Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music coming from KET

Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the commonwealth-wide public television network for the 15th state, has announced an August 30 PBS national premiere for their latest bluegrass music film, Big Family – The Story Of Bluegrass Music

The 2-hour documentary seeks to tell the comprehensive history of bluegrass, from the early days of Bill Monroe’s dream to the present moment when the music is subdividing into a number of sub-genres, all very much alive and growing, all over the world. Big Family does so with a blending of archival footage and audio, recent interviews with the biggest names in the music, and live stage performances by the artists keeping the traditions alive.

We were fortunate to meet one of the producers, Nick Helton, near the beginning of the process in 2016. He and a team of technicians and camera operators, and co-producer Matt Grimm, had travelled from their home base in Lexington to Raleigh, NC for the World of Bluegrass convention, hosted each year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Bluegrass Today shared a media office with KET that whole week, and watched as they filmed as many as 30 interviews with bluegrass personalities, and heard them describe the vision for this project.

In addition to interviews, there were two smaller KET crews roaming around the convention, capturing live music on the various stages, as well as happenstance occurrences they might encounter. They all returned the next year as well to continue the process, and fill in other interviews they hoped to include, or live sets they wanted to shoot. They made trips as well to a number of major festivals, and one visit to Tokyo.

Helton had described a very ambitious scope for Big Family, trying to explain the phenomenon that is bluegrass in only two hours time. That means the history, the culture, the personalities, the music, its spread outside the southeastern United States to the rest of North America – and beyond – and how it has survived and grown from a niche, regional art form to something that is recognized and admired worldwide.

His vision was to do it through the words of the people in the music, so he had Ricky Skaggs explain how Bill Monroe, and The Stanley Brothers, created an entirely new style, meant for the concert stage rather than the dance hall, and how others, like Flatt & Scruggs, picked up what they were doing and made it their own. These same questions – and others – were posed to dozens of other bluegrass notables, and all their responses were edited into a narrative that should give the bluegrass novice an excellent overview of where bluegrass has been, and where it is headed.

Actor, comedian, and banjo player Ed Helms was tapped to narrate the film, with a cast that includes almost everyone who counts in our business. The list is mighty long, with more than 50 prominent artists appearing either in interviews or on stage. A partial list would include Alison Brown, Dale Ann Bradley, Sam Bush, JD Crowe, Bela Fleck, Laurie Lewis, Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Ricky Skaggs, Chris Thile, Michael Cleveland, Molly Tuttle, Becky Buller, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Chris Eldridge, Jeff Hanna, Sierra Hull, Joe Mullins, Noam Pikelny, Neil Rosenberg, Peter Rowan, Sammy Shelor, Larry Stephenson, Rhonda Vincent, Blake Williams, and many others.

This brief trailer offers a glimpse of the finished film, and the way the story is told through vignettes from the memories and impressions of the people who play the music.

Prior to the official debut of Big Family on PBS in August, it will be on tour in selected venues across Kentucky in July, starting with a gala premiere at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro. These screenings are free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required, which can be accomplished online.

  • Saturday, July 13 in Owensboro at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum
  • Sunday, July 14 in Paducah at Maiden Alley Cinema
  • Tuesday, July 16 in Lexington at The Kentucky Theatre
  • Thursday, July 16 in Morehead at the Morehead Conference Center
  • Tuesday, July 23 in Murray at Murray State University’s Curris Center Theater
  • Tuesday, July 30 in Louisville at Kentucky Country Day Theater
  • Thursday, August 1 in Prestonsburg at Mountain Arts Center

Given the professionalism exercised by Helton and KET throughout the filming and editing of Big Family, it should be well worth whatever trouble is required to attend one of these rare, large screen showings.

PBS viewers are advised to check their local TV listings starting August 30 to see when Big Family will air in your market. The national premiere is scheduled for August 30 at 9:00 p.m. (EDT), and may be broadcast then on your local PBS affiliate.

Further details about the film and those involved can be found online.

Share this:

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.