Writer-director Dale Farmer grew up as the oldest of 11 grandchildren, listening to tales from his storyteller grandfather, about his life in the mountains of Kentucky and how playing old-time Appalachian music played such a big part in it. Wanting to hold onto the memory of these stories as he grew older, Farmer began to write them down, in the form of a screenplay, and landed upon what became The Mountain Minor, which has been playing the film festival circuit.
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It’s a film that’s touched many of those who’ve managed to see it. Farmer attended over a dozen screenings of the movie, before the coronavirus pandemic halted in-person events. “I arranged for live music before each event, sometimes by actors from the film, and then conducted a Q-and-A. The Q-and-A’s ended up being about half questions and the other half stories from audience members whose families had a similar heritage,” he tells American Songwriter. “I think the story just hits home for many people in a deep way.”
The Mountain Minor tells the tale of an Eastern Kentucky family of musicians, as they move to Ohio during the Great Depression. As their story unfolds, so it illustrates one way that Appalachian music spread through the United States. Farmer, an old-time musician himself, drew on the story of his grandparents and also wanted to honor Appalachian culture and music. “After making the film available on Amazon Prime, I’ve received many emails from total strangers who watched the film and just wanted to thank me for making it,” he says. “Many tell me that it has inspired them to start, or return to, playing the music of their parents or grandparents. Several told me that after seeing the film they were going to start their children out on the fiddle or banjo. For many people, the movie is the first time they have heard this kind of old-time music.”
Farmer hadn’t planned on making a soundtrack available, but now there is one — after much interest expressed at many of the Q-and-A’s. “I wanted the audience to have a very authentic music experience,” he says. “I wanted them to hear the music as if they were a character in the scene playing out.” So, he had most of the music recorded live on set, using only a single stereo boom mic, rather than play to previously-recorded studio versions.
“Every track is a first or second take with the sounds of birds, bugs, wind and creaking chairs,” he says. “At times, the music is a little edgy and I embraced the realism of it all. Our film’s sound recordist Jerry Sebastian did such a great job of capturing the music and our engineer, Keyth Nesso, performed some magic to get such a good mix of the sparsely recorded tracks.”
Each soundtrack is accompanied by essays that put the music in its cultural and historic context, written by the likes of Appalachian music authors Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Gerry Milnes, as well as musician and archivist Trevor McKenzie, from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. McKenzie, who plays a version of Farmer in The Mountain Minor, worked as a composer on the score. “He had such a feel for the film and is a wealth of knowledge of the music and its historic significance,” says Farmer. “I wanted for him to write about his experience performing the score.”
Known for creating story songs, especially about historical subjects, McKenzie followed the director’s guidance on the particular feeling he wanted for each of the scenes and the emotions he wanted to draw out of the characters. They spent many a cold day in producer Susan Pepper’s cabin just outside of Todd, North Carolina, where they had to shut the heater off so the recordings didn’t pick up the sound.
“I particularly remember seeing the opening shot of the truck driving into the mountains,” McKenzie tells American Songwriter. “It’s a drone shot that I had no idea had been filmed and Dale said, ‘I think we need something sort of orchestral sounding here.’ And I’m looking around this small cabin for the orchestra! I joked in the liner notes that we were wandering somewhere in that wide expanse between [old-time fiddler] Hiram Stamper and [Hollywood orchestral composer] Harry Gregson-Williams.” And yet, it all somehow, charmingly, works.