The Mountain Minor is a fictional film to be released in October 2019 that tells the interrelated stories of oldtime music, family, place, and history in the Appalachians.
The plot of the film is loosely based on stories passed down through the family of the film’s writer and director, Dale Farmer. According to Dale, most of what viewers see in the film actually did happen and every character (with the exception of one) is based on a real person from his family. Of course, these stories have been rearranged and adapted to create a coherent narrative.
In the film, we follow the musical traditions of the Abner family as they are passed down over six generations. Without getting into any spoilers, I guarantee that oldtime music fans can look forward to some great tunes and beautiful scenery, as well as a story worthy of many discussions.
Although the film is set in Kentucky, it is primarily filmed in Todd, North Carolina, where the film makers were able to rent a farmhouse with no electricity, no plumbing and no running water. It even had a wood cooking stove, making it the perfect set for the “old family home”.
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The Mountain Minor is highly entertaining, packed with beautiful scenery, and full of great tunes played masterfully by the actors themselves. Most, if not all of the tunes come from Kentucky and feature a modal tonality, as we say in the oldtime community (i.e. basically any tune that deviates from a major scale). The film includes tunes and songs performed by Dan Gellert, Asa Nelson, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Trevor McKenzie, and more.
As a fan of oldtime music, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I watched it from start to finish with a smile on my face. The story was compelling and the musician actors were surprisingly good. I was especially impressed by the two young actors, Asa Nelson (young Charlie Abner) and Hazel Pasley (young Ruthie Abner). Their performances are a real highlight.
However, the fact that the film has such a strong focus on music (it’s in the “music film” genre) did not go over too well with my wife, who is not an oldtime music fan. I had hoped that we could enjoy the film together, but about a half hour into the film she commented, “This is just a concert! They play music every chance they get!”
I talked to Dale Farmer about this, and he explained: “Yes, there’s a lot of music in this film and that might not appeal to some that don’t share our oldtime music passions. But, screening at the film festivals and a few private events, the movie introduced the music to a lot of people that weren’t familiar with the genre and the music has been so well received. At the end of one film festival, a lady told me that she had never heard this kind of music and after watching the film she went online and bought all of Elizabeth LaPrelle’s CDs. In addition to telling the story of the hardships of Appalachian living and migration in the 1930s, it’s the story of how the music sustained my family and so many others through these difficult times. My grandpa once told me that, while growing up in the mountains, his life consisted of three things: work, church and fiddling. There was a reason that they played music every chance they had. For some, it was their only escape from the hardships of surviving in the mountains. Grandpa told me that other than hearing music at church and the occasional square dance, the only music he ever heard growing up was what he made for himself.”
My only disappointment was that there were no minorities in the film, but that just reflects Dale Farmer’s true family history (see his thoughtful response below).
First and foremost, The Mountain Minor will appeal to fans of oldtime music, but it should also appeal to those who like a film with good story, beautiful scenery, and traditional music.
Exclusive sneak peek: Dan Gellert fiddles Glory in the Meeting House
Interview with writer/director Dale Farmer
Tell us a little about your background and how your background inspired you to write and direct this film?
I was the oldest of 11 grandchildren and spent all the time I could with my maternal grandparents. Grandpa loved telling me stories about growing up in the mountains of Kentucky and I loved hearing them, especially when they involved his fiddling. He had an old banjo that he gave me when I was 14 and I’ve been playing bluegrass and oldtime ever since. Grandpa had given up fiddling when they moved to Ohio. Grandma also gave up the guitar, but started playing it again when I was learning the banjo and the two of us played and sang old Carter Family and Stanley Brothers songs together just about every time I ever visited. She was a master at that Maybelle Carter scratch style. My uncles also played and sang with us at family gatherings.
There’s a scene in the film where the family was playing and they coaxed the grandpa into playing a tune on the fiddle. That scene actually happened pretty much as you see it in the film. I have a background in video production and have written several screenplays. I wrote the Mountain Minor based on the stories Grandpa told me along with some fictionalized plotting. I’ve always had this longing to have been able to sit on that porch with that kid I knew as Grandpa and hear his fiddle echoing off the nearby mountains. The Mountain Minor, in a way, has enabled me to finally have that experience. This story seemed very doable as a first feature film and a great opportunity for me to pass a story of Appalachian migration and music on to a young audience that no longer has that direct connection with the generation that made the move from the mountains to the industrialized cities north.
The film is set in Jackson County, Kentucky, but did you imagine the film to apply to all of Appalachia?
