonate with a number of the artists we've featured on our site:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Song: Woody's 99th Birthday

Woody Guthrie with Leadbelly, Chicago, 1941

Rachel Reynolds Luster has reminded us that this week would have marked Woody Guthrie's 99th Birthday. She's suggesting "All You Fascists Bound To Lose" for some Sunday listening.

Also, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we have Pete Seeger's 1947 film To Hear Your Banjo Play, which features Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Mr. Seeger's commentary reminds us of how migrant agriculutral labor not only built this country, but produced a culture and an arts that we claim as distinctively American:

In thinking about the folks who labored in rural places, and who we too-often forget when we retell the story of America's rise to prominence, I'll also include a favorite of my own, from the wonderful Asch Recordings. Maybe it's time for a few new verses.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Poetry Bombing In Rural America?

This video has recently made the rounds on ArtsJournal and a number of other contemporary arts sites. Especially after considering Rachel Reynolds Luster's piece on Yarn Bombing in Rural America, how could we adapt this DIY community arts practice into our rural places?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kort: Cortney Tidwell and Kurt Wagner Reimagine Nashville History

Cortney Tidwell and Kurt Wagner; Eli McFadden

I'm remiss for not sharing this earlier, but there's something about the prospect of a summer Friday evening that may make this the perfect moment to encounter Kort, the musical partnership between two extraordinarily gifted Nashville musicians: Cortney Tidwell and Kurt Wagner (Lambchop). Here's Stephen M. Deusner introducing their recent Invariable Heartache record in Pitchfork:
Chart Records is a bit of obscure Nashville history, notorious to those who dig through the crates at Grimey's [a famous record store in Nashville] but largely unregarded by those outside the city limits. Founded by Gary Walker in 1962 and purchased by local businessman Slim Williamson in 1964, it was the temporary home of established acts like Junior Samples and Red Sovine, but the emphasis was squarely on young talent with crossover potential, including its biggest success story, Lynn Anderson. Most of its roster might not ring a bell these days, mush less a cash register, but Chart was certainly a label of its moment, when country was entertaining the notion of pop.

One Chart artist, a Miss Nashville runner-up named Connie Eaton, married Williamson's son, and they had a daughter named Cortney (now Tidwell), who grew up to become a country singer herself. Nearly half a century after Chart's founding, she is paying tribute to the family business with an album of primarily Chart covers, most of them duets with Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner. Both represent the seedy Nashville underbelly of local artists actually paying heed to local history, and fittingly, the idea for this collaboration originated on stage at the Basement, where the two sang an impromptu Don Williams cover together.
Included below is an excellent short documentary that expands upon how Ms. Tidwell and Mr. Wagner came to bring these songs back to life. Also: the official video for "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries." Folks can pick up the CD or download here; also William Tyler (an amazing guitarist in his own right, and subject of a future article) has just released Invariable Heartache on vinyl through his Sebastian Speaks label. The LP can be purchased in-store at Grimey's or online at Other Music

For some comparison, here's the earlier version of "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries," sung by two of the luminaries of an earlier Nashville moment: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

In Brief: 1 Man as 100 Artists & 1 Man Photographs Every Town In Iowa

From the Seek biennial; Shea Hembrey

Shea Hembrey was born in Hickory Grove, Arkansas among a family of "farmers, factory workers, hunters, trappers, musicians, and cockfighters." His Seek biennial is worth considering, especially after the Venice Biennale and Art Basel recently raised concerns over the state of contemporary art--thanks to Rachel Reynolds Luster for introducing us to this work.

Though the Seek biennial features 100 artists, they are all fictional characters invented by Mr. Hembrey; while the work speaks to various trends and orthodoxies in contemporary art-making, Mr. Hembrey is the sole artist. Below, he tells his story on TED and directly addresses the issues we covered previously in our article How the Rural Could Save Modern Art:
A few years ago, I spent months in Europe to see the major international art exhibitions that have the pulse of what is supposed to be going on in the art world. And I was struck by going to so many, one after the other, with some clarity of what it was that I was longing for. And I was longing for several things that I wasn't getting, or not getting enough of. But two of the main things: one of it, I was longing for more work that was appealing to a broad public, that was accessible. And the second thing I was longing for was some more exquisite craftsmanship and technique.

