Documentary film on Carroll County Massacre

Everybody in bluegrass and old time music loves a good killing song, right? Throw in a good courthouse shootout, and it’s a sure thing.

Just such an incident took place in 1912 at the Carroll County, VA courthouse, where the locally-celebrated Allen family had it out with the judge, commonwealth’s attorney, sheriff, and a juror in a deadly gun battle inside the courtroom. Folks in Carroll County are still divided over the incident; some say the Allens acted in self defense, others say in defiance of the law and government of the time.

What came to be known as the Carroll County Massacre made news across the world, with sensationalized coverage continuing throughout the Spring and Summer of 1912, particularly the manhunt for Wesley Edwards and Sidna Allen who were captured in Iowa six months after the shootout. Five were killed in the shootout, which also left Floyd Allen, father to Claude and Sidna, wounded.

Now, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the massacre, filmmaker Rick Bowman is finishing work on a documentary that will examine the many conflicting reports over the episode. Hillsville 1912: A Shooting in the Court is a 70 minute film that will be presented to The History Channel and PBS, and entered in film festivals across the US.

Bowman grew up in Hillsville, VA where the county seat is located, and has nurtured a life-long fascination with this story. Living now in San Diego, he has spent much of the past seven years putting the film project together, and has called on his cousin, southwest Virginia native Mike Conner, to help create the Appalachian-themed score. Working with his musical partner John Miller, the score will be based on Hobart Smith’s 1942 rendition of The Ballad of Claude Allen.

Conner told us that he recalls hearing talk of the Carroll County Massacre when he was growing up.

“I remember the discussions of these events, and how it was spoken of in hushed, quiet tones whenever the subject came up. It was a bit eerie as a young child to hear the adults speak at times in tones bordering on fear about something that happened so long ago.

I contacted John Miller (Conner & Miller, The Travelers, Eastman String Band) first to discuss the project, how we would record it, and his ideas on the different versions of the song we’d do.  John has a real talent for arrangements, engineering, and production and since we’ve worked together on so many projects over the past 4 years, I couldn’t imagine working with anyone else on it.”

The song will be presented in a variety of settings throughout the film. There will be a sparse old time version close to the Hobart Smith recording, a number of old time and bluegrass instrumental takes, and a full-on bluegrass treatment by Conner, Miller, and their band mates in the newly-reborn Travelers, Norman Wright and Kevin Church. Nate Leath will provide fiddle for the many different versions, being tracked now at Miller’s studio, The Tone Room.

A trailer for the film can be seen on Bowman’s web site. He is planning for a Summer 2011 release.