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‘High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 08, 1994


Rachel Liebling
Bill Monroe;
Ralph Stanely;
Earl Scruggs;
Mac Wiseman;
Jimmy Martin;
Sam Bush;
Alison Krauss
Not rated

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We should probably thank the Seldom Scene for Rachel Liebling's "High Lonesome: the Story of Bluegrass Music." She stumbled upon the local favorites at New York's Lone Star Cafe in 1986, fell in love with what's been described as "folk music in overdrive" and spent the next five years piecing together the first historical documentary on the genre. One of the people she interviews in this terrific film, the Scene's mandolin player and lead tenor John Duffey, remembers his own conversion after hearing bluegrass on the radio while growing up in Washington in the '50s, a full decade before this became the Bluegrass Capital.

It's likely that Duffey was hearing the very people around whom Liebling wisely builds her film: Kentucky's Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of bluegrass music; Virginia's Ralph Stanley and Mac Wiseman; and Tennessee's mischievous Jimmy Martin. Wiseman navigates us through the history, but Monroe is rightfully the heart and compass of "High Lonesome," the figure who provides the thread of continuity and embodies the music's standards.

The film is framed by Monroe's visit to his long-abandoned and barely standing family home in Rosine, Ky. Walking through its hollowed ruins, Monroe (still robust at age 82) recalls his mother's singing and fiddling from a time when music was an active rather than passive experience, a celebration of family and community -- and a rejection of social isolation common to the Appalachian region. Liebling doesn't let Monroe's memories stand alone: Throughout the film, she and editor Toby Shimin deftly interweave interviews and performances with archival footage and photos that evoke not only the music but the time and place, crucial context imbued with poetic perspective.

Monroe, every inch the palpably proud patriarch, situates his own roots in the British and Scottish tunes played by his fiddling "Uncle" Pen Vandever and the rhythmic vitality of Arnold Schultz, an itinerant black guitarist and fiddler with whom he played mandolin as a young man (and whom he has always credited as a seminal influence). Monroe provided the Appalachian fiddle tradition with a new bluesy insistence and punched up the old-timey string band sound. As Wiseman puts it, "Monroe combined the old-time folk music of his childhood with the fast-paced rhythms of the world beyond his Kentucky home."

In the '30s and early '40s, the foundation of bluegrass was built from a blueprint stamped with Monroe's personal touch -- high lonesome tenor leads and stark trio harmonies, the addition of string bass, the breakneck instrumental improvisations, the coexistence of secular and sacred songs. Though it took a while, Monroe forged ahead until the music was accepted and popularized. How right, then, that it eventually took its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys (named after his native Bluegrass State).

In "High Lonesome," Liebling traces the influence of black music, from that now-quintessential bluegrass instrument, the banjo (which slaves brought from Africa), and the energized rhythms of ragtime and jazz to the deep soul of spirituals and the blues (the vocals of Monroe and Ralph Stanley are nothing if not Appalachian blues). She acknowledges the impact of traveling minstrel and medicine shows, and later recordings and radio programs, all of which provided fresh flavors, and subsequently, new opportunities for rural musicians. Liebling weighs these cultural changes against the social upheavals of the Depression, the industrialization of the South and the great Northern migrations after World War II, but never abandons her focus on the music itself.

From Monroe's seed came many flowers: Earl Scruggs's boisterous three-fingered banjo style, probably the most identifiable instrumental sound for casual bluegrass listeners; the Stanley Brothers' sparse gospel harmonies; the instrumental virtuosity of so many musicians, including others featured here -- traditionalists Jim and Jesse McReynolds and the Osborne Brothers, newgrass veterans the Seldom Scene, and new-generation talents like Alison Krauss and the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Liebling has dug up lots of great archival footage, from bluegrass's heyday in the '40s and '50s, the '60s folk revival (when bluegrass acts played the Fillmore) and the burgeoning bluegrass festival scene. She also acknowledges the religious and traditional family values at the core of bluegrass, and the music's ability to reflect its fans' lives and experiences. Considering how much information she serves up over 95 minutes, it's remarkable that Liebling gets in so much music (the credits list almost 100 song titles). But as recollection flows into song, image supplely underscores sound and Liebling's weave is as assured as any Appalachian craftsman's.

The film ends as it begins, with Bill Monroe literally going back to old Kentucky and his "Little Cabin Home in the Hill." After having witnessed the soul of his singing and the drive of his playing, it's easy to understand the steadiness (some say stubbornness) that has allowed Monroe to sustain his sound without accommodation for more than half a century. His mission, says Monroe, has been "to keep the bluegrass pure, that's the way it's got to be... . I wanted it to go from my heart to your heart and let both of us hear it." It's Liebling's triumph that she does the same with her film.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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