Documentary Releases: Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers (2016) - Reviewed

I’ll admit to being an uncultured newcomer with regard to the ‘Bluegrass’ subgenre of American music which originated in the Appalachian countryside.  But for the uninitiated as well as longtime fans of anything and everything related to country, folk and mountain music, filmmaker Rick Bowman’s affectionate, hour-long documentary film Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers represents a great introduction to the ‘folk music revival’ particularly in the San Diego, California area.  

Starting from the ground up in the 1940s with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys before evolving into a more acoustic sound, Bluegrass evolved into three different subgenres including traditional, progressive and gospel.  Minimalist, occasionally bluesy and typically only reliant on acoustic instruments, the distinctive style of Bluegrass is both singular and malleable to other forms of music. 

Though only running an hour in length, Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers is an engaging and fascinating mini-documentary you’d see on a music museum tour with numerous archival photos of early artists in the genre including but not limited to Chris Hillman, Alison Brown, Ron Block, Stuart Duncan and of course the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. 

Coupled with newly conducted interviews of historians as well as tours of places like Deering Banjos, perhaps the biggest banjo instrument production company on the planet, Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers provides for those familiar and newly acquainted to Bluegrass a great overview with the capacity to turn the mildly interested or disinterested into fans. 

If there are any gripes to make about this short little doc, which won the Best Documentary Award at the Gold Movie Awards London in 2017, it’s that the travelogue through the roots of Bluegrass could have been a bit longer.  Once you start becoming engaged with the subject, the film seems to end abruptly, leaving you satisfied but wanting more. 

That said, this is a quick and truly interesting watch for those who do and don’t know anything about Bluegrass.  I myself still consider myself an inexperienced novice in the genre, but after watching Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers I would absolutely like to learn more!

- Andrew Kotwicki