Porchlight Sessions Documentary Celebrates Bluegrass

Porchlight Sessions opens with lovely footage of misty mountains, as you might expect from a documentary about bluegrass music. However, this new film is more contemporary and entertaining than any other bluegrass documentary I’ve ever watched. Through insightful interviews and exceptional performances, it spotlights the music’s legends as well as the key figures of the modern day. Plus, as someone who loves the music but doesn’t know all the history, it fills in some gaps I’ve always wondered about.

Bluegrass fans and many of the artists featured in the movie gathered at the Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tenn., on Wednesday night (Sept. 26) for the film’s Nashville-area premiere. Because so many of the folks were in town for the International Bluegrass Music Association conference, a high-profile annual event in the bluegrass world, the audience was probably better educated about bluegrass than your average music fan. Yet the film manages to pull off a neat trick. It isn’t dumbed-down to suit a brand new listener, yet it’s enlightening enough for even hard-core fans to find out something new. Like those classic bluegrass bands, it blends everything together beautifully.

For example, you have the familiar story about how bluegrass came to be — Bill Monroe bringing in Earl Scruggs as a banjo player in 1945, thus solidifying the classic lineup. Interestingly, though, nearly equal time is given to crucial artists who later broadened the scope of the music, such as the Country Gentlemen, John Hartford and Doc Watson. They may not be as revered as Monroe by bluegrass purists, but the film proves their music was absolutely pivotal in the evolution of bluegrass.

Of course, there’s always the ongoing debate about what’s bluegrass and what isn’t. Does it need to have that classic lineup to be bluegrass? If there’s a banjo in the band, does that automatically make it bluegrass? Can you play an electric instrument and still consider yourself bluegrass? The film dives into these questions but thankfully doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time trying to define the term. Like discussing politics with strangers, it would be unlikely that you’ll change anybody’s mind.

However it was refreshing to hear the Infamous Stringdusters‘ Jeremy Garrett say that he’s become more open-minded about what bluegrass sounds like after encountering so many different kinds of bands. That’s true for me, too. I am not rigid when it comes to what is and isn’t bluegrass. I like to listen to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver as much as I enjoy the new stuff by Trampled by Turtles.

Another thing that the filmmaker, a Tennessee native named Anna Schwaber, does right is capturing the excitement and weirdness inherent in bluegrass festivals. By shining a light on the wackier fans, she adds comic relief, not to mention the perspective of why bluegrass resonates with everyday people.

For me, the star of the show is Bobby Osborne, who found acclaim by partnering with his brother Sonny to sing the enduring anthem “Rocky Top,” among many other songs that have become bluegrass standards. He’s a spirited fellow who doesn’t mind singing and playing (and joking) to the camera. And his story about how the Osborne Brothers got on the Opry is funny and fascinating.

If you love the music, you’re sure to recognize the cast of characters — Dr. Ralph Stanley, Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Del McCoury, Doc Watson (who made me tear up at the film’s end), Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Chris Thile, Alison Brown, Peter Rowan, Abigail Washburn and many others. There’s often a rich storytelling element to bluegrass music and that certainly holds true for this film, too.