Interviews // Francis Whately (Rebel Country)
Interviews // Francis Whately (Rebel Country)

Interviews // Francis Whately (Rebel Country)

Harmony Witte: Congratulations on having your film, Rebel Country, screened at Tribeca film Festival. That’s huge!

Francis Whately: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.


Harmony Witte: There were some great filming locations in Rebel Country, and I especially enjoyed the county jail and the barn where Lindsey Ell performed. Did you mostly film around Nashville?

Francis Whately: We did. I had a fantastic production manager who found these extraordinary locations. And, you know, it’s quite hard nowadays to find old country locations in Nashville. A lot has been destroyed. When I was filming, I made a film with Dolly Parton some years ago called Here I Am, and even then, which was five years previously, maybe six, there was more around than there is now. So, every year, more of old Nashville is going. We were very lucky to find those places. But, yeah, Helena found those for us, and she was fantastic.

Harmony Witte: I loved the barn. It was such a nice location.

Francis Whately: It was, wasn’t it? It was cold in there, though. Thank goodness. It was cold.

Harmony Witte: What time of year were you filming?

Francis Whately: Yes, we were filming in January, it was really mighty cold in Nashville in January.

Harmony Witte: It was such a great idea to have the performers sing stripped down with just their voice and sometimes their instrument. How did you end up coming up with that idea?

Francis Whately: I think it was largely a budgetary thing. I mean, it was budgetary, but also, I love those sort of unplugged–you remember the old MTV Unplugged things? Seeing musicians, especially someone like Lindsay Ell who is such an amazing performer, just with her guitar, somehow you get something very raw and real when you haven’t got the other musicians around them.

Harmony Witte: Rebel Country has so many great songs, were you able to include everything that you wanted to include?

Francis Whately: Of course not. I could have gone on and on. Yeah. I mean, the back catalogues, even of the artists that we feature, some of whom are quite young, so don’t have extensive back catalogs, are fantastic. Lainey Wilson, you could take almost everything. And Lindsay Ell, in fact, all of those artists, you could take almost all their songs to the bank. So, no, we didn’t. And I wish someone, perhaps they will, they’ll make a Spotify playlist of the songs in the film. Other places where you can find Blanco Brown or Breland songs. Breland is a good example of every song he’s done just about is extraordinary. And where we use Don’t Touch My Truck, in some ways that’s a sort of to me, not the best of his work at all. I think some of the other songs on that album, some of the stuff he did with Keith Durbin is sensationally good. It just didn’t fit quite the parameters of what we’re trying to say. But, yeah, I advise everyone to go out and listen to the whole albums of all the musicians.

Harmony Witte: This film definitely left me with a list of artists that I want to look up and listen to more of their music.

Francis Whately: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know about you in New York, but I think a lot of those artists are pretty unknown, certainly in the UK. So, I think it’s great to spotlight some artists who, if you haven’t had them now, you will soon. Even Jelly Roll. Jelly Roll when we filmed with him was, he was a star, but he wasn’t the star he is today.

Harmony Witte: So how did you decide to focus so much of the film around Jelly Roll?

Francis Whately: Jelly Roll is an extraordinary human being. Not only is he one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, but he’s incredibly articulate. And I think his own story and his openness to the diversity within country music is something quite extraordinary.

Harmony Witte: Rebel Country discusses the way that country music is changing to be more inclusive of diversity. At the same time, an artist like Morgan Wallen, who was caught on video using a racial slur, is breaking chart records. Does it feel like there’s a struggle for the soul of country music?

Francis Whately: I think country music is political and I think the reaction to Beyonce’s new album has been a political response. You know, “how dare she enter our world”, “this isn’t for you.” Although I remember reading that she said that her album was not a country album, it was a Beyonce album, which I thought was a clever way around. Country music has a key and core and very strong and loyal core audience in the southern states. And I think any kind of disruption to that causes waves, but I think it’s just waves. And I think those waves are becoming less and less tall as time goes on. And eventually country music will assimilate all these new artists that are coming up on the scene.

Harmony Witte: Oh, yeah, I hope so. I was a DJ for country and bluegrass station back around the time of 2004, and I remember all the furor about The Chicks and the backlash against them, and it’s great to see how far we’ve come since then.

Francis Whately: I hope we have come far. I sometimes worry that we haven’t come as far as we should have done by that time. You know, there are still a shocking dearth of women in country music, and I think the backlash against The Chicks has a long tail. And, you know, I think it’s only now with artists like Lainey Wilson that some of the really great female artists are rising to the fore again, as they have in pop.

Harmony Witte: I noted that one of the artists in the film said, “you don’t want to be chickified” or something like that. And so, I think you’re right. There really is a long tail there.

Francis Whately: I think people are very conscious, and I think even when making the film, people were found it a difficult subject to discuss because you’re either pro The Chicks or you’re against them, and either way, you will polarize. And I think that’s an extraordinary thing to say in this day and age. I think the fact that Steve Earl said possibly more contentious things at the same time, but because he was a man, he got away with it.

Harmony Witte: Right. That’s worth pointing out. I’m glad that was included in the film.

Francis Whately: Yeah.

Harmony Witte: What’s your favorite memory from working on this film?

Francis Whately: Oh, there are so many. I think being with Frank Ray and his family, I talked about the weather and, it’s a subject that we all do in Britain is talk about the weather constantly, but because I think it would have been so cold. And that was the first sunny day, and we went outside, and Frank Ray and his wonderful family cooked for us. And then we watched them as they performed at Frank Ray’s manager’s house. It was a really beautiful and wonderful event. So much. I mean, seeing Jelly Roll perform in a prison, that’s not going to happen very often in my life.

Harmony Witte: Yeah, that had been pretty remarkable moment.

Francis Whately: Yeah, it really was. I think the Davidson County Jail System and they were just incredibly generous with us and very, very supportive from the get-go, really. Everyone said, “oh, you’ll never get an artist to perform it in a prison. It just won’t happen.” “There’ll be so much bureaucracy” My fantastic producer, someone called Eddie Knox, he made it happen. And so, we arrived on the Wednesday, and we filmed that on the Thursday, so we were all fairly jet lagged, but, yeah, it worked.

Harmony Witte: That’s great. That was such a notable scene. And, like, we, like, we have really haven’t seen that since Johnny Cash, so that was great.

Francis Whately: Exactly. And I’d like to add that it was a British film crew that had the idea for that Johnny Cash thing, and it was a British film crew that made that film.

Harmony Witte: Oh, that’s great.

Francis Whately: I like to remind everyone of that.

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