Here's Brian McMillin, another artist tackling an immense subject matter: the history, culture, and architecture of the state of Iowa:
After two and a half years, my project to visit and photograph every community in the state of Iowa is complete. On June 18, 2011, I hosted a celebration in the Jones County community of Onslow, the final stop among 974 communities identified to photograph across Iowa’s 99 counties. Though the visit to Onslow marks an end to the first phase of this project, much work remains to uncover the history and stories behind these community photos. From modest city halls to grandiose county courthouses, I will continue sharing my photos on a daily basis on Iowa Backroards.

Mr. McMillin's work is extraordinary. It's not enough that he's offered his readers photographic evidence of every community in the Hawkeye State--his site also puts each place into its necessary historical context, and Mr. McMillin reports that there's more work to do in connecting and expanding upon all of these stories. Folks can also follow his work on Facebook and Twitter. Many thanks to Megan, a longtime reader (and Iowan) for the tip!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Introducing The Yuma Project

Yuma, Colorado; from the Baseline Group flickr page

Today we're excited to present The Yuma Project, a collaboration between art students at The University of Colorado-Boulder and the community of Yuma, Colorado. This project is led by Richard Saxton, an artist and scholar interested in vernacular, place-based expression. Folks may remember our earlier discussions of his work as well his collaborations with the M12 group and The Rural Studio, where Mr. Saxton was previously an artist-in-residence.

Over the next few weeks we will have the privilege of presenting a number of the art projects Mr. Saxton's students and collaborators created in Yuma. Today I'd like to offer an introduction, beginning with this excerpt from the syllabus itself:
Community and Site-based Art Practice (AKA The Baseline Group, AKA The Yuma Project) is a special topics course that focuses on approaches to community and site-based art practices with a particular interest in the rural landscape and rural communities.  Through a collective class atmosphere, students in this course will discover and discuss approaches to a unique realm of the art-making profession. Focusing on themes that include site, community, and collective practice, students will learn about the history of these art avenues, be introduced to concepts of site proposals, learn about project development, and collaborate on the design and implementation of ambitious community and site-based art projects.

This course will take place primarily off campus and is designed as an experiential course, meaning that students learn through the experience of doing. Students will experience and participate, first hand, on tangible projects in the field.  In this course we will spend a substantial amount of time outside of the traditional studio environment.
In the weeks that follow, Mr. Saxton leads these emerging artists to Yuma for an immersive process of thinking through--as a group--how art-making can address the "aesthetic, social, and historical context" of their sites in Yuma; the answers come through repeated visits to the region and through close contact with the Yuma community. In the end, these travels into the rural places beyond the traditional art-studio world offer an "experimental and interdisciplinary approach to creativity." 

In corresponding with some of the Yuma Project / Baseline Group students, I can attest to the unique kind of work this vision can inspire. Below, I'll offer two teasers of the installations which will follow in The Art of the Rural in the coming weeks. 

Adrianna Santiago, Nourish

I want to incorporate new technologies with old practices, without losing ties between people and the land. During my time in Yuma, I spoke with patrons of the historic grocery store, Shop All, a common place where community members frequent. I asked people to nominate community members who they think may be interested in a work exchange. Lastly, I traded my time for a lesson in a historical Yuma tradition. The documentation of this learning exchange is presented and archived as the Yuma Historical Society Museum.

You Jin Seo, Untitled

As I move to different places, I start collecting objects in order to be aware of the different cultures and to get used to the new environments. I installed the shiny and beautiful objects that I have collected in Yuma so that people walking on the street can see the artwork in their daily life. I long to bring the beautiful moment when I observe the softly glittering lights into the vast and barren landscape near Yuma.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rural Roots: 1956, 2011, and 2228

The brig at the 2011 Trekfest; Rob Daniel, The Press Citizen

When I was recently traveling through Iowa on my way to the National Rural Assembly I had the chance to spend an evening in Riverside,  a small-town about 20 miles south of Iowa City. Simply put: Riverside is a beautiful place. It's benefitted from both a strong sense of community pride and from an influx of revenues generated by a riverboat casino built a few miles east of downtown. For better or worse, when politicians talk about "small town America," Riverside is the kind of place they envision: clean streets, well-kept parks, and a host of local businesses.

