by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran him a curtain-raiser: a half-hour documentary called Queen Family that was literally about a family named Queen — a 90-plus matriarch named Mary Jane Queen and her eight children — who are keeping the tradition of amateur music-making on the front porch going into a world where it’s rapidly dying out. The official synopsis on the PBS Web site described it thusly: “The mountains of Appalachia are home to a folk music tradition that traces its roots to England, Scotland and Ireland. Mary Jane Queen, daughter of a renowned banjo player, brought together the traditions of two Appalachian families when she married musician Claude Queen in 1935. Ninety-two year old Mary Jane and her eight children continue the tradition today, singing and playing the music passed down from their ancestors, among the first Irish-Americans to settle in Jackson County, North Carolina. The Queen family has come to represent mountain music, language, culture and the closeness of family and community in the Southern Highlands. In this documentary, the iconic family describes and exemplifies a way of life and traditions that are quickly passing, with original and traditional mountain music played literally on the back porch. 30 minutes.”
Aside from that last reference to the “back porch” — the Queens far more commonly perform on their front porch (and treasure a wood-burned sign that was the last thing Claude Queen did for the family before he died; it reads “Queens’ Picking Place” and hangs on the front of their house) — the film is a marvelous half-hour slice of life even though the Queens aren’t quite as isolated as the myth-making would have us believe. In the opening narration they’re described as having won an award for best traditional bluegrass group at a local music festival (so they have performed on land other than their own property!), and later on they acknowledged having had a battery-powered radio that enabled them, when they were growing up, to tune to WSM (the Grand Ole Opry station) and other local radio stations that broadcast bluegrass and country music. (They particularly remembered hearing Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.)
Mary Jane Queen has one of those authoritative old voices that may crack and break all over the place (though give her a break; she’s over 90 and this gives no impression of what she would have sounded like in her youth) but nonetheless she sings with cutting power and soul; she does lead on most of the songs heard here and it’s clear who wears the proverbial pants in the family. The music was mostly familiar bluegrass and gospel standards like “Black Jack Davy” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — though there were a few surprises, including a flash uptempo guitar duet by Mark Queen and one of his brothers that was amazing in its sheer virtuosity and made me sit up and think, “These guys aren’t just amateur folk musicians — they can pick!” There’s even a spectacular scene in which two of the Queens play the same guitar at the same time, with surprising adeptness: the first time I’ve ever seen anyone attempt guitar four-hands.