Monday, January 18, 2021

Wartime Farm - An Historical Recreation

Nostalgia has a strange and funny effect on people. We often yearn for the “good old days,” finding something strange and wonderful about a golden past we yearn for, whether it existed as we remember it or not. At other times, our nostalgia may cover up many less pleasant or difficult times with a rosy glow. My wife, Irene, and I were both born in 1941, about six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated America’s entry into World War II. However, the war had been raging in Europe for two years before our formal entry, even though the U.S. was supporting England with weapons and material. We both lived through the war as small children, each of us having fleeting memories of crushing cans, saving rubber bands, and ration books limiting the availability of gasoline. This series brought back some real and, perhaps, some media coached later images to our consciousness

Manor Farm

The BBC production of Wartime Farm, recreates the British farmer’s experiences of the War, bringing its hardships, advancements, and struggles to life in an arresting, revealing, and engaging eight episode documentary bringing realities of the war as it affected life in the English countryside to reality. Currently running on Britbox, this highly engaging eight episode program, filmed at the living museum Manor Farm, contains many points of nostalgia while never glossing over the hardships, dangers, and changes the war brought about in English rural society. 

The Cast

The main characters in the film are Historian Ruth Goodman and archeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn, who work the farm together, learning the farming and domestic skills necessary as well as confronting the hardships of farm life during the war. While all the filming, except for black & white film clips from during the war, is clearly contemporary and all the characters in every role are re-creators/interpreters, there’s an almost overwhelming sense of authenticity, as the three central characters learn to live in a time period clearly taking place before they were born. 

Wartime Farm is currently streaming on Acorn TV, which can be ordered separately or through your Amazon Prime subscription for $5.99 a month. An annual subscription is available directly from Acorn, saving subscribers two months payments. We’ve found it to be intensely interesting in its own right as well as creating cultural and historical context for much of our current streaming of British television programs portraying various aspects and post-war time periods. Even programs like the Inspector George Gently Mysteries, set during the 1960’s show elements of the effects of World War II in their action. The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, too, take on greater nuance when the class structure explored there is put into a context of post World War II England.  

All in all, Wartime Farm provides fascinating glimpses into social and cultural changes made in England during the 1939 - 1945 period which still resonate through the culture, while never losing its intrinsic entertainment value. Presented in eight episodes, the program offers glimpses into a life fast disappearing from living memory, yet crucial to the modern world. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Rascally Mountain Boy by Marc Pruett - Book Review

Nostalgia means looking back at earlier times through the gauzy haze of many years, making much that happened in the past preferable to today’s sometimes awful reality. “Remember when the times were so much better than they are now,” remains a constant lament of the mildly to wildly unhappy living in today’s complex, challenged world. Nostalgia, however, can also serve as an appreciation of the events, behavior, and circumstances from the past serving to form the views and understandings through which  individuals see the world, forming their own values and behavior. Memories mix with character- building and appreciation of today to form what, for want of better words, forms our life experience. It’s within this context that musician Marc Pruett has written Rascally Mountain Boy - A Lighthearted Memoir (Life, Music, Songs), a delightful collection of stories, memories, and reminiscences from his childhood, touring career as a well-regarded banjo player, and triumphs with major bands. In short, well-written, charming, and insightful glimpses at life and living, Marc Pruett offers a book filled with warmth, reminiscence, memories of many bluegrass greats, and wisdom in a book built for people who enjoy reading in small bites. 

Part I of Rascally Mountain Boys contains stories from Marc Pruett's childhood memories and experiences, told in a folksy, friendly, and winning manner drawing the reader into the world of mid-twentieth century rural North Carolina. He then turns to engaging stories from his long and successful career as a professional banjo player, including fronting his own band. Marc’s description of how Jimmie Martin broke him in as a young banjo player, molding his delivery to match what Martin was looking for from the banjo is the best Martin profile I’ve ever read. It adds dimension to my understanding of Martin as a performer and a leader as well as showing how a young banjo player learned his trade in those days. Part II consists of stories built around songs finding memories of real life events evoked from songs in his own life. Finally, he looks at songs he himself has written, showing how the meaning of each reflects incidents in his life and values he holds dear as well as the song-writing process itself.

