'High Lonesome' beautifully chronicles founding fathers of bluegrass

April 30, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If The Sun contract didn't mandate that all film critics wear blue jeans, polo shirts and athletic shoes, here's how I'd dress: a khaki suit with cuffless pants, a belt with a big silver buckle, a white shirt with pearl snap buttons, a bolo tie with a really neat bull or stallion on the clasp, a huge 10-gallon hat and a slick pair of Tony Llama boots with pointy toes and raked heels.

I love that look: white guys in suits, hats and boots, and I don't care if you're a Texas Ranger or a Sun Belt insurance salesman or a goldarn bluegrass banjo picker. You are who you are, and nobody will ever take it away from you. Call it white soul.

Maybe that's why I loved "High Lonesome: The Story of Blue Grass Music," the brilliant documentary that closes out the Baltimore Film Forum's International Film Festival tonight at 8. It's full of guys in suits, hats and boots.

A first film by Rachel Liebling, the movie is evocative, resonant and wonderful. Best of all, it's not condescending. One doesn't feel the imposition of a snooty or overintellectualized sensibility on the materials, and it doesn't insist that the old boys be something they're not. It lets them be what they are, and it celebrates them for that.

The movie is built around a series of reminiscences -- almost an oral history project of its own -- by the wonderful old Bill Monroe, the 82-year-old patriarch of bluegrass. Bill's quite a cinema icon: a leather-faced, sideburned gent with that economical, yet nearly poetic, country way of talking, iron discipline and extraordinary resources of hidden talent. He basically invented bluegrass, by combining the folk songs of his past with the faster and more insistent rhythms of the city (he spent time in Chicago before he began touring), and he had speed -- he pushed the music faster and faster. And he also had integrity. All these years later, he's stayed acoustic. Electric amplification? Wouldn't touch the stuff, if the devil lived down that road.

Bill, a Depression-era child from Kentucky, spent the '30s touring dying Dust Bowl towns to perform on local radio stations, and by 1939 was a regular (or should that be "reg'lar"?) on the Grand Ole Opry.

Somehow, using archival film and still pictures, Liebling is able to bring this fabled time to life: you see Bill and his boys and their big black touring car prowling the plains sleeplessly, living to play and playing to live. "One time," one of them recalls, "we went 11 days without stopping. We'd play all day and slept while we drove."

But if Bill is the central figure, the movie is smart enough to spin out in other directions, as it traces Bill's generosity and the way in which he trained a whole generation of country-western musicians. Yet it's not without a certain edge. It examines the sure and steady corporatization of country-western music, including some archival footage of some forgotten warbler trying to go electric and generic at once.

And it covers the terrible dropping of the E-Bomb, country-western's Armageddon. E as in Elvis, in 1956. "Overnight," one old survivor recalls, "we lost all our fans. Ever last one of 'em. Lots of good people simply got starved out of the business."

But country-western, and particularly its musical conscience -- the high twangy sound of bluegrass -- wouldn't die. It began to climb back during the folk revival of the early '60s and then was popularized by weird strokes in popular culture: the Flatt and Scruggs theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies," which most bluegrass musicians found degrading to country people, and the movies "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Deliverance," which featured pure bluegrass on their sound tracks.

At 9:30 the festival will hold a closing party. Live music will be provided by the Chesapeake Retrievers. For ticket information, call (410) 889-1993.

"High Lonesome: The Story of Blue Grass Music"

Starring: Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, the Seldom Scene, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss and the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Directed by Rachel Liebling.

Released by Northside Films.

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