The great migration of the 20s-50s involved many thousands of families from all of the southern Appalachian states to the midwest factory centers. We hope that this film will resonate with all Appalachian families and musicians. I was surprised after telling a Nigerian immigrant about the film when she told me that it was her family story too; moving here to find work and always longing for home. There are many common themes with all migrants; the same challenges, stereotypes and longing for home, even defining home after migrating. To my delight, the film has also been very well received by audiences with no Appalachian or Appalachian music background. Carson City’s Jukebox International Film Festival which was in association with the Carson City Jazz and Beyond Festival flew Susan, Hazel, and me out to the festival to conduct Appalachian Music and Dance workshops for two middle schools’ orchestras. We taught them to play a fiddle tune by ear and to flatfoot dance to it.
What do you hope viewers might take from the film?
There’s a line in the film, “A man never knows who he is until he knows where he’s come from.” The grandpa doesn’t want his grandson to lose the connection with the heritage and the music. Many Appalachian migrant families are now two to four generations separated from our connection with our mountain heritage. I don’t think Appalachian migrant families were necessarily ashamed of their heritage, but so many were taught that it was advantageous to hide it. We can see today the attitudes toward immigrants in this country and many of those coming from Kentucky and other Appalachian states in the 30s-50s experienced similar prejudices. There’s a whole new generation of young musicians discovering and embracing oldtime music. I hope that this film helps them take pride in all the positive contributions Appalachians have made, especially the music we brought to the midwest.
Can you talk about the decision to use musicians like Elizabeth LaPrelle and Dan Gellert as actors?
The Mountain Minor actually started off as a no-budget short film that I was going to make using local musicians only. I asked my band mate Susan Pepper to help me produce it. After she and her husband Jonathan Bradshaw, who also acts in the film, read the script they asked me to at least consider taking it to the next level. They asked, if I could have anyone play the roles in the film, who would they be? I then came up with a dream list, that included Dan and Elizabeth and others. I ended up sending the script to everyone on my dream list and to my surprise every last one of them said that they would like to do it. Dan plays the Eastern Kentucky fiddle styles with such nuance and rhythmic phrasings. I first heard Elizabeth at a festival in Cincinnati when she was 15 years old and was blown away by her ballad singing. I’ve followed her career ever since and she’s just gotten even better over the years. She’s so connected with the heritage of ballad singing and just has an ancient sound that was perfect for her role. It’s great seeing them all perform on stage and festival jams, but to see them perform in the historical context of where the tunes were played in the mountains of Kentucky is especially rewarding.
Was it hard to make actors out of musicians? How did you find them?
We have a pretty thriving oldtime scene here in Ohio that includes the likes of Dan Gellert. I got to know Dan from music jams and even studied fiddle with him for a while. I also used all of my band members of Jericho Old Time Band in the film; Warren & Judy Waldron and Amy Clay. Susan Pepper and her husband Jonathan Bradshaw had lived in North Carolina when she was getting her Masters in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University. She directed and taught in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program in Allegany County and had a lot of connections with musicians there.
Susan contacted Trevor McKenzie who suggested Asa Nelson to play young Charlie. Susan contacted Hazel Pasley’s family about Hazel playing Ruthie. And it turned out that Trevor was just perfect for the part of Ves. Ma Crow and Mike Oberst (The Tillers) are award winning musicians from the Cincinnati area. Ma and my grandma actually have a lot in common and The Tillers were the perfect band to portray the current neo oldtime music scene in the film. Aaron Wolfe is a great bluegrass banjo player from Athens, Ohio, that I knew through my day job. Lucas Pasley, Hazel’s dad, plays the bass in one scene and brings the closing credit song to life with his fiddling. Susan is also a professional musician and well known ballad singer and also has a part in the film singing and playing the mandolin. She also sings the closing credit song with Jake Book.
I had this theory that musicians would make better actors than actors would make musicians. I wouldn’t want to discount any of the experience and skill a professional actor would have contributed, but so many movies that depict oldtime music use actors that are obviously not playing what you are hearing. Or, movies will use musicians of other genres that play well, but completely lack the authenticity and nuance that comes from a lifetime of playing and a deep connection with the substance of the music. I also think that most oldtime musicians are channeling the musicians that came before them when they perform to some degree. Performing musicians know how to perform. And since I expected that our primary audience would be oldtime and bluegrass musicians, I wanted the music to be as authentic as possible. We all converged on the shooting location in 2016 to do some test shooting and to make a concept trailer to use for fundraising.
