By Sherrie Norris
The summer of 2017 saw the big cameras rolling and natural talent at its finest as the latest locally staged movie, The Mountain Minor, was being filmed in the pastoral setting of the Willett Ponds Pioneer Homestead in Todd.
Currently in its post-production stage, The Mountain Minor is set to be released this summer, much to the delight of its cast and production crew. However, those attending the 2018 Fiddler’s Convention at App State on Saturday will have the opportunity to visit a booth showcasing the movie, meet screenwriter/director Dale Farmer, producer Susan Pepper and some of the local actors and entertainers who have helped make it all possible.
“The Fiddler’s Convention is a perfect place to reach out to the old- time music community, which is our core audience,” said Pepper, a former Boone resident. “We plan to eventually take this film to educational settings and use it as a springboard for conversation about traditional music, as well as issues around Appalachian identity and outmigration from Appalachia. But, we first need to build up support amongst our primary audience. We are excited to introduce the project to musicians and music enthusiasts from the region who are totally unfamiliar with it, and to answer questions for those interested in learning more. This is their movie.”
Preserving the old-time way
For those who love regional history and love to see mountain tradition preserved, The Mountain Minor is sure to be a hit. However, there is something about the film that has such a wide-range appeal, that movie and music enthusiasts far and wide will be drawn to the production that speaks of the things in life that really matter.
It’s about family, dreams, sacrifice and perseverance; it’s about honor and loyalty and reality. And it’s about music that soothes the soul. Music, as we know it here in these mountains.
Set during the Great Depression, the movie is based on true-life stories handed down through Farmer’s ancestral line and, yet, so familiar to many of us whose forefathers were forced north during that era to find work.
Farmer is determined not to let the struggles of his people be forgotten and takes us through his own family’s journey from eastern Kentucky to southwestern Ohio; his story portrays how, through five generations, the music of Appalachia literally played an integral role in their basic survival. And, especially, through the strings of an old time-honored fiddle that has its own story to tell.
“The Appalachian region has sustained a rich and important music tradition full of ballads, fiddle and banjo breakdowns and later guitar, flatfoot dancing and sacred singing,” Farmer said, recalling how the movie’s setting depicts those early days when the kitchen, field and front porch music formed the backbone of more modern forms of music such as bluegrass, rock and roll and the blues.
When asked what his movie is about, and if it’s a true story, Farmer often tells people, “ It’s based on thousands of true stories of Appalachian migration, my grandparents’ included. Many of the very stories my grandparents told me as a child, particularly those of my maternal grandfather Charley Cox, and some of my own experiences with my grandparents, have found new life in this film,” he said.
The movie’s story line follows the Abner family from the hills of Kentucky north to Ohio in search of good paying jobs during the Great Depression.
For young Charlie, life meant three things: work, church and playing the fiddle, Farmer said.
‘They didn’t have the distractions of modern technology that we contend with today. These people had a special connection with their music, the earth and the natural world, and maybe even the supernatural world. There’s certainly a component of that in the stories I’ve heard.’’
Farmer calls himself ‘lucky’ to know so many great old-time and bluegrass musicians who carry on the musical traditions that followed the historical steps of so many families “like my own, he said.
But, there was still a deep longing inside of him for something he knew he could never have – “to sit on that mountain porch in 1932 with that kid I knew as Grandpa; to hear him play a certain fiddle tune he once played me and hear it echo off that old farmhouse and drift out into the nearby mountains.”
Stepping back in time
As the production crew and cast drove up the holler to the homestead where the Mountain Minor was filmed, Farmer said, “We all seemed to have the same experience of somehow stepping into the year 1932. It was amazing to see the actors transform into the Abner family; to channel those old souls into the notes of the timeless music of this film. So, although I can never return to that time and place of my grandparents’ youth, the Mountain Minor is giving me an insightful experience of that life and how big a part that transcendent music played in its story. Through this experience I’m finding myself embracing my Appalachian heritage like never before as I find my own new independence and opportunity.”
According to Farmer, the film’s title is based on a musical mode that helps define a certain type music found in the old tunes of the Appalachians.
“It’s part of a theme that runs through the film,” Farmer said. “It is the music that connects us with earlier generations. It’s sort of like ancient church music. It has the power to transport us from our current state of being. It’s mournful, lonesome music.”
After tireless hours and days of production, much of which was spent in the High Country, Farmer said, once the filming was completed, he and his crew found the footage and music “stunning.” And, yes, it captures much of what Farmer thought he’d never find again.
