'High Lonesome' is history of bluegrass and America

Well into "High Lonesome," filmmaker Rachel Liebling's 1992 documentary about bluegrass music, singer/guitarist/bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin looks into the camera and earnestly says: "Bluegrass tells some sad, sad stories. If you don't have no feeling, there's no use to sing it. 'Cause it's a spirit that you have in your heart, or, I would say, in your soul."

Ms. Liebling's film, which opens for a weeklong run tonight at the Orpheum Cinema, in Fells Point, captures that spirit and conveys it with affection and respect.


Using archival film footage and black-and-white photographs, a minimum of narration, interviews with bluegrass' first-generation musicians and, most important, the music itself -- snippets of more than 100 songs -- Ms. Liebling recounts the story of this innately American music form. She traces bluegrass from its 19th-century roots in the songs of Scotch-Irish settlers in the mountains of the Eastern United States, through its 1940s heyday on the radio, to its virtual demise in the '50s with the advent of rock 'n' roll, to its eventual revival in the '60s, to its growth in recent years to achieve international popularity while spawning a second generation of bluegrass players in this country.

Ms. Liebling, now 32, first fell in love with the "high lonesome" sound -- a hybrid of old-time mountain music, jazz, blues and gospel that's played on banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, dobro and bass, accompanied by a distinctive, high-pitched vocal -- in 1986 when a friend introduced her to the work of one of those second-generation bluegrass bands, the Seldom Scene. "I was in heaven listening to that," she says, speaking over the phone from her home in Brooklyn. The next year, she saw Bill Monroe, the then 78-year-old "father of bluegrass," perform at New York City's Lone Star Cafe.


"That really just hooked me," says Ms. Liebling. "It got the hair on the back of my neck standing up. That's when I started to get the idea for a film."

It took more than four years to bring that idea to fruition. Ms. Liebling says she spent the summer of '87 boning up on the history of bluegrass, in the process discovering that "the first generation of musicians were still alive and still playing."

Then she went in search of previous films about bluegrass. While she located a handful of performance films, she found no overview, no film that told "a comprehensive story of where this ++ music had come from. I was shocked by that."

In the fall of '87, Ms. Liebling received a small grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and began researching what would evolve into her first feature-length film. "I felt this sense of urgency about it," she remembers. "Bill Monroe was 78 at the time, and I felt like, 'This has to be done now.' "

Over the next year and a half, she continued to do research and raise grant money to make the movie, simultaneously attending graduate school at Columbia University, where she studied filmmaking. Previously, she'd worked for three-and-a-half years in film production, doing everything from costume design to editing; her actual filmmaking experience consisted of one short experimental film, "Equilibrium," made during her senior year as an undergrad painter/sculptor at Cooper Union in New York. ("Equilibrium," incidentally, won a second-place award in the 1984 Baltimore International Film Festival.)

In 1989, she began filming "High Lonesome," using bluegrass architect/mandolinist Bill Monroe as its focus.

"I wanted the film to have a dramatic flow," explains Ms. Liebling, "and I felt like it needed a central character to follow. So it made sense that Monroe was the backbone of the story. Also, there were so many common threads to his story compared with the other musicians. It was almost like the archetypal story of the young man who grows up on the family farm, and the Depression hits, and he has to leave home looking for work. It told the story that's in a lot of the songs -- these songs reflect the lives of these musicians."

As part of her research, Ms. Liebling was in touch with Ralph Rinzler, a close friend of Mr. Monroe's and an assistant secretary emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution who had founded the institution's folk-arts division. Mr. Rinzler served as a link to Mr. Monroe, who, like many of the musicians Ms. Liebling contacted, initially was suspicious of her intentions. "They had been at it for so many years," says Ms. Liebling, "and who was I to say, 'I'm going to tell your story'? That's perfectly justified."


"High Lonesome" opens in the present with Bill Monroe and his band on a tour bus, then follows the musician as he revisits his family's now-abandoned Kentucky farmhouse. From there, Ms. Liebling zigzags between following the overall development of bluegrass and the specific career of Mr. Monroe. In the process, she also covers much of the social history of the United States in the 20th century.

She culled film footage and photographs from the National Archives, Library of Congress and more than 20 university libraries to show how railroads brought Southern black gospel music to white mountain people; camp meetings accompanied by old-time string bands; the introduction of phonograph players; the advent of radio; and how the Depression caused rural Southerners to move to the industrial North.

Mr. Monroe joined the migration to the North, moving from Kentucky to Indiana, where in 1930 he first played live on the radio with his two brothers, guitarist Charlie and fiddler Birch. By 1939, Mr. Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, made their first appearance on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast.

Then Mr. Monroe assembled an all-star edition of the Blue Grass Boys: Mr. Monroe on mandolin, guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and banjo player Earl Scruggs. It was with this lineup that Mr. Monroe crafted the foundation of commercial bluegrass, combining spiritual and secular music and pitching the sound high with his mandolin while driving it at a frantic pace.

"Bluegrass music is like a school of music," Mr. Monroe tells Ms. Liebling in the film. "Learn it right, learn the timing of it. Don't get it so fast that there's just the speeding of the music. Keep your timing right, the rhythm, the feeling of the music."

"High Lonesome" premiered in 1992, touring the film-festival circuit that year and in 1993, when it closed out the Baltimore International Film Festival. During that time, the film won five awards.


Ultimately, Ms. Liebling cut a deal with California-based Tara Releasing, which has introduced "High Lonesome" into more than 20 markets. So far, the director says, the film has done well, benefiting from touring musicians, including Mr. Monroe, who've been promoting it.

But making the film also proved to be a transforming experience for Ms. Liebling.

"I could never figure out initially why I was so attracted to this music," she says. "It didn't make sense. I'm not from there. Why did it speak to me? And through making the film and listening to so much of the music, I started to feel that the songs tell about a certain loss of a certain way of life in the South. The songs have a romantic longing for that time. And I felt like that hit a nerve in terms of my own personal experience -- a sense of looking back on what has passed in my own life. I found that's what a lot of people find in the music that's so attractive, so alluring."


What: Opening of "High Lonesome," a documentary about bluegrass music

When: Tonight through Sunday


Where: Orpheum theater, 1726 Thames St., Fells Point

Call: (410) 732-4614 for show times and prices