By Sherrie Norris
While the High Country patiently awaits its chance to see The Mountain Minor on the big screen, the locally-filmed production is receiving nods of approval across the country at various film festivals.
Writer and director Dale Farmer couldn’t be more pleased, he said, on the heels of “a great weekend,” when The Mountain Minor won all three awards for which it was nominated at the Endless Mountains Film Festival in Wellsboro, Pa.
The Mountain Minor came away with Best of Festival Narrative Feature, Best Actor (Watauga County’s own Asa Nelson) and Best Director for Narrative Feature.
Up against some stiff competition, which Farmer described as “multi-million dollar productions” and “really good movies that I would pay to see in a theatre, with top actors and directors,” he was taken by complete surprise when his film took top honors.
“I was able to ask the festival director,Bryant Martin, how it was that Mountain Minor was given these three awards — when a couple of the other nominated films were obviously technically superior to us and obviously had better directors and acclaimed actors,” Farmer recalled.
After Martin’s 20-minute response, Farmer said, “I felt really good about it all.”
Martin, a professional actor, “making his living in New York doing plays and TV shows,” said Farmer, is also a filmmaker and screenwriter, now in his third year as festival director.
“When Martin received Mountain Minor’s submission,” Farmer said, “he told me that that he first read the production notes, which included first time director, feature, period-piece involving multiple time periods, a live music film with kid actors and a budget under $150 K” —all of which he considered obstacles that would be hard to overcome. And, that all of them together would surely make for a horrible film; he fully expected it to be awful.”
Despite Martin’s “pretty low expectations,” Farmer added, — “He ended up loving the movie.”
“As an actor, himself, Martin understood that we didn’t have professional actors, but he recognized that they all played convincing roles,” Farmer recalled. “Although Martin was more impressed by the other two film’s technical accomplishments, the stories just weren’t as compelling as Mountain Minor.”
Martin was especially impressed by Asa’s performance, Farmer added, and hopes to maybe use him in one of his movies. “He said both of the young actors were amazing and I agreed.”
The other actor nominated for Asa’s award was great, an older actor, Farmer described, “But, at the end, the judges felt more connected to young Charlie.”
Farmer was told by other festival attendees that The Mountain Minor allowed them to feel a full range of emotions — “that they laughed and cried and felt good at the end.”
Giving his acceptance speeches was something Farmer will never forget, he said, but something, we think, that will become quite “the norm” for him in coming months.
“As the credits rolled for our film Saturday night, one lady who had been following our Facebook page, came and hugged me and told me she cried all the way through,” Farmer said. “The audience was also very engaged during the Q&A session after the film— and that was fun.”
Earlier this month, The Mountain Minor made its festival debut at The Jukebox International Film Festival, “ a music film festival and music festival in one,” Farmer described, in which all films had to have a music theme.
Farmer, joined by producer Susan Pepper and young female actress Hazel Pasley, and her mother, Iboya, from Sparta, were flown to the event to conduct Appalachian music and dance workshops at the two middle schools’ orchestra classes, thanks to the Carson City, Nevada Jazz Association and a grant from the Nevada Arts Council.
“This was an artist in residence grant for Hazel to lead, as a kids- teaching-kids effort,” Farmer explained. “Hazel had just turned 14 a couple weeks prior. The workshops went great! Half the kids learned a fiddle tune by ear, and the other half learned to flatfoot dance, and at the end of each workshop, they performed what they learned.”
The Mountain Minor was selected as the showcase film of the festival and was the last film to close the event, Farmer said.
“I was told that the judges were so impressed with Asa’s and Hazel’s performance that they created a new award just for them. They were given Outstanding Achievement awards at the awards ceremony. The Mountain Minor won second place in the Judges Jury Award and won first place for the Best of Festival award for narrative feature.”
Next up is the Queen City Film Festival in Cumberland, Maryland, and the Franklin International Film Festival in Franklin, Tenn., where The Mountain Minor is sure to gain increased exposure.
On November 15, Farmer and Pepper Susan will be showing film clips and doing a presentation on the Mountain Minor at the Mountain Music Museum in Kingsport, Tenn. Following the presentation, several musicians from the movie will be providing all of the music for the Pickin’ Porch live radio show (www.pickinporchshow.org), heard every Thursday night at 7p.m. EST on 96.3, 100.7 and www.963thepossum.com. The show will also be available (livestream) on The Pickin’ Porch Show Facebook page.
With a few more film festivals pending in the coming months, Farmer said, The Mountain Minor is expected to be released publicly in June 2019.
More About the Mountain Minor
The Mountain Minor was filmed during the summer of 2017 at the Willett Ponds Pioneer Homestead in Todd.
Written and directed by Dale Farmer, produced by former Boone resident Susan Pepper, and featuring a number of local actors and entertainers, The Mountain Minor is already appealing to a wide range of film enthusiasts.
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.
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 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 basic survival. And, especially, through the strings of an old time-honored fiddle with 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.
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 Charlie Cox, and some of my own experiences with my grandparents, have found new life in this film.”
The 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, (according to Farmer’s grandfather), life on the Kentucky farm meant three things: work, church and playing the fiddle.
“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 his own.
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.”
It is Farmer’s hope 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.
Embracing an Amazing Heritage
“We’re part of a grassroots movement encouraging Appalachians, both here 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.
Merging the Talents
Farmer became acquainted with Susan Pepper in 2011, soon after she and her husband, Jonathan Bradshaw, 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 State.
“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 turning the screenplay into an actual movie and soon became a part of that process.
“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.”
“The Mountain Minor chose to put Appalachian musicians in the lead roles because it was very important to the director to have traditional mountain music come to life in a real way,” Pepper added. “In this film, the music is integral to both the story and the culture that is being portrayed.
Farmer says, “We’re used to seeing Appalachian music overdubbed, but I wanted the actors to actually be playing the music you hear.”
On the screen, Pepper and Farmer said, the actor musicians’ performances reflect a sensitivity and understanding of Appalachian culture and music that would be difficult for even a trained actor to grasp in the short time they had to work together.
It is their hope that audiences will find it informative and inspiring to see the nuanced and skilled performances of Appalachian music in The Mountain Minor — from Dan Gellert and Asa Nelson’s lonesome fiddle drones to Elizabeth LaPrelle’s captivating ballad singing.
Cast and Crew
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 and Ed Pilkington. 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:
- Nonprofit Fiscal Sponsor: From the Heart Productions
- Production Company: alt452 productions
- Director of Photography: Paul Hallach
- Sound Design: Jerry Sebastian
- Editor: Eitan Abramowitz
And, about the Boone-based Wonderland Woods Productions, Farmer said, “With their equipment and experience, they were able to make The Mountain Minor a cinema-quality production, for which we are very grateful.”
It was after deciding to produce the film in Todd, Farmer added, that connections were made with Wonderland Woods/ “They had been producing documentary style videos and had worked on other feature films, but were looking for an opportunity as sole production company for a feature. They read the script and knew this was the project they had been hoping for.”
Also, Pepper added, “The film score features Watauga resident Trevor McKenzie on a variety of old-time and bluegrass instruments, and he also plays a lead role of Ves Abner in the film.”
A graduate of the Appalachian Studies master’s program, he currently works in the archives at Belk Library at Appalachian State. “With his talent and musical versatility, Trevor heightens the emotion in what is already a heartfelt film.”
To stay connected to The Mountain Minor, visit www.themountainminormovie.com or follow on Facebook.