The general consensus among the actors was that I was crazy for choosing them to act. But when we all arrived at the old mountain farm that first day and everyone got into their 1932 clothing there was this transformation that happened. We all felt like we were in another time. As everyone started identifying with the place and time and their characters, this sort of movie magic started happening and we all got pretty excited about the possibilities. They then had a full year to prepare for the actual shoot in 2017 while I turned the short film into a feature length story. Our two kids were naturals. It was a challenge for everyone, but all the actors worked so hard and did a great job. I had played the film out in my head hundreds of times, hearing the actor’s voices for the characters. But when we filmed, all of them brought new dimensions to their characters that I hadn’t imagined. And, the music never stopped. There was constant jamming between scenes, after meals, before bed. It was an amazing time.
Were the actors all natives of the regions from which their characters also come?
Actually, none of our main actors have Eastern Kentucky ties. Judy Waldron’s family had migrated from West Virginia to Ohio and Ma Crow’s from Tennessee. Our two child actors along with Trevor McKenzie and Elizabeth LaPrelle are from the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina and had a deep connection with the music and wanted to be a part of the adventure.
How were tunes selected for the film? Did you try to use Kentucky tunes exclusively?
I wanted most of the music to have a modal feel for our sound design. One of the reasons I wanted Dan for this film is because he’s such a master at the Eastern Kentucky fiddle style. I sat down with Dan a couple times and just had him start playing tunes into a recorder that had that feel, mostly from old Kentucky fiddlers. I then chose the ones I thought best fit the scenes. Trevor McKenzie plays most of the score, or background music. He chose all of that music and used some Kentucky tunes, like Morgan Sexton’s “Honey Babe”. Dan’s fiddling is used for some of the background and the song “Short Time Here and a Long Time Gone” was composed by Jean Dowell and performed by Jean and Mike Oberst. It was so suited for the scene that some people have thought that it was written just for the movie. Other songs like the ballad “Edmund in the Lowlands Low” and the church hymn “I’m Going to a City” had lyrics with subtext of migration themes to go along with the modal sound. We actually went to Blackey, Kentucky and recorded the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptist congregation singing the hymn for the film.
Several generations of the Abner family talk about the power of music to connect us with our ancestors and transport us into a different plane of existence – what is your personal experience with this? How literal is this for you?
I first became interested in this music when I was about 12 years old. Every time I would hear a modal tune it made me feel like I was in another place. It was actually a physical and emotional sensation and I couldn’t get enough of it. I just felt this transcendent connection to something that I couldn’t explain. To this day they still move me more than any other music. When I was researching for this film I found that modal music has an interesting history of associations with the spirit world, both good and evil. I asked the elder of the Old Regular Baptists about the singing of the hymns in the same modes over lunch when I was there. He said there is an innate quality in those melodies that facilitates a connection with the spiritual. I mentioned that the same modes were thought to also be associated with the devil and evil spirits. He said that it was all in the tempo; that they had to be sung slow or else it would take you someplace else. The Mountain Minor is about staying connected with our past through the music and we use the modal sound for keeping that connection. That’s how I stay connected anyway.
How has the film been received by Appalachians who still live in the region compared to those with a similar background to yours and the fictional Abner family?
I still have cousins that live in Jackson County. I connected with them when writing the story and they helped me with some family history and also with some dialect coaching. We had a film screening for cast and crew here in Ohio and some of them came up for it. I also have older relatives and friends, mostly in their 80s and 90s who migrated from Kentucky at the screening. I think most of them told me that they cried throughout the film. Several told me that it was maybe one last look at their past and I was so delighted when they told me that I got it right. An 85-year-old cousin was sitting behind me at the screening and I heard her daughter say, “Don’t Cry Mama.” Then the cousin said, “I can’t help it. That’s my life up there.” There really aren’t too many new movies out there that are of interest to the older generation and none that I know of that tell the Appalachian migration story. I can tell you of five older folks that were so looking forward to seeing the film that have passed away since we started production and never got to see it. I hope we can make it available to as many of the remaining folks from that generation as possible.
The film lacked minorities, particularly African Americans who vitally influenced the sound of oldtime music. Did you ever consider adding this element into the story?
We did consider this aspect when starting out. I can tell you that I, along with everyone in our production, is well aware of the African-American influence on our music. Dan Gellert will tell you that his playing is deeply influenced by African American players. It’s definitely a story that needs to be told. I’m very happy that that ship is turning and much is being done to educate us on the true history of our music when it comes to the African-American origins and influences.
