Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin In B

Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin In BRegular readers will recall our earlier coverage of mandolin icon Herschel Sizemore and his recent bout with cancer. Both he and his wife Joyce received cancer diagnoses the same day in October 2011, his in the tonsil and hers in the breast. Fortunately, medical treatment in both cases was successful, and the Sizemores are both fit and doing well.

We also covered the tribute concert put on in their hometown of Roanoke, VA in February of 2012, which brought bluegrass superstars like Del McCoury, Seldom Scene, Punch Brothers and many others to the stage to celebrate the life of one of their own, and help raise a few dollars to assist in his time of need.

That show was filmed by California documentarian Rick Bowman, and expanded from hours of interview footage into a 57 minute homage to one of the mandolin’s unique stylists, in Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B.

The title comes from the fact that several of Herschel’s most memorable compositions were written and performed in the key of B, an uncommon harmonic home for string music until Bill Monroe repurposed the venerable European instrument in the 1940s. As is discussed on screen, Monroe had developed a technique for playing the mandolin in closed positions, allowing him to solo in whichever key best suited his voice.

The overall theme of the film is the fact that Sizemore was among the very first practitioners of the mandolin to break distinctly from Monroe’s style, and began to chart a course that has profoundly affected everyone who has played since. That story is told though interview segments with such luminaries of the mandolin as David Grisman, Doyle Lawson and Chris Thile, plus artists in attendance at the tribute concert like Del and Jerry McCoury, Sammy Shelor, Dudley Connell, and more.

Chris Thile and Herschel Sizemore meet backstage at the Sizemore Benefit concert - photo © Dean Hoffmeyer

Herschel also sat for interviews after the show, and some of the most compelling footage involves his own remembrances of his growing up in rural Alabama, and his involvement in the early days of bluegrass. He was an intimate of Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt, and only skipped being a member of the Foggy Mountain Boys because he turned down the job to be close to his young family when the offer was extended.

Here I should perhaps issue a disclaimer. I count Herschel as among my dearest friends, am a featured performer and talking head in the documentary, and am acquainted with many of the people involved in its production. There is no hope of me issuing a completely objective overview of this project.

But I can say that it is essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of bluegrass mandolin, and the story of the remarkable contributions made by Herschel Sizemore. Or for anyone who would enjoy seeing a reunion of Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals circa 1979, with Del and Jerry McCoury, Dick Smith and Herschel. There are also performances from Seldom Scene, Republik Steele, Alan Bibey, Ronnie Reno, The Travelers, Kevin Baucom & Bandwagon, and Acoustic Endeavors.

The film is not without its hiccups. The audio was mixed for the live audience, and it comes across a bit thin as compared to how it sounded from the stage, and the performance segments don’t always seem to tie in with the interviews that bookend them, but these are very minor critiques and don’t diminish the value of this overdue tribute.

In truth, Bowman was working at something of a disadvantage with this project. The decision to film the show came at the last minute, with no time to modify stage lighting for video needs, but he compensated by showing the live performance scenes in black and white, and the interviews in color. These were captured as the chaotic backstage situation allowed, with no real opportunity to plan a narrative in advance.

But taken all in all, it’s an important addition to the canon of bluegrass history.

Here’s a look at the trailer.


Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin In B is being distributed on DVD through Amazon.com where it is offered for $20.

If you don’t know the story of Herschel Sizemore, there is a gaping hole in your knowledge of bluegrass mandolin.

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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.