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From the Director, Max Shores (pictured with Shane Speal)
Sometimes one good thing leads to another... When I directed a documentary on the popular Memphis street musician, Richard Johnston (Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour), I didnít know where it would lead. Richard Johnston led me to cigar box guitars and I am extremely grateful.
Richard is one of many musicians who make use of lowly instruments made from boxes designed to hold tobacco products but given new life with the addition of a stick and some strings. In fact, he and John Lowe worked together to create a new instrument commonly called a Lowebow from a cigar box. When he was invited to play at an event called the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza in 2006, I was invited to screen my documentary about him at the event.
I spent that whole day in Huntsville, Alabama listening to cigar box guitar musicians from across the US. The music was absolutely amazing. Some of the featured artists were professional musicians who made their living playing for audiences, but it was obvious that some were not. All of them played songs that touched my heart or made me smile. I wondered who these people were and why they played such strange instruments.
As I talked to people there, I discovered that some of the artists were scientists who played music as a hobby. Some were technicians. Some were salesmen. They were all inspired by their cigar box guitars in ways that store bought instruments could not provide. They felt that by making their own instrument, or playing a primitive instrument someone else had made for them, they had found their own unique voice. They said the songs were inside the box and they were often surprised by what came out.
I also observed that all the musicians seemed to know each other although most of them had never met. They knew each other through an Internet forum that had brought them together.
Hmm, I thought, thereís a story here. So I came back the next year (2007) with cameras and crew.
The Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza is one of several events that have come about through communication on Shane Speal's cigar box guitar forum. It is the longest running annual event and usually the largest. The event coordinator, Matt Crunk, is a member of the forum and each year he just asks who wants to come and perform. There are usually six or seven performers. The 2007 Extravaganza was the largest ever with twelve performers!
We had three cameras trained on the stage and another camera in a backstage room for interviews. We shot over eighty hours of performance and interviews, all in the sweltering heat of June in Alabama. It was a blast!
These guys with their cigar box guitars are really a lot of fun to be around and their enthusiasm is contagious. I tried to make Songs Inside The Box flow like a very condensed version of the festival with one performer after another taking the stage. Each performer brings something new to the story.
Editing took months and we just barely had it ready to show at the 2008 Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza. The Flying Monkey Arts Center at Lowe Mill, where the extravanza takes place (www.flyingmonkeyarts.org, www.lowemill.net) includes a theater which we used for our premiere. I think some of the folks in the documentary were shocked to see themselves on the big screen, but I got the feeling that they were all proud to be a part of it.
I would like to thank artist Yuri Ozaki for allowing us to use her beautiful watercolors of cigar box guitar artists in the documentary opening and closing. I'd also like to thank our narrator, Bill Foster. Dr. Foster is a widely known banjo picker and story teller as well as a professor emeritus at the University of North Alabama. His Foster Family String Band have received many honors.
At this point I've had the pleasure of sharing Songs Inside The Box with several audiences. The initial response is laughter, and that's OK. But as people sit and watch, they are drawn in by the documentary just as I was by witnessing the live event. They hear the amazing music and see how much the freedom of expression means in the lives of the people on the screen. Many folks leave a screening of the documentary determined to build their own instrument and write their own songs!
That makes all the work that went into it worthwhile.
"I got me a cigar box... and got me a tune out of it. I kept my tune and I played from then on."
Texas Blues Musician
Songs Inside The Box
a documentary by Max Shores
Email Max Shores