Anticipating the Assembly, I was particularly conscious of the larger narrative that's often stretched over our rural places. Riverside has found an ingenious way to deal with this issue. I'll include below the text from the Riverside Area Community Club's Assignment Earth: Trekfest 2011 brochure:
Stephen Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry's book, The Making of Star Trek, stated that Kirk "was born in a small town in the state of Iowa."

In 1984, Riverside City Councilperson Steve Miller wrote to Gene Roddenberry requesting that the small town in Iowa be Riverside.

Through city proclamation, TV, radio, magazine, and newspaper interviews (including The Wall Street Journal) and with certificate of commendation from Gene Roddenberry himself, Riverside has become known for this historical event!

On March 25, 1985, the Riverside City Council voted unanimously to declare a spot behind what used to be the town's barber shop as the "future birthplace" of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the spaceship U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701.
While YouTube abounds with video from Trekfests past, Allen Huffman's video montage below is a fine introduction, though you may need to mute the sound:

While I can't help but applaud Riverside for the creative way in which they landed their community on the intergalactic map, I'm also interested in Trekfest for what I see as a convergence of two somewhat related forms of nostalgia. While the primary strain, of course, relates to the long-since-departed television show, there's also the kind of nostalgia that Mr. Roddenberry and Whitfield encoded into the character of Kirk: the boy who must leave his rural roots behind to better himself and, in this case, save the universe. This mixture of local pride, nostalgia, and assertiveness aimed toward the larger urban centers is common to many small towns from which a noted leader emerged; it's echoed in Riverside's town motto: where the trek begins.

From this perspective, it's startling the number of pop-culture narratives that also follow this model of a character rising from a solid and safe rural upbringing only to leave behind the community to face greater challenges: see Superman, Citizen Kane, all the way to science-fiction blockbusters such as Star Wars or The Lord of Rings.

While, in a political context, this is still a powerful metaphor, I wonder if another part of the nostalgia that draws folks (including myself) to something like Trekfest is that it's a story we're no longer telling, a story that's a remnant of a moment in American culture when small town life had a different kind of hold over an audience's collective imagination (as, by mid-century, many urban viewers would have been part of the rural diaspora). Has a kind of reality-television, or riches-to-riches narrative, replaced the humble arc to greatness of James T. Kirk? 

Consider the map below, by Kenneth Johnson of The Carsey Institute, excerpted from a must-read article published in The Daily Yonder. The colors on the map correspond to the number of years between 1956 and 2009 that deaths exceeded births in rural counties; the darker the color the deeper the decrease in population. (see the The Daily Yonder for more information and larger graphics):

One of the reasons I love Brown Valley so much is that you know the people you're dealing with: they're a neighbor or a friend or a friend-of-a-friend. And you can trust them because they are part of the community. If there's a bad egg around you, you find out pretty fast. 

As if they were following this research, Hollywood has begun to tell the story differently. In the recent film Cedar Rapids, the naive and God-fearing insurance  agent  Time Lippe comes to this Iowa city for an industry convention: his first trip out of Brown Valley, his first plane ride, his first hotel room. The opening lines of Cedar Rapids above announce the film's intentions--to reveal an audience's notions that rural Americans are insular, close-minded, gullible, and yet somehow the ideal paragons of national virtue:

I considered Trekfest and Cedar Rapids before heading to the Assembly. As I left for St. Paul, Michele Bachmann stood before a national television audience in front of a historic building in Waterloo, Iowa, to announce her candidacy for President. I found myself less interested in her political platform than in the ways she tried to angle her candidacy toward the Iowa primary voters and toward a notion of "Iowa-ness" that equates with Traditional American Values. The keywords she repeated multiple times: Iowa, roots, heartland, values. 