                                                                     Marc Pruett Demo at IBMA

Marc Pruett was born and grew up in Haywood County, North Carolina, an area dominated by the Smoky Mountain National Park, small towns, the paper industry, and bluegrass music. Born in 1951, he was nurtured in rural living, growing up in an idyllic rural environment where it was safe for young boys to explore, test themselves, and get into more than a little mischief. His professional career started when he was fifteen years old, and soon he began reaching further afield to play with the bluegrass greats of the sixties and seventies, bands like Jimmy Martin’s, James Monroe, and Ricky Skaggs, where he earned a Grammy Award for his participation in the album Bluegrass Rules, one of the five albums he played on while with Skaggs. As is true of many musicians, he also had another career, working in local and regional government in environmental areas. (Marc Pruett Interview by Wayne Peeler) In recent years, Marc received an Honorary Doctorate from Western Carolina University for his contributions to bluegrass music and regional culture. For more than a decade has played with Balsam Range, which began in the Ashville, NC area, founded in 2007, and has risen to national acclaim, twice winning the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award as well as wider recognition. (

Balsam Range - Caney Fork River

Rascally Mountain Boy by Marc Pruett is a delightful book, perfect for light reading and dipping into when time for concentration is not needed. It successfully captures rural America in the mid-twentieth century, celebrating the simplicity and values of that era. Readers will find evocative memories as well as keen insight into the period and life of growing, rambunctious boys. It also reveals how a regional. Appalachian folk music grew into a national voice for rural life not available to everyone. I highly recommend it. You can purchase a copy through the Balsam Range Website.

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Queen's Gambit - Netflix Series Review

What could be exciting about a little girl in an orphanage learning to be a chess player and following her progress as she becomes a prodigy on her way to world class competition? I’m not interested in chess. We don’t often watch “women’s” dramas. Who cares about lost orphans? Well, I dare you not to binge this magnificent drama which becomes a metaphor for the game of life - its joys, dangers, pitfalls, and searches for meaning. The Queen’s Gambit, currently streaming on Netflix, will provide you with a hugely satisfying coming of age story about a remarkable young woman as well as a new appreciation of the dramatic possibilities found in a game in which two people sit opposite each other for hours with all the drama taking place in their heads.

 Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth

The story begins as nine year old Beth Harmon, played as a child by Isla Johnson and later by the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy, arrives at a cold, rule-encrusted, emotionally stark orphanage in rural Kentucky. An impressionable and repressed little girl with little understanding of the world she is entering, Beth seems shut off and lost. She soon finds her way to the school’s basement, where the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, played by Bill Camp, silently plays through chess problems between times spent sweeping floors and changing light bulbs. Beth asks about the game, which he quietly and patiently introduces to her, while discovering that she has remarkable aptitude for the game. She has also discovered a refuge for emotional and intellectual support that will become a foundation for her story.

Eventually, Beth is adopted by a cold, distant couple, and raised by her doting, but alcoholic mother, who gladly live off her daughter’s increasingly successful chess career leading to fame, money, and increasing international prominence. As Beth’s story continues, chess is always prominent, somehow becoming both a frame and the story’s centerpiece, while never becoming exceedingly formulaic or cliched. On the contrary her triumphs at the chessboard set the frame for her struggles with drugs, alcoholism, and relationships. 

So, let’s take a look at chess as the centerpiece of this fine film drama, according to Dylan Loeb McClain, former chess columnist in the New York Times. He says that the setting is eerily reminiscent of chess tournaments around the time in which the film takes place, one of the many reasons that the series is one of the best and most successful screen adaptations of the game.” I can add that for a person who was in high school and college during the period the series portrays, there’s a clear familiarity. The actors were trained to avoid chess mistakes to the point of learning to move chess pieces the way real players do. Even the games are real recreations of actual competition. McClain points out parallels with the great American chess champion Bobby Fisher, while suggesting that making the protagonist of this series a woman is not only dramatically satisfying, but represents a rebuke of Fisher’s often sexist remarks about women in chess. While voicing some criticisms of the series, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov says, “But trust me,” he said. “This is as close as one can have it.”

Actress Anya Taylor-Joy commented that learning to communicate the passion engendered by chess as well as to control the movements on and around a chess board were relatively easy for her to master as she compared them to her own passion for dance, also seen in Beth’s self-discovery through dance music in the show. Beth’s increasingly rich relationships with chess players who undertake to teach her while eventually falling to her in chess competitions and for her as an increasingly alluring woman become a centerpiece of this drama.  Taylor-Joy truly inhabits the role.

