True to its tagline, the 2005 documentary Homemade Hillbilly Jam, is "a musical romp through the Ozark Mountains with a handful of rascally modern-day hillbillies." The principal subject of this leisurely-arranged music documentary is the neo-hillbilly group Big Smith which hails from "The Cultural Center of the Ozarks", Springfield, Missouri (pop 150,797).
The band emerged in 1996 from jam sessions among an extended family more prone to picking up traditional instruments following Thanksgiving Dinner than turning on the TV. The five original band members of Big Smith are cousins, and they're distantly related to just about every other performer shown in the film including the glitzy family-entertainment troupe, the Baldknobbers, and the gospel choir, the Pine Ridge Singers.
Playing acoustic guitar, mandolin, brass fiddle, and washboard, the band combines traditional Ozark ballads rooted in the Scotch and Irish immigrant experience with decidedly politically-progressive modern sensibilities. With one foot planted in in old-time gospel, the other in randy raunch, the music is always entertaining.
Though Big Smith is on track to play 110 shows in 2008, when Homemade Hillbilly Jam was filmed gigs appeared to be a little harder to come by for the boys. Filmmaker Rick Minnich includes footage of the band playing a handful of bars and community halls, but he's just as apt to rely on impromptu performances in a living room or out on the lawn after a family get-together.
Minnich met the boys in Big Smith while making his 2000 documentary about the Branson, Missouri music scene, Heaven on Earth. For Minnich, the earnest, homespun Big Smith was the antithesis of the glitzy, but inoffensively bland performers in Bible-Belt Branson. Where Big Smith used traditional hillbilly music as a jumping off point, the bands playing in Branson merely attached a thin veneer of hillbilly onto a commercial country & western floor show. For Homemade Hillbilly Jam, Minnich returns to Branson to shoot the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show, a flavorless floor show of family-friendly music and comedy, performed by distant relatives of the members of Big Smith.
Though Minnich suggests overarching themes through the use of intertitles, Homemade Hillbilly Jam doesn't have any kind of traditional narrative structure. There's no forward momentum to the film. The themes of family and tradition are expressed strongly throughout, but Minnich appears to have no overarching purpose in mind other than that of celebrating a group of homespun musicians that he clearly has genuine affection for.
This is one of the better looking releases from First Run Features. The anamorphic 1.66:1 image appears quite good. The grainy original 16mm film footage is a welcome relief from the usual DV. The focus is sometimes soft, but may be exactly as theatrically shown. Where digital noise is apparent, as in the image below, the problems are generally minor and brief.
Joe Lieberman has a Posse
The 2.0 DD audio track is in keeping with the low-budget production methods. The audio does not suffer from dropouts or distortions, but neither does it particularly shine. Audio levels are steady throughout except on the bonus featurette On the Road with Homemade Hillbilly Jam.
No subtitle options are available on this release.
Extras include brief outtakes (7:24); a featurette entitled On the Road with Homemade Hillbilly Jam featuring footage from various film openings (9:48) including the New York City premiere (NYC moviegoers and fans of the documentary Cinemania (2002) should look for a brief uncredited appearance by the one and only Roberta Hill); three bonus Big Smith music tracks; a photo gallery of 18 stills, filmmaker bios; and trailers for four other First Run Features releases, but not for Homemade Hillbilly Jam.
Homemade Hillbilly Jam is a modest documentary that shines a spotlight on an engaging, down-to-earth musical group breathing new life into traditional American music. Filmmaker Rick Minnich resists the urge to have the film go anywhere, content to touch on simple themes of earnest tradition and family ties without bogging down on grander schemes.
Homemade Hillbilly Jam is recommended.