David Royko Psy.D
Bluegrass Unlimited magazine
February 2005, Vol. 39, Number 8, p. 54-56
By David Royko
“It’s been 10 years now that bluegrass has been our lives and it completely changed our lives. It’s what we eat, breath and sleep. We live this stuff and it just is our passion beyond anything.”
It has to be hard on a filmmaker to “eat, breath and sleep” war, genocide, politics, fast food, or any one of a number of documentary subjects, but when bluegrass is the subject, the effect can be quite pleasant. Just ask Ruth Oxenberg, the speaker of those words, or her husband, Rob Schumer.
Oxenberg and Schumer are the creators, producers and directors, along with editor and co-director Nancy Kennedy, of Bluegrass Journey, a new feature-length documentary that shines the light on the musical form that began sixty years ago with Bill Monroe and, as the film so vividly portrays, has been growing and evolving ever since.
Seven years in the making, Bluegrass Journey throws down the “inclusion” gauntlet from the opening sequence, a blazing rendition of Jerry Douglas’ instrumental, “We Hide and Seek,” performed by resonator guitarist Douglas fronting a trio with mandolin phenom Chris Thile and bassist Byron House. The piece comes down squarely on the progressive, newgrass side, and the solos taken by Douglas and Thile stretch beyond what Monroe might have considered proper bluegrass. But while the music might wander far from tradition, the conditions of the setting would be familiar to anybody who has made bluegrass festivals their life—the audience members are blissfully excited by the music, while being pelted by a driving rainstorm.
And that is the other half of Bluegrass Journey’s main ingredients—the people. This, too, is inclusive, including those who make the music for a living, as well as the people who are simply drawn to the music as listeners and as pickers.
“The fact that the community is such a strong character in the film is really critical to how the whole film functions,” says Schumer. “The music and the community are sort of equal, principle characters in the film. I think that’s part of why it sort of works the way it works, you know--it’s not just about the music. It really is also about the community.”
Schumer’s and Oxenberg’s entrance into the bluegrass community happened, as it does for many fans, unintentionally. Oxenberg was a producer at ABC News, and Schumer an eye surgeon with a serious second life as a still photographer. They were getting married and decided on a bluegrass band for the occasion. Old Cold Tater, the long-lived ensemble from Massachusetts, was hired.
“Here we were, having our wedding,” says Oxenberg. “[The musicians] came over from a festival and they wanted to get back to see the 1:00 AM jam of Tim and Molly O’Brien. We had no idea. Little did we know that Tim O’Brien would become a really central figure in our lives.”
Having been bitten by the bug, Oxenberg did wh
at many newly-smitten bluegrass fans have been known to do—she brought the music further into her life. In her capacity as a producer for ABC News World Tonight with Peter Jennings, she pitched a piece about bluegrass to Jennings, and discovered that he, too, was a bluegrass fan. Jennings OK’d the story, which ran in September of 1996, but this being bluegrass and Oxenberg and Schumer being freshly-minted bluegrass fans, that was not the end, but the beginning.
“Just seeing how effective that was, trying to capture [the music] for a short piece, is what led to the concept of a documentary” says Schumer. “But then we had the task of figuring out how to approach it. What kind of model, what kind of viewpoint should be taken?”
Instead of focusing on what had already been done in the limited area of bluegrass documentaries, the pair looked closely at classics from other genres, mainly rock and pop: Don’t Look Back, Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Monterey Pop, Stop Making Sense.
“And then,” says Schumer, “we came across Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”
Jazz on a Summer’s Day, documenting the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, remains one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries ever made, capturing with extraordinary power both the music and the milieu of its subject—the jazz world of the late ‘50s.
“What [director] Bert Stern did in that film was to, first of all, let the music speak for itself,” says Schumer. “But it was really about the music and it was also about the community of people around the music, so really it wasn’t just about the music, it was about the culture surrounding the music. It was smoke rings, it was stiletto heals, it was funny pointed sunglasses, it was bright red lipstick and big broad brimmed sunhats and polka dot dresses. It was hip. Obviously, that wasn’t the community or the culture of bluegrass, but what Stern did in that film was to try to find a technique, photographically, that sort of paralleled the music and visually conveyed ideas that were important musically. So there would be a shot in which you almost couldn’t see what was going on for a while. I remember, for example, Chico Hamilton pounding the drums and there’d be a long, long, long shot. You didn’t even see his face. You’d just see these sticks moving up and down in the air, and it becomes hypnotic.