As my hosts explained, Waterloo is a conundrum for Iowans--it's perched between small town and city mentalities and has a diverse population. Though I could not locate the clip, a local TV journalist put together a kind of "gotcha" piece that asked many African-American residents of Waterloo if they were aware of Bachmann's local connections--it's a video that showed how far easy campaign rhetoric falls from the realities of rural and heartland roots. Undoubtedly, as the primaries approach, Bachmann will find some company. 

Yet, in thinking ahead a few election cycles, we may be embarrassed at how this political rhetoric ignored the demographic changes already occurring in many rural communities. As Kenneth Johnson reminded those gathered for the Rural Assembly in St. Paul, 46% of the children born in America this year will be from a "minority" group--a statistic that cuts to the misnomer of the term itself. 

More information on this diversity map can be found at The Maynard Institute

Afterwards a panel comprised of Delia Perez of the Llano Grande Center, Kim Phinney of YouthBuild USA and Peter Morris of the National Congress of American Indians brought the youth dynamic to this research. As this panel eloquently put it, we're living 2050 today. The statement served as a moment of clarification; we need to respect and share the story of our rural roots, but we also need to think inclusively about who has--and will have--a place in the narrative.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lorine Niedecker's Calendar Poems: July

What a
white muffler
in a dark coat
will do for a
dull man 

More information on Lorine Niedecker and The Rural Poetry Series can be found here. Also see her February entry here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saturday Portfolio: Jetsonorama

Love Train; Sante Fe, New Mexico

Folks who've read The Art of the Rural for a while will be familiar with Jetsonorama. We have been lucky enough to feature this visionary wheat paste artist on three previous occasions. While challenging all the easy cultural, geographic and aesthetic cliches about rural art, Jetsonorama's work emerges from a belief in a community's ability to tell its own stories, make its own art, and spread its own love.

For those new to Jetsonorama's work: born in North Carolina, the artist came of age in the 1980's New York City hip-hop scene and later traveled through Africa (on bicycle) before moving to the Navajo nation to work as an Indian Health Services Physician. Jetsonorama installs these wheat paste murals with the help of many friends from the reservation, including the No Reservation Required crew and No Drama. There's much more on Jetsonorama's site; we'll also offer links to our previous coverage of his work below.

Friday, July 8, 2011

From Bulgaria to North Carolina, Following The Song

Alison Krauss, an early favorite in Rachel's house  
By Rachel Beth Rudi

Editor's Note: Today we welcome our intern Rachel Beth Rudi to The Art of The Rural. As she begins her work here, we offered her the chance to introduce herself to our readers.

I was born in small-town Vermont and raised in a farmhouse on a hill. My flatlander parents were art students of moderate means who moved east in the ‘80s, and had the privilege to choose what sort of lives they would lead. My mother was a full-time social worker, my father a stay-at-home husband. 

In his twenties, my father developed an obsession for music. For two- or three-month periods he would devote hours upon hours to studying one genre or another and, by the time I was born, the large living room speakers boomed with sounds from around the world. I soaked in the spectrum as I crawled through the house: minimalist music, ‘90s pop radio, West African drumming, Qawwali, classical, country, Gregorian chant, jazz, show tunes, blues, each with their own phase, our world converting to theirs. We would sing along, or dance along, or stand in front of the stereo with arms crossed, brows furrowed, legs in a strong stance, letting the sound give us a good washing. After we’d drunk in something new, he’d take my arm and sit me down on the sofa, look at me intently, and ask,

“What did you think?”

When I was small, I’d likely reply with “It’s good,” or “It’s not very good.” A few years later, he pressed further. 


 “Why what?” 

“Why wasn’t it good?” 

“I didn’t like the singing.” 


“I didn’t like her voice.” 


Anne Azéma, Artistic Director of The Boston Camerata

The conversations overflowed into lunchtime, and our over macaroni and cheese he taught me to justify my instincts on quality, consider the story of a song before making up my mind.

