Big Family presents bluegrass in all its majesty

This past weekend I made the trek to Owensboro in northwestern Kentucky to visit the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and attend the premiere of the new documentary film from Kentucky Educational Television, Big Family – The Story of Bluegrass Music.

One thing you often hear from folks who see the IBMA’s Awards Show for the first time, is that in addition to the stirring performances on stage, and the fun of catching your favorite artists in unscripted moments, what most warms the heart of a bluegrass lover is seeing the music and the nominees treated with such respect and dignity during the gala production. Everyone is dressed so nicely, and the audience is aware and on top of all the nuances of the awards and hall of fame presentations, that it feels good to be a witness to it.

You get precisely the same feeling watching Big Family. Producers Matt Grimm and Nick Helton have done their research, and interviewed dozens of personalities directly involved in the music. They also had visited the Hall of Fame in Owensboro and talked with its Director, Chris Joslin, himself a life-long picker, to make sure they had all the historical details right before completing the script by Teresa Day that ties the film together.

The Story of Bluegrass Music is told over two full hours in a familiar documentary style that mixes brief interview clips with photos and video from both recent and early bluegrass festivals and shows. Ed Helms of TV and movie fame narrates the film, but most of the content is provided from the many bluegrass stars who sat for interviews over a two year process. Many were captured during the World Of Bluegrass convention in 2016 and ’17, and in subsequent visits to Nashville and Tokyo.

The list of luminaries who appear on screen runs to 58 people, including superstars like Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, Chris Thile, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush to rising stars like Sierra Hull, Chris Eldridge, Becky Buller, and Kaia Kater. Each provides their own viewpoint on issues important to our industry, and their personal memories of their time in bluegrass. Taken together, the producers have put together a seamless narrative that illuminates as well as inspires, while laying out the timeline across which it all happened.

Looking back from today’s perspective, it may seem like it was all destined to come about just as it did, but the truth is that a good many chance occurrences and random meetings formed the music over the past 70 years. The late 1940s found the United States in a unique position, the sole financial power that had not had its infrastructure destroyed by WWII, with an energized and optimistic populace ready for new challenges. All of the arts flourished, with novel sounds, sights, and themes the order of the day. Just as Monoe and Flatt & Scruggs were defining what would become bluegrass, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie were inventing a new style of jazz, while Frida Kahlo and Henry Moore were reinventing portrait painting, and Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed were reimagining film.

The early portions of Big Family lean heavily on historian Neil Rosenberg, who helps describe how Bill Monroe grew up in a musical family, which led to The Monroe Brothers, and eventually The Blue Grass Boys. From there we watch as Flatt & Scruggs become a commercial success, and The Stanley Brothers provide their mountain soul to the mix. Bobby Osborne talk about what he and Sonny did in the country world, while annoying a few purists, as do Sam Bush and John Cowan regarding New Grass Revival.

A hit with the theater audience was a segment with members of Bluegrass 45, with recent clips of them performing at the Rocky Top club in Tokyo set against video of their first US tour in the early ’70s. It was also interesting to hear the groan in the crowd when the Dueling Banjos scene from Deliverance popped up on the screen.

The film continues on to more recent history of the music, including a number of younger artists performing now. Featured are interviews with members of Steep Canyon Rangers, Giri & Uma Peters, Charli Roberston, and Kelsi Harigill who share their enthusiasm for bluegrass. A segment on women in bluegrass finds discussion with veterans Rhonda Vincent, Missy Raines and Laurie Lewis alongside Becky Buller and Sierra Hull.

All in all, this film is a masterpiece that will inform those curious about the style, bring a smile to the face of dedicated bluegrass nerds, and possibly set off a fascination with the music for a new generation of young boys and girls getting their first exposure to its magic.

Bluegrass lovers in Kentucky have a few more opportunities to catch Big Family on the big screen prior to its national PBS debut on August 30. Though made to be viewed on television, there is nothing that can replace the immediacy and intensity of seeing it in a theater, with high end audio, and a live audience.

Remaining show dates include:

July 16 in Lexington at The Kentucky Theatre
July 18 in Morehead at the Morehead Conference Center
July 23 in Murray at Murray State University’s Curris Center Theater (1 hour preview)
July 30 in Louisville at Kentucky Country Day Theater (1 hour preview)
August 1 in Prestonsburg at Mountain Arts Center (1 hour preview)

Any fan of bluegrass would be unwise to miss the August 30 airing. Owing to the complexities of obtaining permission to use the live footage and archival images and clips that tell the story, PBS only has the rights to broadcast Big Family for the next four years. During that time, it may be aired by local PBS affiliates, but it will not be made into a DVD or released onto streaming video platforms, other than PBS Passport, as that requires a wholly different set of thorny rights negotiations. See it now while you have the chance!

Check local listings to verify when it may air in your region, though the TV premiere is set for 9:00-11:00 p.m. on August 30. For the month following each airing, Passport subscribers can watch on demand.

And be prepared to feel pride in the music you love.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.