“He used the camera to make visual abstractions. We felt that for bluegrass what was visually important was the beauty of the instrumentation, the intimacy of the playing of the instruments. So we felt that being really tight and concentrating not on the band but on the individual players’ hands, on the wood and the inlay and the strings, was the counterpoint to what we’d seen in Bert Stern’s film.”
“Another thing we know in bluegrass music,” says Oxenberg, “is almost a ferocity in the playing, in the fingering, the precision, the strength that is required for the speed and for the drive and for the solos. Again, by using the camera we can get extremely close in a way that the human eye does not naturally do, even if you are standing two feet from a player, if you are that fortunate. But the camera can sneak in there and by capturing those extreme close ups of the fingers on the neck, you see the intensity and the seriousness and the virtuosity of the musicianship in bluegrass.”
The seriousness is reflected by the filmmakers’ choice to go with long, sometimes complete, takes of songs, instead of the short snippets often found in more typical “The History Of…” documentaries. They trust the audience to “get it,” to not get bored, to remain focused on the music, even if is being shown to a non-bluegrass crowd, which has been the case at most of the film festivals where Bluegrass Journey has been screened. Their trust was not misplaced.
“[The film festival audiences have been] this really nice mix of people who know nothing about bluegrass—‘oh, okay I’ll check out this film, why not?’--they just happen onto this film, mixed in with the good old bluegrass crowd,” says Oxenberg. “And we’ve been selling out shows and people have been clapping at the end and singing along, and some of the film festival directors have been positively gushing and so pleased at how it’s done for them. That’s been really fun, to bring the music to the new audience.
“We often do Q&A afterward, as typical of film festivals, and people give these testimonials about how moved they are, and it’s so humbling. I mean, we are just so honored that the music that has meant so much to us over all these years, it just is our passion beyond anything, and people get it. People get it and they feel it.”
“A neat question that we get asked almost at every film festival Q&A session,” says Schumer, “is from someone who seems like they’ve never heard bluegrass before, who stands up and says, ‘I’m gonna rush right out and get some of these records! This is amazing! Are there bluegrass festivals near here?’ And we might be in Orlando, lets say, and we’ll have the opportunity to mention some local events, and mention the fact that festivals are all over the place and it’s really an amazing part of the culture. So we feel like we’re having the chance to be ambassadors to some degree, which we’re extremely honored and proud to be doing.”
Most of the film’s footage was captured in 2000 at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York, and at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World Of Bluegrass events in Louisville, Kentucky. The two locations are strikingly dissimilar, with the comfy suites and indoor events of IBMA contrasting mightily with the sometimes-rain drenched Grey Fox. But the differences between the locales further underline the universal elements of the bluegrass experience—the passion of the people who enjoy the music, and the music itself. And both are represented fully within the documentary.
When one glances at the roster of the bands and musicians represented on Bluegrass Journey--Del McCoury Band, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Rhonda Vincent, Old Crow Medicine Show, Bob Perilla’s Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, Lonesome River Band, among many others—what becomes obvious is that the directors have defined bluegrass in the broadest possible terms. While hardly anyone could argue that Bob Paisley & The Southern Grass, who appear in the film, are not bluegrass, some might not grant the same courtesy to other musicians who turn up, such as a jazzy group featuring John Carlini, Don Stiernberg and Pat Cloud, or Tim O’Brien’s group, “The Crossing,” or, for that matter, Nickel Creek, seen flying through their original instrumental with the non-traditional twists, turns and title of “Old Cold Coffee On The Dashboard.”
“We’ve not really had criticism over that,” says Schumer. “I think the film does try to be clear that we as directors are really aware of the difference between the roots of the music, the main trunk of the music and its founding styles and founding practitioners, and the degree to which it has proliferated with fertile branches. Without emphasizing any one of them, we’ve tried to point to the fact that there are these different components, and perhaps because the film is about contemporary performance, it is a little more heavily emphasizing the branches. But I don’t think anybody would care to argue with the fact that The Del McCoury Band is playing bluegrass in the realest possible sense in the 21st century, at the highest level of performance and interpretation. We chose very explicitly not to make an historical film but to allude to the history of it. It’s there for the neophyte. It’s not a film about traditional or historical music so if the only kind of bluegrass a person likes is really traditional, they may not be the person who likes this film the best. But if their tastes are inclusive, I don’t think anyone will be offended by any concepts that are conveyed in the film.”
Says Oxenberg, “At the very least, I would think that even traditionalists could appreciate the exposure that the film is giving to bluegrass.”
Bluegrass Journey is available on videocassette and DVD, on the web at www.bluegrassjourney.com/Sales.html, or phone 1-866-314-8918.