The Queen’s Gambit, the name of a chess opening as well as of this delightful film series, takes its time, which is one of its glories. The camera lingers, moods evolve, problems present themselves and then are slowly and thoughtfully resolved. Meanwhile, the sense of movement and action keeps attention high. This series is never hampered by the chess setting, whether you know the game or not. While I fall in the “not” category, just barely knowing how each piece is supposed to move with no sense of the complexities of the game, the growing excitement and tensions within Queen’s Gambit kept me involved throughout. I highly recommend it to adherents of first rate, cerebral drama. 


Friday, October 9, 2020

IBMA Virtual World of Bluegrass - 2020 - Review

Since 2007, Irene and I have attended every IBMA World of Bluegrass save one, during which we were traveling. We always found the event to be invigorating, exciting, and enjoyable, meeting people on a professional level we only knew from CD’s, Sirius/xm radio, or festivals. Our first World of Bluegrass was held at the Nashville Convention Center in 2007. While our enthusiasm for the organization and the city of Nashville kept growing, it had become obvious that the powers that be in Music City weren’t as excited about hosting the convention as we were about attending. When the contract ran out, Raleigh was ready for us, and IBMA moved to a new, and more welcoming venue, in 2013. Each year, as the City of Raleigh and IBMA’s relationship ripened, the World of Bluegrass and the associated event hosted by the City called “Wide Open Bluegrass” grew, improved, became more attractive, and attendance blossomed. The positive effects on the City of Raleigh and IBMA were obvious to all. Then Covid-19 closed the country down, and the live event so many of us looked forward to each year was cancelled for 2020. 

Almost as soon as the cancelation of this year’s event was announced, the IBMA staff got down to work to plan a way to hold a virtual event designed to meet the professional and personal needs of the membership, as well as seeking to keep the organization alive and functioning while bluegrass music would undoubtedly be encountering an existential crisis. Slowly at first, and then with increasing momentum, a virtual World of Bluegrass Conference and Wide Open Bluegrass Musical event began to emerge in the planning and then the execution. 

From the pre-conference Leadership Bluegrass reception to the weekend’s IBMA Bluegrass Live!, the event proved itself to be a rewarding alternative for an audience whose greatest joy in the music can be found in jams and festivals. There were a range of sessions held in the business conference from Sarah Jarosz Keynote Address on  Monday September 28 to The Steep Canyon Rangers final performance on Saturday, October 3. IBMA chose a platform called Swapcard to present this complex event design. People wishing to attend the business conference had to pay, while, this year, music was presented free, but, sadly, is not available for replay due to copyright restrictions. 

Each component of this complex event contains recorded content consisting of interviews, discussions, musical events and/or a combination. Because the bands themselves were responsible for their own production quality, the showcases varied in quality at two levels, rather than simply the quality and attractiveness of the showcasing bands,. For instance, performance by Dobro great Jerry Douglas with his guest Odessa Settles had superb quality, both because of the quality of the performance and the wonderful recording from Jerry’s home studio. Other performances, however, did not reach this quality level, though most provided a strong musical experience and were acceptable as artistic presentations, too. Many of the featured performances at this year’s IBMA can be found by searching YouTube for IBMA World of Bluegrass 2020.

Paul Schiminger - IBMA Executive Director

Paul Schiminger, Executive Director of IBMA, said, “We are pleased the community reacted so positively about the experience.  It certainly was a herculean effort.  As with any IBMA World of Bluegrass, it required a large team of people to make it happen.  Certainly a huge amount of work was done by staff in overall management and direct implementation (too many areas to list).  We also have producers of each awards program and for the festival, as well as the Education Committee and many other committees.  The City of Raleigh was definitely involved as a close partner with the IBMA.  They provided support and help in various efforts.  It is terrific to have the City of Raleigh invested in the success of IBMA World of Bluegrass right alongside of us.”

Another example of the cooperation and coordination putting the festival together involves festival partner PineCone. David Brower, the Executive Director of PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, commented “ PineCone and the City of Raleigh were very much involved in the event.  PineCone again served as the producer for the festival Friday and Saturday.  We shot 8 different performances around Raleigh to make sure our city was one of the stars of the event.” Here’s an example of one of their venues. 

