News From The Woods - September, 2006


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published September 17, 2006

"This Is Your Town, Part Four"

If you have read all these installments up to this point, you realize I had in effect painted myself in a corner. I had a great demand for the DVD's of the 1955 film and needed to attend to finishing it up immediately. However, I had several obstacles in my path. I had not figured out what to do about all the names cluttering up the film, but the most ominous problem was the issue of music copyright clearances. After giving it much thought the only option that presented itself to me was composing an original soundtrack for the film. My starting point was using Sony's excellent ACID software to compose a soundtrack with loops and beats. Unfortunately, everything I tried just didn't sound right. The soundtrack, no matter what loops I tried, was just too modern sounding. Back to square one. I was stumped. And then, the very next day, providence strolled into the studio in the form of Mark Rex. Mark and I have been friends for a long time, and have been playing in our band "Spilt Milk" on and off for over five years. Mark had been spending the summer out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It's his "home away from home". I hadn't heard from him in a month or so and so it was quite a surprise when he dropped in to announce "I'm back!" We talked for a while and then he asked me what I was involved in. As I showed him the film and brought him up to speed he got caught up in my enthusiasm and said "Sounds like you need some help". Words cannot describe how that comment affected me.


The very next day he showed up at the studio with guitar(s) in hand. He brought his Strat, a steel-stringed acoustic, and a nylon-stringed classical guitar. For those of you who have never had to compose a soundtrack, let me tell you that coming up with a song from thin air is hard enough, but coming up with an hour's worth of instrumental material…. GOOD instrumental material…. is a gigantic task of monumental proportions. I wanted to keep this as simple as possible as I understood this would be a huge drain on his creative abilities. The idea was to let the film play and while watching it he would get the germ of an idea and noodle around until we got something that we both liked. Then, while he worked out the arrangement, I would time that section to some appropriate scene and then he would have to play that arrangement in the allotted time. If he fell short of the mark he'd improvise until we reached that timing mark. If he ran long I knew I could probably do a fade out at the mark so I'd let him go long until he found a natural ending point. In theory this sounds feasible. In reality it was often a nightmare. In the end once we got the idea going he stopped looking at the video monitor and just concentrated on the arrangement. I would cue him audibly with phrases like "30 seconds to go…..15 seconds….10 seconds…." Or if I knew there was a short little section that was a bit different I'd ask him to vamp for 30 seconds before picking up the theme again. We recorded 22 songs in four days. At the end of each daily session, Mark would slink out like a man totally drained of energy. Each morning he'd arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and by mid afternoon he was a blithering idiot, unable to even complete whole sentences. I felt like a dungeon master, ever tightening the screws.


Once we were done with the basic guitar, we overviewed the project. We decided we had to throw out a few of the ideas because they either didn't work or they just didn't sound good. The one's that didn't sound good were always the last track of the day, when he was already spent. In those cases we'd just work on that section as if it were a new track. On the tracks that just weren't working we would lay down additional guitar tracks, and in some cases, a bass track. By the weekend he was completely drained and retreated to his place to recuperate. Over the weekend I listened critically to the soundtrack. Some of the tracks stood very well on their own, and some of them "needed something", so I drug out my percussion bag of tricks and placed in some tasty conga grooves and other percussion treats. Of course, after I did that I realized how nice some bass might sound on these songs. Although originally all we designed to do was some "audio filler" on guitar to pass the time while the movie played. But after listening to some of the tracks I began to feel like the music soundtrack COULD make the viewing experience much better for the audience. Some of his compositions could be SO much better if they had a full arrangement treatment instead of just a single guitar. After discussing it with Mark on Monday, I decide to call in some help. Our bassist in "Split Milk", Jerry Bone, is one of the very finest bass players I have ever had the great fortune to play with. We were itching to get Jerry to come in and lay down some of his tasty chops on some project, and now this one presented itself. Without hesitation, Jerry came in and brought his fretless bass and an effect pedal. In a single afternoon he played bass on over 15 tracks. Now, bear in mind that he was laying bass down to a prerecorded guitar track, and that Mark was recording his guitar with no thought of a click track or even staying with the meter at certain points. In many cases he was "free associating" on guitar and playing totally by feel as the film played on. I had already encountered timing problems on the few songs I placed congas on so I knew this would be no walk in the park for Jerry. Instead of playing the tracks over and over for Jerry, we decided to just wing it so we played the first 30 seconds of the track for Jerry to get the riff, then start the track over and hit RECORD just to see what would happen. With the exception of perhaps four tracks, the bass Jerry recorded was the first pass. This made the songs sound even MORE deliberate and yet like a live band playing along. When Mark vamped on the original guitar track, Jerry followed suit on fretless. It was really amazing to watch Jerry come up with one original bass arrangement after another, letting Mark clear the path while Jerry smoothed it all out. We didn't know it then, but we were just getting started!


