August 2008

Homemade Hillbilly Jam
First Run Features FRF 913256D
Format: DVD
Released: 2008

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Image Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

Homemade Hillbilly Jam is an engaging 80-minute documentary. The broad theme is "hillbillies," descended from 1800s Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled in the Ozarks and were stereotyped as poor, lawless degenerates. Culturally and geographically isolated, they created a large and powerful body of music now understood as roots music. Today, this repertoire is performed by talented amateurs and professionals, and well liked by a wide audience. This DVD might be less in-depth than a narrower focus would invite, but focusing on a few groups enables the filmmakers to branch out to clans and venues, avoiding a mere catalog of musicians.

The music is enjoyable, well captured visually and aurally, and the performers are smartly selected for skill and variety. Much of the music is familiar foot-stompin’ stuff like "She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain" but played and sung with more virtuosity than would have occurred pre-gramophone. A paean to the "twelve-inch, three-speed oscillating fan" is one of a few humorous gems, while the music-religion connection gets abundant attention. When the music’s folk nature rears its head -- family belt-it-outs not ready for prime time but not claiming to be -- we’re reminded that music is a core human trait, not just a deal beginning and ending with recording contracts.

Some of the interviews about what it means to be a hillbilly -- with musicians, audience members, and non-musician hill people -- are subtle and touching: People everywhere prefer not to be categorized or objectified. Proving musicians’ down-home backgrounds is at times belabored: Hillbilly musicians’ greeting family members or saying grace around the Thanksgiving table isn’t more exciting than the same events at Yani’s, Devo’s, or Philadelphia Orchestra members’ would be. But overall the film moves right along, giving pleasure and presenting interesting perspectives.