The Mountain Minor is based on the true story of my family from Jackson County, Kentucky. When I was writing the film, I was just trying to get as many of my grandfather’s and family’s stories about the migration and music to come alive as I could. This is an Appalachian film, but I never meant for it to be THE Appalachian story. Also, as a micro-budget film at the outset, I began by imagining local musicians I knew in the main roles and that music community is mostly white. We did put out a public call for extras for the concert scene. We would have loved to have had a diverse crowd show up, but it never happened. We’re just not quite to that point yet, but I’m still hopeful. As I said before, I do think there are powerful parallels between Appalachian migration experiences in the 1920s – 1950s and migrant groups today, and I hope viewers can make those connections.
My next project is written and ready to produce. It tells the fictional story of a teenage girl in 1939 West Virginia that is forbidden by her father and church to play the fiddle, so she seeks out the nearby African-American musicians to teach her their music. I am excited about the prospect of being a part of helping change that long held narrative.
The film focuses on the story of a rural, hard-working, straight, Christian and white family. Was it your intention to fit into this prototype?
I didn’t want to make any kind of political or overtly religious statements in the film. It’s about the music and migration of one family as told through the loose telling of my own family story. When I started playing this music and spending more time with my grandparents, I asked my grandpa why he quit playing the fiddle when he came to Ohio. He told me that they had to come to Ohio to survive. He got a job in a factory and worked a tenant farm when he got home from work in the evenings. He said he rarely saw his home in the light of day for working so much and that he had to sell his fiddle for the extra money. He taught himself to read and worked all he could to support his family. In the movie he owns a hardware store, but in real life he worked his way up to becoming the public works director of a suburb of Cincinnati. His siblings and cousins had similar stories.
That work ethic was passed down to me and my siblings and cousins. There’s a very low divorce rate in my extended family and no drug abuse issues that I know of and we all happen to be heterosexual (to my knowledge). I do come from a Christian family and was taught to love, respect and be kind to all our neighbors. For too long Hollywood and the media have depicted Appalachians as lazy, drug addicted, drunks, ignorant and any number of negative stereotypes, including racists. I’m afraid they are about to do it again as JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” book is being made into a Hollywood film. It is the true story of the Vance family. He grew up in the same Ohio county as me, just 16 miles away. I am the same age as his drug addicted mother. There was violence in his life, but none in mine. So The Mountain Minor tells another true story of an Appalachian family.
There will always be critics, but I hope viewers won’t see The Mountain Minor story as romanticized. I realize that not every Appalachian family has had the same opportunities and good fortune as mine and as portrayed in The Mountain Minor. But, I also believe that it is time for Appalachians and their migrants to stop buying into the stereotypes and celebrate their heritage and take pride in the many contributions we’ve made and continue to make, especially our music. That’s what I have tried to do in a small way by making The Mountain Minor anyway.
How will the film be distributed? How and when can it be seen?
The film distribution business has changed significantly in recent years and non-Hollywood independent films are more commonly being self-distributed. We are releasing the film publicly in October and are going to use a hybrid method by self-distributing through a company that assists smaller productions by facilitating theatrical and educational screenings upon request. We’ve been contacted by a number of smaller theaters, universities, and community groups interested in showing the film already. Community groups, theaters, and even oldtime bands can contact us about bringing the film to their location by hosting screening events. We will also be making the film available for online purchase and streaming and we will also make it available on DVD/Blue Ray.
We encourage interested folks to follow The Mountain Minor on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter for more information on how to see it. There is also a lot of information about the production and a newsletter signup on The Mountain Minor website.
So far, the film has already garnered a number of awards at film festivals:
- Jukebox Internation Film Festival, Carson City, Nevada – Best of Festival, Narrative Feature Jury 2nd place, Outstanding Achievement Acting: Hazel Pasley and Asa Nelson
- Endless Mountains Film Festival, Wellsboro, PA – Best Film Drama, Best Actor Asa Nelson, Best Director
- Queen City Film Festival, Cumberland, MD – Best Film Appalachian Category
- Franklin International Film Festival, Franklin, TN – Best Drama Feature Film
- UPIKE Film and Media Arts Festival, Pikeville, KY – Spirit of the Mountains Award
- Longleaf Film Festival, Raleigh, NC – Best Drama Feature Film
- Northeast Mountain Film Festival, Dillard, GA – Best Feature Film