In high school, I joined a vocal ensemble called Village Harmony, an organization whose participants study and perform community-made genres from Corsica, South Africa, Appalachia, Caucasus Georgia, Eastern Europe and the Deep South. For one or two weekends a month, thirty of us would come together in some New England church and rehearse, twelve hours a day, in a large circle. In the spring, we toured from Maine to Ohio, from North Carolina, to most states between, easily loving each other and learning how a community’s history is contained in its songs.

Twenty-five of us traveled to Bulgaria in 2005, flying from Boston to Sophia and arriving at our rehearsal space in the Rhodope mountains on a tour bus. I had been listening to Bulgarian field recordings for three years by then, and had come to learn how to grasp the right timbre. I was told I was a good singer, but I found my own voice displaced and rootless, an ungrounded interpretation of intangible, digitized traditions. 

Petrana Koutcheva

On the evening of our arrival, we gathered in the rehearsal room and arranged ourselves in a circle on the floor.  Petrana Koutcheva walked into the center. This woman, our instructor for those three weeks, is known across her country as one of the finest Bulgarian singers in the world, heavily invested in the preservation and perpetuation of her culture’s music. She stood quietly; we sat curiously. She sang.

This was the instant I became a singer. She taught me every lesson I’ve ever needed within the course of those seconds; nothing before or since will ever matter so much. Watching her chest fill with kinetic music, her eyebrows and the corners of her lips reach for a peripheral ornament, watching her memories, experiences, hopes carve a landscape for her voice to travel. After that I have never forgotten, never will forget, how to sing.

I moved south for college, leaving my northern singing family behind in the shifting toward early adulthood. But I strove to start fresh, and came to Warren Wilson College in western North Carolina. The new home felt more organic, less of a cultural hybrid, and although I missed singing in foreign languages I’ve grown close with North Carolina ballad singers and have gained a new musical family through singing from the Sacred Harp. I began traveling ten hours on most weekends to sing in Georgia and Alabama, and made weekend visits to Madison County, North Carolina, not only to sing with others, but to pray with them, eat, drink, recall, love and laugh.

I am now a young person at a crossroads – one with no certain route, one that can always be found again or adjusted, one that implies many homes, families, pasts, futures. Vermont is where my song started, but these things have a way of meandering. Singing has given me some semblance of a philosophy but if life was my father, it’s got me sitting on the sofa right now, asking, “So, what’s the song taught you so far, and where will you take it now?” I’m trying to take in the songs and histories I’ve stumbled across, chew the melodies over until I’ve refined my own version.

I first came upon The Art of the Rural during one of those late-night strings of Google searches, the kind college students can spend hours on as they dream of Real Life After College. I scrolled through pieces addressing new approaches to rural issues, the bolstering of small communities, and respectful portraits of people still holding onto knowledge given to them by those before. While each piece was beautifully concise and attentive, equally complete was the overall collection of vivid, honest accounts of rural life.

Untitled Sketch; Cy Twombly

My father has taken his time with fixing up our old house, and hasn’t painted for two decades. Instead, he does thumbnail sketches with any old ballpoint pen, miniature outbursts that play with light and shade, shape and angle. I’ll find them on napkins, in newspaper margins, on the backs of unopened bank statements. He calls them his sketches, saying that in an ideal world, they’re full-sized paintings. He likes to imagine, he says, what happens to the rhythm of an image when you alter the perimeter; certain contexts have smoother or slower rhythms than others. His thumbnail sketches are thoughts and themes translated into measurement, stretched or pushed into a new frame: studies in reconsideration.

Study is from the Latin studium, meaning “application,” and, originally, “eagerness.” This is of studere, “to be diligent” and “to be pressing forward,” of Proto-Indo-European, *(s)teu-, “to push, stick, knock, beat.” The noun form for “application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge” is from 1300.

My father’s splashing of concept onto paper, and his pushing and pulling of parameters, is what passion is, what a life is for. As I sit on the sofa and try to take in my singing experiences, I know that while their meanings are ambiguous – whether they’re good, or bad, and why – I have to put them into whatever roughly coherent form I can. My installments with The Art of Rural will be my attempt to push these themes around, stick them into different contexts, knock and beat them until they’re good and worn in, proven that they’re the stuff I can put my trust in.