Review: ‘High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music’

A well-assembled mix of interview, archival and concert footage, "High Lonesome" charts the evolution of bluegrass music as a uniquely American art form. Limited theatrical play should dovetail toward vid marketing to music fans , with educational and foreign specialty play to follow.

A well-assembled mix of interview, archival and concert footage, “High Lonesome” charts the evolution of bluegrass music as a uniquely American art form. Limited theatrical play should dovetail toward vid marketing to music fans , with educational and foreign specialty play to follow.

Frame is the career of “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe. He grew up amid eight Kentucky coal-mining siblings to become leader of a new music movement born from “hillbilly” filtering of inherited Scot-Irish folk traditions.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, rural infiltrations of phonograph, radio and motion picture brought doses of ragtime, jazz, swing and blues. They spiced the “folk music with overdrive” Monroe eventually brought to a mass audience via the Grand Ole Opry broadcast.

Pic nicely traces the ever-shifting weight history laid on musical evolution — from urban-migrational hardships of the Depression through “devastation” wrought by Elvis Presley’s electrified popularity, to hippie reawakening of interest in bluegrass craft.

The form has persevered with a new generation of gifted purists — notably the gorgeously high-voiced Alison Krauss, who gets more footage here than most. Elsewhere, performance glimpses are short but satisfying.

Film succeeds in locating a musical progress both innately grass roots and connected to larger social changes. While some of the color archival footage is now pinked out, antiquated feel adds to overall authenticity.

Pic presents 84-year-old Monroe in a less stiff-necked forum than recent direct-to-vid doc feature “Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass,” in which a similar historical perspective seemed stultified by worship of its subject.

High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music

Production

A Tara release of a Northside Films production. Produced by Rachel Liebling, Andrew Serwer. Directed, written by Liebling.

Crew

Camera (color), Buddy Squires, Allen Moore; editor, Tody Shimin. Reviewed at the Red Victorian Movie House, San Francisco, Nov. 18, 1993. Running time: 95 min.

With

Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Bros., Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the Seldom Scene, Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, others.
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