First Run Features // 2007 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 3rd, 2008
A Musical Romp Through the Ozark Mountains With a Handful of Rascally Modern-Day Hillbillies
I had high hopes for Homemade Hillbilly Jam. I enjoy a bit of old-time music, and I'm always interested in seeing how modern practitioners blend tradition and innovation. Also, despite the pleasure I take from the music, I have only a cursory knowledge of the history of prewar American folk music. I was hoping this film could remedy some of that. However, all my hopes were dashed. Homemade Hillbilly Jam presents a number of interesting musical performances, but lacks a narrative drive and a sense of context and history.
The best moments in this documentary are the extended musical performances from groups Big Smith, The Baldknobbers, and The Pine Ridge Singers (not to mention numerous a capella and family performances). The tunes include gospel numbers, ballads, and "novelty" songs, while the settings range from a crowded bar to a modern church. Most of the film is centered around Big Smith, and I enjoyed its performances the most. They effectively blend all the pathos of the generations-old songs with their own devil-may-care attitude. It was also a joy to have a peek at the family performances, which capture the intimacy and feeling behind otherwise tired songs like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
Outside of the musical performances, however, the film falters. The culprit is a total lack of narrative drive. The film has no moment to build to and no obvious structure. Instead, we're taken from performance to living room to campfire to car ride with no attempt at coherence or continuity. We're briefly introduced to a host of characters, but their relationships are often unclear and it's difficult to determine their purpose in the film. With a number of distinct groups to follow, the film has a lot to juggle, and I was left with the feeling that following any one of the subjects would have made a more concise and compelling documentary.
For a film so completely lacking in narrative drive, there were numerous tantalizing avenues to explore. Obviously, there's the eternal question of "What is a hillbilly?" that the film raises and then abandons. But there's also the popular historic tension between conservative, God-fearing country-folk and the more modern liberal (or even hippy) ideologies which groups like Big Smith seem to straddle with long hair and earrings. Also, while there was much talk of passing on traditions, we get to see very little of the ways in which tradition is passed down. Obviously the family sing-alongs are one aspect, but I would have liked to see more.
I would also have appreciated a little more history and context. There are a few titles at the start of the film explaining the origins of hillbilly music, but more discussion of the historical development of the style would have been nice. Also, some context on the more obscure instruments (and how their players chose them) would have made more compelling viewing as well. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Homemade Hillbilly Jam is that my understanding of hillbilly music wasn't deepened by watching the film.
Although I was disappointed by the film, First Run Features has released a first-rate DVD. The video transfer looks good, reproducing the slightly grainy, low-budget feel of the film. The audio captures the musical performances and interviews well. The extras aren't extensive, but they add to the film. First up are a series of outtakes from the film, running about 6 minutes. These include some funny bits from cast as well as some added perspective. There's also a short film "On the Road with Homemade Hillbilly Jam" which covers some screenings of the completed film and features some comments by the director as well as audience responses. My favorite of the extra were the bonus musical tracks. Although there are only three, all of them are worth listening to. We also get a photo gallery, biographies of the team behind the camera, and the trailer gallery of other First Run films.
If you're willing to sit through some muddled navel-gazing to get to the good music, Homemade Hillbilly Jam presents a decent-sized dose of American folk music. The film is also an easy recommendation for fans of any of the groups featured in the film, as they all get some good screen time. Those new to hillbilly music should probably look elsewhere for an introduction to the genre.
Only because it features some excellent performances of classic American folk tunes, Homemade Hillbilly Jam is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "On the Road with Homemade Hillbilly Jam"
* Extra Music Tracks