Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not be as expected is how much director Julie Simone puts the focus on the music’s teen and pre-teen virtuosos, although the geezer demographic hardly goes unrepresented. Even filmgoers with little taste for these arcane sounds may enjoy the doc, if only for the chance to spend an hour and a half in the company of so many prodigies who’ve put down their phones in the service of taking up catgut.
If a form specifically designated as “old-time music” is a new one on you, you’re not alone; even most roots-music enthusiasts generally have little idea of what separates this genre from other Appalachian styles. It’s not to be confused with bluegrass … but, 90% or more of the time, is. That’s why the movie spends a decent chunk of its middle section having its musical subjects explain the difference: Old-time is a communal, usually vocal-free effort where everyone is generally furiously playing as if their lives depend on it at all times, “whereas in bluegrass, everybody takes a break to improv … and bluegrass is a little bit flashier and they like to play a little bit jazzier stuff,” one musician explains. To some of us, that’s more of an argument for bluegrass than old-time, but to each his or her own. Also, when Bill Monroe branched off with bluegrass in the 1940s, he added picks to the old-school plucking. “If God meant people to play bluegrass,” one old-time elitist explains, “he’d-a put fingernails on the other side of their fingers.” Whether or not that gives you a belly laugh probably tells you whether you’re the target audience for this movie.
As you’d expect, the early part of the doc spends a lot of time explaining and evangelizing for this style of music — it’s basically a rootsy sales reel, but with so many beautiful time-lapse shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains, who wouldn’t be buying? Too much time in these early reels is spent at the Fiddler’s Convention itself, where the talk is gushy and the visual opportunities limited; if you’ve seen one shot of people dancing on wooden slates — flatfoot dancing, it’s called — you’ve only seen the first of about a hundred in “Fiddlin’.” But Simone’s movie gets more interesting as she moves beyond the festival grounds and into these expert players’ heads and/or homes.
At its core, and worthy of a feel-good movie all by itself, there’s an adorable friendship between a pubescent guitar prodigy, 11-year-old Presley Barker, and one of the acoustic world’s foremost guitar makers, Wayne C. Henderson. “Doc Watson was a huge influence on me. I listened to him on the radio when I was tiny,” says the youngster. “Well, I’m still tiny.” Henderson shows off the first guitar he ever manufactured, with bridge pins he crafted when the family milk cow died of old age and got picked over by buzzards, leaving a pile of bones that he and a hacksaw were able to put into one of his typical $20,000-plus six-strings.
Adversity and diversity do rear their heads, as the depression caused in local communities by the loss of manufacturing jobs is addressed. Biases against women pickers come up in interviews, which may be why the film inordinately features so many of them. Mostly, though, the music and the communities that form around it are held up as a balm. Karen Carr, of a group called the Crooked Road Ramblers, discusses struggles with mental illness until “I started messing with that daggone guitar.”
At times, you wish the movie were a little more curious about how the form’s young fans fit in with a Virginia that loves its hip-hop as much as anybody, once they leave the festival grounds. Mostly, though, on an anthropological level, it leaves you glad to visit a land that time didn’t necessarily forget, but where a tribe of severely dedicated cultists has made the choice to tune out topical noise and tune into something their Irish, German and African ancestors accidentally forged a couple hundred years ago. For that kind of dedication and prowess, you could put up with a whole lot of flatfoot-hoofing cutaways.