Tonight, August 30, is the PBS network premiere of Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music, a 2-hour documentary produced by Kentucky Educational Television. The film attempts to tell the story of our music in that short space of time, and succeeds admirably in its task, especially for a general audience. It airs from 9:00-11:00 p.m.
We were able to both see the project during filming, and watch the theatrical premiere in July when KET took it on the road through Kentucky during the summer. Much of the footage was captured over two World of Bluegrass conventions in Raleigh, the bulk of it while KET shared a media room with Bluegrass Today in 2016. We had the opportunity to get to know producers Matt Grimm and Nick Helton, and hear their vision for the film which had originally been slated for a one hour run time. Over four days in 2016 we saw them capture lengthy interviews with the who’s who of contemporary bluegrass artists, and let them each tell the story of the music in their own words.
As it turned out, these interviews – and others shot in Nashville and during a visit to Tokyo – were so substantial that Nick and Matt were able to get approval to expand to two hours, which also allows for a good bit of archival footage and audio from the early days of bluegrass. The film is produced in what has come to be known as the “Ken Burns style,” cutting between images and video clips throughout, with narration by Hollywood actor – and banjo player – Ed Helms.
I found Big Family to be fascinating when I saw it, not lagging a bit over 120 minutes, and most who have seen it before tonight seem to feel the same way. One review appeared recently which offered a lukewarm reception, but it was of the “this isn’t the film I would have made” variety, faulting the producers for what wasn’t included. The truth is that, given the difficulty – and cost – of obtaining permissions to use music in film, the effort required to compile this program was considerable, and very nearly definitive.
Most markets will see the film during the 9-11 p.m. slot in their time zone, though some affiliates may choose to air it at a different time. There should also be other viewing opportunities over the weekend for those away from the TV box this evening. Check those proverbial local listings. PBS Passport subscribers and donors can watch it throughout the month of September on their streaming devices.
Serious bluegrass fans may not learn much from Big Family, but they will certainly enjoy seeing the music we love presented with dignity and historical accuracy. Likewise, hearing your favorite artists sharing their understanding of bluegrass is also a treat.
It is a rare thing for bluegrass lovers to experience must see TV. And there is no better way to make this point to PBS than by giving them great ratings for the show.
Don’t miss it!