PineCone Promo

The virtual event proved to be a huge success for those who attended, but was also a gigantic financial drain to IBMA’s coffers. IBMA professionals and fans can help alleviate these costs and losses by supporting it. Contributions and donations support IBMA and the now merged IBMA Trust Fund, which is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. 

PineCone IBMA Music Promo

What Can We Learn? There are many lessons to learn from the virtual IBMA in terms of strengthening the organization, increasing its outreach, and helping bluegrass artists, promoters, related businesses, and fans adjust to new realities.

The use of Zoom for presentations, break-out rooms, and performances showed the versatility of video sharing as an effective means of communication. For instance, four of us who have enjoyed breakfast together at the Marriot every morning during IBMA in Raleigh,  got together a couple of days ago to re-cap our experience and share ideas. We spent an enjoyable hour and decided to continue meeting in this delightful way. The random break-out rooms during the Leadership Bluegrass annual get-together were a successful, although too short, way to mix as if we were at a reception. 

On My Way Back to the Land of My Childhood - Virtual Jam - IBMA 2020

Zoom constituent meetings were better attended, better planned, and more interactive than many live presentations at the in-person conference have been. Finding ways, in the future, to mix live and virtual attendance could widen interest in the organization, proving productive for the future. Many people who might otherwise be interested in joining and participating in IBMA have been deterred by the expense and perceived exclusivity of the organization. Increased live online presence might prove important to future growth.

 For years, a long-term goal of IBMA has been to create and build local and regional affiliates capable of supporting, helping, organizing, and furthering their goals. This has not been accomplished, often because lack of funds made it impossible to hire and support regional outreach. One lesson growing from this year’s virtual experience may be that the organization and its reach can be grown digitally. This might take the form of regional online meetings, support for promoters wishing to work together to build their own events through cooperation with others, or other events I can only imagine. 

Bluegrass has been slow to embrace the power and potential of the Internet. As applications become more widely used and digital communication becomes easier and more flexible, IBMA has provided people who have previously relied on fliers, word of mouth, or other less engaging strategies with an introduction to strategies they can use to their own and the music’s benefit. Mutuality leads to strength. IBMA can grow when potential members - promoters, bands, merchandisers, recording companies, as well as interest organizations can more easily reach out to and communicate with each other. That may be the great gift the pandemic has given to IBMA and bluegrass music. 

IBMA Awards Show - 2020

Thursday, October 1, 2020

This Farming Life

 This Farming Life, which we began watching while we were looking for a light-hearted program to end our evening and calm down after streaming a mystery or a thriller, has turned into a go-to program filled with compelling characters, beautiful Scottish scenery, while singing a love song to rural living in a farm setting. Produced by the BBC Documentary Unit, which creates around 2000 hours of video material a year for national and international consumption, by thoughtfully assembling what emerges, in effect, as a lush visual love song to farming, family, and rural living. 

In Season 1 of This Farming Life, five families living in five quite contrasting regions of northern Scotland face the vicissitudes and victories, challenges and successes of life largely governed by the animals they love, the countryside they treasure, and the extremes of weather and climate they endure.  

Sandy Granville and his wife Ali are retired London lawyers who moved to The Isle of Lewis, an island several hours ferry ride removed from the mainland, where Sandy became a crofter, a herder of a flock living year-round outdoors in extremely rough country. The herd of sheep is annually put on boats to bring to his farmstead, where they shear sheep, thin the herd, and care for it.

Sandy Granville

Martin Irvine and his, now, wife Mel farm Limousin beef cattle on a farm near Drummuir on a rented estate where they also care for 600 ewes for the Lord of the manor. Their relationship develops through the year, culminating in a rousing wedding in the eleventh episode. Their campaign to sell cattle at local and regional fairs culminates in Scotland’s largest agricultural fair near the end of the first series.

Martin & Mel Irvine

Bobby and Anne Lennox’s Shantron Farm lies near Luss on Loch Lomond north of Glasgow. They are well known for their work with regional youth groups, especially young farmers. Also important in their enterprise is a bed and breakfast business associated with the farm. They and their ancestors have been farming the same land since the 1750’s.

Anne & Bobby Lennox

John and Fiona Scott’s family have farmed Fearn Farm for four generations on over 1100 acres they own plus over 650 additional acres they lease. On it, they raise sheep and cattle. John was named “Sheep Farmer of the Year” for 2015 in Scotland.

