‘Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music’ airs on KET
We are perhaps accustomed in Central Kentucky to viewing bluegrass as a native musical language. Audiences here faithfully supported it during a sweeping string band movement that dominated the local club circuit 50 years ago. They continue to champion the music as successive generations refine its rootsy appeal.
But what the new KET-produced documentary “Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music” joyfully reaffirms is the true reach of the music. The film, which premieres nationally on PBS on Aug. 30, takes us on an extended journey that begins with Bill Monroe’s gradual migration to Chicago and concludes in unexpected global locales that have adopted bluegrass as its own.
Along with the international fascination, you’re left with the sense of how deeply a part of the American cultural fabric the music has become. Banjoist Graham Sharp of the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers states as much at the film’s onset.
“I think of bluegrass as one of those very sort-of ingrained American things,” he remarks. “Like baseball.”
Not surprisingly, “Big Family” is a big story. Filmed over three years by KET producers Matt Grimm and Nick Helton, it sports interviews with a cross-generational who’s who of the music’s pioneering artists. We visit with surviving elders (Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury and Central Kentucky’s own J.D. Crowe), New Grass-inspired revolutionaries who charted new territory for the music beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush), scholarly disciples who helped guide the music from regions far removed from Kentucky (Laurie Lewis, Darol Anger) and a current crop of practitioners (Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Kristin Scott Benson). What results is a remarkably complete story of a music born in our own backyard.
The only problem for KET? Whittling an accumulation of footage that ran over nine hours down to a mandated two-hour running time to get the film picked up for national broadcast by PBS.
“Nick and I, we sort of agonized over that,” Grimm said. “We thought, ‘How can we do this story justice with the bluegrassers that know it to some extent already but also have a film that is digestible for a PBS general viewing audience and get it into the two-hour allotment that we had.’ So we wanted to be true to the story but include all that we could. At the same time, we wanted it to have broad appeal. We wanted those who are not bluegrassers to be able to relate to it.”
In doing so, Grimm and Helton, along with a script written by Teresa Day and narrated by comedian (and bluegrass enthusiast) Ed Helms, underscored a history that uses bluegrass forefather Bill Monroe as a kind of touchstone tour guide along with factoids that reflect the music’s broad and longstanding appeal. We learn how Elvis Presley’s recording of the Monroe standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was featured as the B-side to his first single (1954’s “That’s All Right”). We then relearn about the mainstream attention Monroe alumni Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs earned when “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” brought the duo, and bluegrass, into living rooms nationwide beginning in 1962 as the theme to the popular TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“The one thing that we absolutely wanted to debunk immediately was this stereotype about people who play bluegrass music,” Helton said. “They’re serious musicians doing things most musicians can’t do. There’s the speed with which they play, the rhythm. One of our biggest points was to show this rich history that really does weave itself through American history, as well. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much bluegrass music played a part in pop culture.”
As it progresses, “Big Family,” offers numerous delights that accent bluegrass’ expansive story. For example, Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band reflects on how the group’s seminal 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” merged generations of bluegrass and pre-bluegrass country artists. There is also a scholarly breakdown by violinist Anger, a West Coast progressive during the ‘70s and ‘80s who now serves as an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music, on the roles each stringed instrument plays in the rhythmic construction of bluegrass.
The film winds up not in Kentucky but in a tiny club in Tokyo where the Japanese band Bluegrass 45 modestly asserts how the music’s geographical reach is just as vast as its stylistic breadth.
“Right before we began taping that night, somebody made an introduction of Nick and me from the stage,” Grimm said. “They mentioned we were from KET and applause broke out. They recognized KET’s name from some of our bluegrass programming from years ago. When they heard we were from Kentucky and KET, they just applauded. We couldn’t have felt more welcome.”
“Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music”
When: 9 p.m. Aug. 30
Where: KET/PBS TV