During this time period I was involved in some video projects for some friends of mine, Renee and Oksana Pavilionis. Oksana is a virtuoso violinist, trained in many classical styles and hailing from Russia. Her husband, Renee, was American and they have located to the Ozarks to live. Oksana has given many local performances and they asked me to videotape several of them in order to create a video demo of her. She is such a "sweetie" that I went out of my way to make a super professional demo video for her, drawing clips from over half a dozen live performances. Renee also wanted to produce his own television program, centering on Oksana's talents. We were in the midst of shooting several segments when the "Town" film project came along. One day they stopped by to review some of the editing I was doing for them. As I welcomed them in the studio I was also working on the "Town" project and it was playing in the background. Oksana was curious and asked me what I was doing. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was setting up a microphone for Oksana, who just happened to have a couple of violins with her, including a brand new electric violin that she wanted to try out. To make a long story short, she played some fantastic violin over our developing soundtrack. The violin was just the right touch for the 1955 video. It added such a sentimental feel to Mark and Jerry's tracks. The slower tracks sounded so much better with her soaring and haunting melodies. Just like with Jerry, I played the first 30 seconds of a track then started over and just hit RECORD! These people are just such natural talents that they played the right "feel" part totally on instinct. We added more percussion (even some light drum tracks) and filled in a few holes with guitar, bass, or even alto sax played by another local pal, Dick Butzlaff.


After an intense two weeks of recording and mixing, we finally had our original soundtrack. Now I had to tackle the only other nagging problem: My brilliant idea to add names backfired on me and they now cluttered up the scenes so much that they were interfering with the mood of the film. All the names drew your attention away from the great nostalgic look of the film and interfering with the visual experience. On the original Version 1 of the film I had included another 16mm film from my own archives, called "Razorback Rainbows". This movie was a Travelogue film and starred my father as an artificial lure fisherman who is pitted against a local river guide that only used live bait. It was accompanied by its own narrative and soundtrack and was intended to be shown in local movie theaters between feature films. The producer was a frequent guest at our resort, Blackberry Hill Lodge. In addition to the Travelogue, there was a lot of professionally-shot 16mm color film of the Lodge and grounds, Tracy Ferry Commercial Dock, and lots of real fishing footage. It was all shot between 1955 and 1957 and is from the same era as "This Is Your Town". I had originally included this footage as a bonus feature on the "Town" video, but now I had decided that I would pull it off this project and include it in a future DVD release. The extra time gained on the DVD allowed me to circumvent my "names" problem and at the same time cater to both camps…. Those who liked the titles and those who didn't.


The latest release version of the "Town" video is Version 4. I announced publicly that I would take a breather after Version 4 and not take any more new name additions for at least a year. I did have a Version 5 that I was working on at the same time. It was a bit different from the original in two ways. First, there were NO name titles. I only inserted titles over businesses that had no sign outside their storefronts. I also took the many "movie theater audience" segments and "school children" segments and combined them. This shortened the 1 hour and thirteen minutes back down to just under an hour. I only had to remove two music tracks from the soundtrack to accomplish this goal. So now I can offer - on the SAME DVD - BOTH versions of the film. This made the total DVD time clock in at two hours and fifteen minutes, and gives each person who purchases the latest version of the DVD their choice of watching either Version 4 or Version 5 (or both).


This project has been a real labor of love for me. It is but the first of a series on this area that I plan to produce. I already have another video in the works about the Lake Norfork Ferries. As these other new videos are produced they will be made available to the public through the same locations.

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