The Mountain Minor follows an old fiddle through five generations of the Abner Family from Eastern Kentucky in 1932 to a music stage in Cincinnati today.
The journey of that old fiddle, said screenwriter/producer Dale Farmer, “will give insights into the lives of many thousands of Appalachian families who either stayed or migrated to a land of many challenges to overcome. And, that they did!”
“Appalachians who migrated to urban centers for work in the 1930s-1960s became the heart of the working middle class. And they brought with them a most valuable resource: their music,” Farmer contends. “Appalachians have long been misrepresented in film and popular culture; we hope our film will help shift this paradigm—revealing the great contributions Appalachians have made to society through their hard work and resourcefulness.”
“This musical tradition was so strong and sacred because people relied on it every day in their work, recreation and worship,” he explained. “However, most people lack real exposure to Appalachian culture and history as well as an understanding of the daily life, joys and challenges experienced by the folks who kept this music alive.”
It is Farmer’s hope, too that the film will help fill in the some of the gaps about the experience of Appalachians who have had such an important impact on American music.
“We’re part of a grassroots movement encouraging Appalachians, both in Appalachia and in the places their families migrated, to embrace their amazing heritage,” Farmer explained. “We’re doing it though the music that has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Musicians and fans of traditional Appalachian music of all ages will experience the substance and special meaning of the music as it was passed down over the generations to today’s stages, porches and media devices.
Farmer hopes this powerful story of Appalachian culture and music roots will be shown in small theaters, schools and universities, and civic and non-profit venues across the country and abroad. “Moviegoers will leave the theater asking themselves where they come from, and with a better appreciation of the soul of Appalachian music,” he said.
Farmer became acquainted with Susan Pepper in 2011, soon after she and her husband moved to Oxford, Ohio from Boone, where they had lived and worked for seven years, and where Susan received her master’s degree in Appalachian Studies at App States.
“Dale and I were part of a group of friends that played together in an old- time band in Oxford,” she said. “He also recorded and engineered my solo album ‘Hollerin’ Girl.”
Pepper said she “was moved” after reading The Mountain Minor screenplay in one sitting. “It captures some of the depth of Appalachian music I had experienced in Western North Carolina, and brings to life the special role music played in everyday life in another era, which has fascinated me for a long time.”
Pepper had heard a lot of stories from elderly musicians in the mountains about music in their childhood, she said “And Dale’s screenplay felt very real to me.”
That’s when she got excited about talking with Farmer about the process of turning the screenplay and the idea of a movie into an actual movie. “It wasn’t long before I became a part of that process,” she said.
“The other thing that happened was that we found the perfect homestead set for the movie in Todd—at the Willett Pond Homestead—just minutes from where I lived for a number of years,” Pepper said. “I was able to help connect Dale to some fabulous old-time musicians in the area who came on board as actors and musicians and dancers in the film. It was really satisfying to merge my Ohio and North Carolina old-time music worlds.”
What was amazing, Pepper adds, “ was that as soon as local folks became involved in the film—like Amy Nelson (mother of child actor and fiddler, Asa Nelson) and Helen Barnes Reilly at the Todd Mercantile—they became core members of the team, devoting countless hours to the project and taking on organizing roles.”
Local musician Asa Nelson plays young Charlie Abner in the film and Dan Gellert plays the older Charlie. The cast also includes Hazel Pasley, Mike Oberst, Warren Waldren, Amy Clay, Aaron Wolfe, Gary Sampson, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Ma Crow, Trevor McKenzie, Susan Pepper, Jonathan Bradshaw, Lucas Pasley, Chuck Blackburn, Jean Pence, Ed Pilkington, Alison Moretz and Tracy Jerrell. . Others contributing to the music scenes include: Cecil Garganus, The Tillers and the Mt. Olivet Old Regular Baptist Church.
In addition to Farmer and Pepper, the production crew includes:
Executive Producers: Francie Pepper and John Pepper
Fiscal Sponsor: From the Heart Productions
Production Company: alt452 productions
Production by Wonderland Woods Productions
Director of Photography: Paul Hallach
Sound Design: Jerry Sebastian
Editor: Eitan Abramowitz
The Mountain Minor is a film that is sure to inspire by telling a compelling story shot in the beautiful settings of the North Carolina mountains. The film will be especially unique with transcendent fiddling, soulful unaccompanied ballads, old regular Baptist line-singing and lively flat foot dancing from historic Appalachian sources.
The filming last summer was an amazing team effort, Pepper added. “And, as Dale said, it truly became ‘our’ project with a capital ‘O’!’”