A Review of The Porchlight Sessions

The Porchlight Sessions“If they can do it, why can’t we?”

In the new film, The Porchlight Sessions, Bobby Osborne uses this quote to describe the attitude it took to make his and Sonny’s dream of playing on the Grand Ole Opry a reality. This “can-do” spirit, which helped Bobby realize his dream, is what allowed Anna Schwaber to achieve hers. The young director/producer of The Porchlight Sessions pointed to Bobby’s story as an inspiration while completing the film.

Osborne was in attendance on September 26 for the film’s premiere at the Franklin Theatre during IBMA week in Nashville. In addition to Bobby, other featured artists were also on hand, including Sam Bush, Mike Bub, Ronnie Reno, Lance LeRoy, Missy Raines, Chris Pandolfi, Alison Brown, Peter Rowan, Laurie Lewis, and Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers (who provided pre-show entertainment for the crowd).

Through extensive interviews and rare archival footage, The Porchlight Sessions traces the roots of bluegrass music, as well as its many shoots and branches, in a manner both informative and engaging. Newcomers to the music will enjoy it as much as lifelong fans.

Porchlight Sessions premiere ticketAnna’s cast consists of a “who’s who” of artists in and around bluegrass music. Everyone from Ralph Stanley to Mumford & Sons, and Doyle Lawson to Trampled By Turtles share their insights on the music we know and love. Seeing Jerry Douglas speak of hearing Josh Graves for the first time, or Steve Martin recalling his experiences with John Hartford, is plainly captivating. But it’s not all interviews with artists. The Porchlight Sessions goes a step further and interviews business people, luthiers, and fans to provide a penetrating look into the bluegrass culture.

Another treat is the music recorded specifically for this project. It adds a distinct character to the experience, and took the premiere audience from their spot in the theatre to a front row seat for some truly memorable performances. These included the Steep Canyon Rangers (Matterhorn), Ralph Stanley (O Death), Yonder Mountain Stringband (Steam-Powered Aeroplane), Chris Thile (Ookpik Waltz), Bobby Osborne (Once More), The Infamous Stringdusters (17 Cents), Abigail Washburn (What Are They Doing In Heaven Today), and more.

By far the most moving moment came just after the credits had rolled. The late Doc Watson provides the most beautifully honest rendition of Amazing Grace you’ll ever hear. As soon as his powerful voice began to echo through the Franklin Theatre, the crowd went completely silent. When we all heard “I once was blind, but now I see,” there was no dry eye to be found in the house. It would be tough to imagine a better way to end the film; just thinking of it still gives me chills, with a lump in my throat.

What I particularly enjoyed about The Porchlight Sessions was the wide lens with which Anna approached her study of bluegrass. In addition to focusing on our music’s roots and its “Golden Age,” the film spends just as much time on its future which I, for one, appreciate. Not since Bluegrass Country Soul has a film captured the past, present, and future of the music in such an honest and eye-opening manner.

The Porchlight Sessions manages to show the pros and cons on both sides of the tradition/progressive fence, leaving members of either camp with a better understanding of the other side. By focusing on traditional bluegrass as well as grass-influenced folk, newgrass, and modern acoustic/Americana music, the film leaves no stone unturned in its examination of where the music is today.

Schwaber showcases many aspects of what makes this music so special: bluegrass origins, instrument building, festival culture, live radio, jam sessions, the lovely Appalachian mountains, and more.

This is, without a doubt, the most artistic bluegrass film to date. The colors are crisp and vibrant, making the natural beauty of the mountains really pop. Anna also made a great decision in hiring a first rate graphic designer to create the film’s logo, title sequence, captions, and credits. The creativity on display throughout was an added bonus to this reviewer, who was predisposed to enjoy the film in any event. Although shot over the course of several years, there is never a loss of cohesion. Scenes flow seamlessly along, like a continuos story, demonstrating Anna’s skill, artistry and professionalism.

Every twenty years or so, a bluegrass documentary comes along that captivates a generation of fans. Now in 2012, we can add Schwaber’s film to the ranks of Bluegrass Country Soul and High Lonesome. This is one you’ll be sure to watch again and again; I know I will.

Here is a complete list of the artists who appear on screen:

  • Dr Ralph Stanley
  • Jerry Douglas
  • The Gibson Brothers
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Noam Pikelny
  • Doyle Lawson
  • The Ragweed Boys
  • Steve Martin
  • Sam Bush
  • Del McCoury
  • Peter Rowan
  • Pete Wernick
  • Ronnie Reno
  • Stuart Duncan
  • David Holt
  • Mike Bub
  • Bela Fleck
  • Crooked Still
  • Bobby Osborne
  • Missy Raines
  • Bryan Sutton
  • Infamous Stringdusters
  • Doc Watson
  • Alice Gerrard
  • Tim O’Brien
  • Wayne Erbsen
  • Dale Ann Bradley
  • Abigail Washburn
  • Runners Of The Green Laurel
  • Steep Canyon Rangers
  • Lance Leroy
  • Robin Smith
  • Trampled By Turtles
  • Vince Gill
  • Laurie Lewis
  • Chris Thile
  • Jeff Hanna
  • Morgan O’Kane
  • Sim Daley
  • Mayne Smith
  • Yonder Mountain Stringband
  • Matt Wingate
  • Todd Phillips
  • Brittany Haas
  • Andy Hall
  • Alison Brown
  • Sierra Hull

To learn more about The Porchlight Sessions, visit theporchlightsessions.com. An interview with the film’s director/producer, Anna Schwaber, will be forthcoming.


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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.