New documentary showcases memories and music of Roger Howell

STRINGS ATTACHED: Co-director Rebecca Jones films Roger Howell for A Mighty Fine Memory: Stories and Tunes from the Fiddler of Banjo Branch. Photo by Hannah Furgiuele

When it comes to knowledge of Southern Appalachian music, Madison County fiddler Roger Howell is in a league of his own. As evidenced by the 532 fiddle tunes he’s recorded for Mars Hill University’s Southern Appalachian Archives — aka the “Roger Howell Memory Collection,” another list of which is in the works — he’s happy to share his experiences. What he doesn’t do is toot his own horn or bow his own strings (or whatever the instrument-appropriate equivalent of that idiom may be).

The man and his recollections have been further preserved in A Mighty Fine Memory: Stories and Tunes from the Fiddler of Banjo Branch, a new documentary film that debuts Saturday, Oct. 3, at the annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival in Mars Hill. Culled from over 600 minutes of footage, the 26-minute film is produced by the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at MHU under the guidance of program coordinator Hannah Furgiuele, also the director of the Lunsford Festival.

Furgiuele grew up playing classical violin and started taking fiddle lessons from Howell in early 2012 to help immerse herself in regional music. One day as she was driving to her lesson, she saw her instructor walk down his driveway to his mailbox and then turn into his fiddle shop. The simplicity of the scene and the introspective way he was walking down the hill deeply resonated with her.

“He was surrounded by the hills and the forests, and Bailey Mountain sat high behind him. The image sort of caught me. I am a photographer, and there was something really beautiful about it,” Furgiuele says.

At that point, her graduate studies in Appalachian culture from Appalachian State University kicked in and got her thinking about the broader significance of that sight, as well as its potential. Having developed a strong friendship with Howell, she knew him to be a traditionalist who believes in self-sufficiency, family and understanding the land where one lives.

“With the music as the focal point, the work he has done to preserve the tunes and stories and names of the people from whom he learned, in combination with the way he lives his life — it just seemed like a story that needed to be told,” Furgiuele says. “To share the complex person he is and to understand the music and the community that he lives in, it seemed that a documentary was the best-suited medium. There are so many layers to Roger and his music, and video allows to show that, whereas still images, while my passion, don’t quite allow for the storytelling that seemed best for Roger’s story.”

Furgiuele brought up the potential project at her next staff meeting. Both her supervisor, Karen Paar, and the Ramsey Center faculty chair, Kathy Newfont, were immediately supportive and encouraging. Howell, however, required a bit more coaxing and remained convinced that plenty of other folks would make more compelling subjects.

“I think he was self-conscious about the attention and worried that other people wouldn’t think he deserved it,” Furgiuele says. “He told me later that he just wasn’t sure why I would choose him to do it. I had to keep pointing out why and how many other people supported him.”

Proof of that community backing was soon evident in the numerous letters of support gathered for a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. The proposal was submitted in October 2014, and the project was awarded $5,000. As part of the grant, Furgiuele and her colleagues were required to provide a one-to-one match. In December, they held the sold-out Winter’s Tune: Music to Warm an Appalachian Night concert to raise funds and begin filming.

In Furgiuele’s words, production took place “at all times: day, night, festivals, in the shop, in the woods — whenever something was happening that needed to be included, we were there.” Graduate school friend Rebecca Jones, who has collaborated with Ken Burns, joined the crew. Jones and Furgiuele worked as a team to develop the story. While Furgiuele conducted interviews with Howell and community members, Jones handled the filming, lighting and audio. Archival photos and field recordings and clips from Howell’s memory collection were also incorporated.

Beyond the Lunsford Festival screening, a second showing is being planned for spring 2016 when DVDs, soon to be available for preorder, will be mailed out. As for Howell seeing the film, Furgiuele has offered him the option of a sneak peak, but as of press time, she says he’s waiting to watch the final cut with everyone else.

WHAT: A Mighty Fine Memory: Stories and Tunes from the Fiddler of Banjo Branch
WHERE: Moore Auditorium, Mars Hill University,
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 3, at 6:30 p.m. $10 adults/$5 children under 12/free for Mars Hill University faculty, staff and students with ID


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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