As its subtitle suggests, Rachel Liebling's impressive debut documentary HIGH LONESOME tells "the story of bluegrass music." Happily, this young filmmaker--an admitted newcomer to the world of bluegrass--creates a delightful and fascinating chronicle of six decades of this
under-appreciated genre of American music.
Liebling's compilation of found footage and original material begins slowly and impressionistically. Strains of mountain music, with its characteristically plaintive, "high lonesome" sound, bridge together recent and archival shots of Appalachian countryside. Shifting between different narrators,
time frames, and cinematic styles, the film initially lacks a focus. After this pastiche prologue, however, HIGH LONESOME clearly equates the story of this music with the career of Bill Monroe, the undisputed originator of the bluegrass sound. We see the elderly Monroe visiting the site of his
Kentucky boyhood home and hear his recollections of the music's genesis.
Like a string band shifting from lonesome ballad to upbeat breakdown, the film then kicks into high gear. Using a rich blend of historical photographs, rare movie footage, and recent interviews, Liebling creates a captivating musical montage. The chief virtue of the ensuing scenes is their
ability to sketch the social and cultural life from which bluegrass sprang while allowing the music to roll on, song after song in a seamless fashion. From anecdotes and early recordings we get a sense of bluegrass style's eclectic roots in folk, Scotch-Irish, blues, gospel, mountain, and "old
timey" music. Instead of painting a stereotypical portrait of hillbilly culture, Liebling honors the music's marriage of city and country, black and white, religion and show business.
While the voices, mandolins, fiddles, guitars, banjos, and basses of bluegrass wind on through decade after decade of performance, the idiosyncrasies of each era keep the film fresh. During the Depression, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys barnstorm through tent shows and radio broadcasts. The
post-war period brings the legendary team of Flatt & Scruggs, their "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," and the use of television to disseminate this traditional music. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, consumer-driven rock 'n' roll and electric country become foils for the bluegrass faithful. Liebling spices
up her historical presentation by intercutting a hilarious running commentary by two tobacco farmers who explain how Elvis killed off an entire generation of potential bluegrass fans.
Thanks to the film's caring research, however, the music can be seen surviving in peculiar ways even in the most unlikely of times and places. A 1967 clip of Flatt & Scruggs playing straight bluegrass for an all-hippie crowd at a psychedelic Haight-Ashbury show is among the film's more memorable
images--rivaled only by the sound of Stringbean (comic storyteller of the Grand Ole Opry and Monroe's original banjo player) cranking out an "old-timey" song about "that crazy Vietnam war." The film concludes with a respectful, even reverential, celebration of the music's survival and
revitalization by the "New Grass" generation of festival players and recording artists.
All told, HIGH LONESOME boasts over one hundred different recordings by dozens of players and singers. For purists and fans, the leading lights of bluegrass are well represented, from founders like Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Mac Wiseman, to later stars Jim and Jesse McReyolds, the Osborne
Brothers, the Seldom Scene, Laurie Lewis, and others. The film is a must-see for partisans, but will also please many music lovers unfamiliar with the rich history of this American art form.
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: As its subtitle suggests, Rachel Liebling's impressive debut documentary HIGH LONESOME tells "the story of bluegrass music." Happily, this young filmmaker--an admitted newcomer to the world of bluegrass--creates a delightful and fascinating chronicle of si… (more)