I recently had the privilege of presenting my documentary “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” at the Bluegrass on Broadway Film Festival in Redwood City, CA. I met a lot of wonderful people at this event but filmmaker Rick Bowman and his film “Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B” made a huge impression on me.
Here was a guy that wasn’t particularly a fan of bluegrass music, though he was familiar with it having grown up in Roanoke, VA; and yet, he had put together a really fine piece of film honoring arguably one of the best mandolin players of our time. AND…he funded the whole project out of his own pocket! Bluegrass lovers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude, or at least their pocket change, to this intrepid filmmaker for rescuing memories and memorabilia before they were lost forever.
In 2012 the Roanoke music community held a musical benefit to help defray the costs associated with cancer treatments for both Herschel and his wife, Joyce. When Rick’s family mentioned the event to him, his “spidey sense” told him to be there. Not being a jet-setting Hollywood producer (yet), Rick opted to take a commercial flight to Roanoke where he filmed most of the documentary — as they say in show biz — on location. Being right there in the thick of things allowed him to capture some very special moments and talk to some pretty important folks about Herschel and his impact on the music world.
Featuring performances by Del McCoury, the Seldom Scene, and The Travelers to name a few, this film is packed with great music and commentary from musicians that played with and/or were influenced by Herschel Sizemore. The list of those interviewed reads like a “Who’s Who” of Bluegrass.
I was particularly excited that he was able to include a rare video clip from Herschel in his heyday when he played with the Shenandoah Valley Cut-ups. Watching Herschel tuck into a tune with his open style of chording reminded me once again why I love this music!
Rick’s insightful interview techniques got Herschel talking about the moment when he first knew he was going to play the mandolin. He also got Herschel to reveal some insights about his most famous tune, “Rebecca,” like how he came up with the “crooked measure” associated with this bluegrass favorite. Herschel confessed, “I played what I had in my head.” All I can say is “Wow!”
John Lawless of Bluegrass Today nailed it during his on-screen interview when he said that Herschel represented “the first real departure from what Bill Monroe did with the mandolin.” Herschel was the bridge between the Monroe-style and the style of today. His picking is described variously as “elegant, concise, clean, driven” and I can certainly agree with all of that. But what really hit home for me was David Grisman’s comment that Herschel had “just kinda that sparkle and perfection.”
This film contains a nice balance of performances from the benefit concert and interviews with fellow musicians combined with archival footage/photos of Herschel and conversations with the man himself. It’s an amazing piece of work that captures his “sparkle” perfectly.
So, here’s where you – the viewer – comes in. Films like this don’t get made for free, especially films that require the purchase of music rights! I oughta know because that’s what I ran up against when making the “Pioneers” film. Neither of these films will show up on the marquee of your local movie theater nor make their way to distribution through Netflix or cable TV. I have no delusions of being nominated for Oscar, probably the closest I’ll come to that is eating an Oscar Meyer wiener at a screening.
We need a “grass roots” movement among bluegrass lovers everywhere to support these filmmaking efforts. Just as Christian movies are finally gaining credibility and getting better with each effort, bluegrass films can reach new heights and break down barriers across generations, genres, and global boundaries.
Rick and I are offering screenings of our films (with personal appearances for Q&A when possible) to bluegrass associations worldwide. Take advantage of this opportunity! We’ve got all kinds of stories about making these films that will entertain you for at least as long as a TV sitcom…and we won’t even patch in a laugh track!
If you’ve seen either of these films, send us your comments…good and bad! We learn from one and are inspired by the other. Talk to your friends and fellow musicians; encourage them to see these films. Ask your association, or even your church, to schedule a screening. Order copies of the films to give as gifts or as prizes at local events. Interview us or write a review for your association’s newsletter. And for you media gluttons, post information on Facebook and other social media like Twitter. It’s all about getting the word out.
Bluegrass has always been a “word of mouth” kind of community; help us spread the word and hopefully inspire more filmmakers to consider bluegrass music for their next project. Together we can this preserve this rich heritage for future generations.
Contact Rick Bowman at [email protected] for screenings or comments. Additional information about “Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B” can be found at Backyard Green Films.. You can reach James Reams at www.jamesreams.com For more information about his film “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” check out his website and click the Pioneers menu to see the film trailer, reviews, and more.