July 22 marked the official release date for Making History with The Pioneers of Bluegrass, a documentary film 11 years in the making. The project was spearheaded by bluegrass artist James Reams, who dedicates the film to his late and long time companion, Tina Aridas, who had urged him up to and on her death bed to see it completed.
And so it has come to pass.
The film’s subtitle explains its theme: Tales Of The Early Days In Their Own Words. Reams hosts discussions with more than three dozen first generation grassers, some quite prominent like Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Jesse McReynolds, and others (primarily sidemen) who ran the roads alongside them. Many of these folks who shaped and developed what came to be known as bluegrass have passed on since work on the film began in 2002, but their stories are thankfully preserved here.
We spoke with James at some length about the project, and he shared some details on both the macro and the micro level.
“It has been an amazing journey for me, someone who loves the music – a fan first, and also a musician – to see something like this come to fruition. I never thought I would find myself talking with Donna and Patsy Stoneman, or sitting at Josh Graves’ bedside.
I’m humbled by it – some of the stories are superhuman and amazing.”
He suggested that the best way to think of the film is as a snapshot, not a comprehensive history of the music, which would have been beyond his time and resources.
“Nothing was scripted – what happened in the discussions just happened.
Things got started in 2002 – the International Bluegrass Music Museum hadn’t opened yet – and Tina and I were talking as we watched more and more first generation people pass away. I thought… ‘wow – somebody needs to capture these stories before it’s too late.’
So without any film training or any concept of what was involved in creating a documentary, we accepted the challenge to give it a try. I contacted a filmmaking friend and said, ‘lets go down to the museum opening and see if we can interview the assembled first generation guests.’ “
In talking with these seminal artists, Reams said that he began to quickly understand that it took more than one person to make this music, and that their stories are as important as Bill Monroe’s.
This came out clearly in one of those first interviews with Art Stamper at the IBMM opening. Stamper had been fiddler with both Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, and in 2002, was suffering from the throat cancer that would take him two years later at 71 years of age.
“Art told me that ‘back when we were playing we didn’t realize that we were making history, but we were.’ This became a theme for the film.
Out at Mon’s tomb, we interviewed Art again. I started to contact many other pioneers to see if they would sit with us.
Jimmy Martin invited me on his bus. All the pioneers wanted to have their stories included.
I got an amazing letter from Art’s wife after he passed away. She sent a very touching letter saying how happy she was that I was able to capture Art doing what he loved, and telling his story. I realized that collecting these stories was not only important to bluegrass lovers, but to the artists and their families as well.”
It can be hard to imagine the situation that presented itself to talented young string musicians in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Today, bluegrass is loved and played across the country and around the world, but back then, it was strictly a rural, southern phenomenon. Times were hard for these folks, with work scarce and often arduous.
“Curly Seckler was picking cotton, and decided that he was tired of picking cotton and wanted to be a musician. His mother told him that he would starve to death, and he said that for the first five years, he almost did.
Kenny Baker left the coal mines to go work with Monroe. When things got tough in music, he would head back down in the mines for a while.
Josh Graves said that when Flatt & Scruggs first formed, they had no idea if they might be successful.
It was tough going for a lot of these folks. But they were driven by a passion to create this music, and almost nothing would hold them back from doing so. Not poverty, not the road life… “
By the 1960s, bluegrass was beginning to find a wider audience, but no one thought that success was inevitable.
“When it all started started, they didn’t even have a name for the music. Many mentioned that ‘we were struggling to make a living playing this kind of music, and people weren’t that interested.’
They each approached it differently. Earl Taylor was playing the music in bars in Baltimore and Cincinnati, and never considered that someone might discover them and put them on the radio (John Lomax). Monroe wouldn’t get involved since he saw Lomax as a Communist, saying ‘I’m not playing for a Communist.’
Before long, Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs were playing prestigious events. Carnegie Hall was a stunning development in the ’60s.
They never had a clue that the music would coalesce around a name and grow to an international art form. There was no master plan – this is what I would hear talking to these people. They were just trying to make good music.”
Reams acknowledges that this won’t be an extremely popular film, but he feels gratified that he was able to capture the genius, virtuosity and generosity of these seminal artists.
“The viewer is invited into the worlds of these pioneers, and they are all such fabulous storytellers.
I was only able to include a small bit of the 50 hours we recorded. Maybe someone who wants to be involved might be willing to assemble more into a second project.”
Pioneers of Bluegrass is available now on DVD from CD Baby for $20. James says that he is looking into arranging screenings for festivals and bluegrass associations as well.
He can be contacted through his web site.