One Filmmaker’s Perspective
I first heard live bluegrass music when I was 26 years old. Growing up in New Jersey, and going to college in Washington, DC, meant that my experience with bluegrass was limited to seeing Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and hearing parts of Hee Haw, or The Beverly Hillbillies on TV. That level of personal exposure was not much different from that of most people I knew, who believed this music was “Country & Western.” In 1971, in Berryville, VA while location scouting for a film, I visited the farm owned by John Miller, Sr., an associate of Carlton Haney, a well-known music promoter. They had an upcoming July 4th Weekend Bluegrass Festival on the banks of the Shenandoah River, and John gave me passes so some friends and I could attend. That’s where I heard a full-blown bluegrass band for the very first time. For me, this initiation was, in the ’70s vernacular, “mind-blowing.”
While camping next to the beautiful river, I remember hearing music and wondering “What is that sound?” I’m pretty sure it was a banjo that I heard first. I couldn’t see the performers because of a grove of tall shade trees blocking my view. Then came the sound of a mandolin. At that time, I wasn’t at all sure exactly what a mandolin was. I had a mental image of an Italian lute. Then I heard a fiddle. What amazed me the most was the sound of the blend, the combination of all these acoustic instruments, as well as the driving rhythm.
At first, the instrumental numbers captured my attention more than the vocals, like Tex Logan’s fiddle playing with The Lilly Brothers on “Black Mountain Rag.” I was fascinated by Frank Wakefield. He sat on a low stool and played an autoharp in what I can only describe as avant-garde music.
Then, there were the individual solos that rotated regularly through each song, just like in jazz. Were the musicians improvising, or had they rehearsed every note? It was alive, fresh, and energetic. By the time I heard Bobby Osborne sing “Ruby, Are You Mad?” I was totally hooked.
I certainly wouldn’t have called it “hillbilly music.” This was not a stereotypical sound. This was authentic. This was, dare I call it, “American.” In my opinion, it wasn’t Northern or Southern, even if Virginia was definitely below the Mason-Dixon Line.
This festival in Berryville was where I met Carlton Haney and Fred Bartenstein. They gave me some background on the music. I tried to figure out why I had been so unfamiliar with bluegrass for so long. To my surprise, I learned that the incredible fiddle player with the cowboy hat and mustache, Tex Logan, was “part of a Bell Lab think tank in New Jersey.” That revelation stood out to me then, and still resonates a half-century later. It reminds me of the old adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
A little over a month after that July 4th festival, I was offered a chance to make a low-budget, feature documentary at Carlton’s Labor Day Weekend festival in Camp Springs. My apartment was soon swimming in bluegrass music from recently purchased LPs. The newly formed Washington Film Group pulled together a 15-member production team, and shot film for the movie that became Bluegrass Country Soul.
Several months later, when looking for a national film distribution deal, I ran into problems with people unfamiliar with this music. At a major independent distributor in New York City, and in Los Angeles at two Hollywood studios, I pitched a movie about a bluegrass festival. Not one of the executives I met had any idea what bluegrass music was.
That was a half-century ago. While Woodstock and Gimme Shelter had done tremendous box office, our film was not rock’ n’ roll, and it wasn’t what the movie types considered “commercial.” How would those same companies react today?
Carlton Haney’s festival was his 7th annual, and one of the largest up till then, attracting upwards of 5,000 enthusiastic patrons. Clearly, lots of people loved this music, but it hadn’t broken out into a wider market.
Not everything has changed. The companion book for Bluegrass Country Soul contains many anecdotes by bluegrass artists who were at the festival. A couple of readers told me they were surprised to learn how articulate the performers were. This reminded me of my initial reaction when I learned about Tex Logan’s scientific background. After 50 years, some people were still bringing preconceived notions to bluegrass.
Nonetheless, bluegrass music has come a long way since then. The most obvious change is in its size. While the number of multi-day festivals was small but growing in the early ’70s, now they seem to be nearly too numerous to keep track of. And the international reach of the music has increased by leaps and bounds.There were few women on stage at that Labor Day festival, aside from The Lewis Family, and Gloria Belle, who played electric bass in Jimmy Martin’s band. There were several women playing in the campgrounds, which we show in Bluegrass Country Soul. By comparison, the large number of women in bluegrass today is astonishing. But in 1971, things were only beginning to change for women. I am proud of the fact that one-third of our film crew were women, a percentage not seen in other areas of the film industry then.
One of the most obvious changes is a lot less movement during performances today. When you watch Bluegrass Country Soul, you’ll see how artists focused their singing and playing around one central microphone. Harking back to early radio performances, musicians would do their own mix by moving closer to the mic, or farther away. When we interviewed Ricky Skaggs for this project, he talked about how many performers today stand stock still behind their own microphones. When recording a song on camera, the static position of musicians is visually uninteresting. By comparison, watch the Osborne Brothers with Ronnie Reno in Bluegrass Country Soul to see how a simple move or two really captures the eye.
While on the subject of filmmaking, I envy filmmakers today, who have digital technology that allows a director to record an entire weekend of music, and make editorial choices later. In 1971, the cost of film and processing were a major part of our tiny budget, and we had to limit the number of songs we would shoot. What I wouldn’t give now to have filmed more of Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and so many others.
The partners of the Washington Film Group (Robert Leonard, Robert Henninger, and I) reunited in Owensboro, KY in 2019 to donate an archival copy of the bluegrass film to the permanent collection of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. As we stood outside this spectacular, modern building, we spoke of how proud we are of our work to save this one, small piece of bluegrass music’s history. When we walked with him in the festival camp grounds in 1971, Carlton Haney spoke about his dream to have a museum like this. Seeing this dream now made real is the perfect symbol of how far bluegrass music has come in the past half century.