John Scott

During the first season, the ten episodes follow the families through the seasons, beginning with bringing their herds back to the barns for the winter and then following the seasons of the year along with the seasons of life, relationships, and the work itself. The series never condescends to the characters while accurately portraying the difficulty, danger, and rewards of the work. While their backgrounds are quite different, these are people committed to their work, their animals, and their relationships.

This Farming Life never shies away from aspects of farm life which could provide difficulties for some viewers. The cattle and sheep on these farms are useful for, basically, two things - meat and breeding. Sex and death are constant companions of daily life. This reality is never ignored or disguised, providing language and material which might never be heard or seen on American television screens. 

I highly recommend This Farming Life as entertainment and for education. Furthermore, the filming is absolutely beautiful. Scotland’s lakes, mountains, fields, and landscape help define the beauty of the region and lifestyle as well as the commitment to treasure it. Don’t miss this series running on BritBox. Currently there are four seasons available in the U.S. with more to come.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries - BritBox


Inspector Lynley Mysteries, based on the still emerging series of novels by Elizabeth George, the most recent one having been published in 2019, revolves around Inspector Lynley himself and his partner, DS Barbara Havers as they are assigned to the wide variety of locations, often beyond their Scotland Yard base, creating some tension with local police forces. Other points of conflict are often based on race, class, gender, education, and wealth, leading to an almost endless variety of possible stories. 

Nathaniel Parker as Lynley

Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton (played by the classically trained Nathaniel Parker), comes from a conflicted family of inherited wealth and position complicated by the effects of years of privilege. As “Tommy” Lynley, he has left his heritage behind for the challenge of becoming a police inspector, with whom many officers don’t seem to wish to work. In the first episode, he is joined by Detective Sergeant (DS) Barbara Havers (Sharon Small), a product of the working class who has risen  to her rank despite having a habit of irritating her superiors, mostly because of her quick insight and wit, as well as her awareness of her own worth as person. Such diversity creates a rich partnership within a fraught relationship, exactly the stuff creating lots of interesting dramatic opportunities. Their chemistry permits the duo to see situations from two viewpoints, often leading to greater insight into the crimes as trust between them grows and matures. 

Sharon Small

A Suitable Vengeance, episode 2.3, provides a portrait of Lynley’s background as he returns home with profiler Helen for their engagement party. As the story has progressed through a series of cases, Tommy’s background always moves between background (his origin story) and foreground (the cases) interspersed with his character. All this comes clearer in this single episode. However, he and (to a lesser extent) Havers emerge as the series continues. The growth of characters through the course of many dramatic series provides nuance, development, and familiarity with the characters, making them ever more irresistible. 

Lynsley's Family Estate

Lynley, himself, seems conflicted between his desire to shuck his aristocratic background of wealth and privilege, while simultaneously relying upon it. He’s frequently attracted to beautiful, but equally flawed, female characters who end up disappointing him (or dying). He cannot see or acknowledge the growing attraction and admiration he feels for Havers, whose humble background and lesser rank in the police force keeps him from seeing her qualities in full. This relationship forms the core of the series around which the crimes and their solutions are wound. The chemistry between the two central characters creates the tension driving viewers to return to this addictive series. 

English detective film is as much concerned with social class as American video deals with race, although both are available in generous helpings. I like the way different regions are portrayed in various parts of Great Britain as we watch these shows. Regional accents, a variety of historical settings, and always emerging characters and situations seem to provide an endless number of series now being introduced to new audiences. Suffice it to say there’s variety enough for all tastes. 

Since the Inspector Lynley Mysteries are based on a series of novels, I downloaded Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena, a 464 page novel, the fifth of eighteen Lynley novels, from our local library’s digital lending collection.   I deliberately chose a sample we had already viewed in order to satisfy my curiosity. The first ten episodes of Lynley Mysteries were based on this crime series. Later shows used the George characters in films written specifically for television broadcast, not based on specific novels, but were based on original shows written for television.

 While I’m giving the source material for the Inspector Lynley Mysteries a read, the television films in no way rely on a viewer’s doing so. In fact, it might detract from your enjoying this very good television production. The television stories are excellent, and, as usual, I recommend watching the series in chronological order better to enjoy the writing quality and the imagination going into developing the program. You’ll find your time well spent.