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High, lonesome sound: Film tells the story of the birth, evolution of bluegrass music

Legendary bluegrass musician Bobby Osborne in a scene from “Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music.” (Courtesy of Steve Shaffer/KET)

Matt Grimm and Nick Helton are used to taking on big tasks.

The two filmmakers had their hands full while working on the documentary, “Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music.”

It will air at 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, on New Mexico PBS. The documentary is narrated by actor Ed Helms.

“We were lucky at the time,” says Helton, who produced the film. “We came across ‘Bluegrass: A History’ by Neil V. Rosenberg. This was a great place to start in telling the history of bluegrass. We were able to get Ed to narrate, because he is a bluegrass musician as well. It seemed to work out.”

Grimm and Helton spent a few years working on the documentary. They ended up with a nine-hour film.

The whittling-down process began.

“That was a difficult part,” Grimm says. “Every piece that we took out, we would second-guess it. We wanted to keep the material that kept moving the narrative forward.”

The film traces the genre’s history – outlining how Scottish-Irish and African-American influences led Bill Monroe to develop the distinct musical genre to its foothold in popular culture through television and movies.

The film goes on to explore how the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement and more affected the genre, including the creation of offshoots of bluegrass, such as newgrass in the 1970s.

The pair says that at the heart of the two-hour film is the music itself – as recordings and performance footage showcase and celebrate its unique sound.

More than 50 musicians appear in the film, including Alison Brown, Dale Ann Bradley, Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, Bela Fleck, Laurie Lewis, Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Ricky Skaggs and Chris Thile.

The pair used archival and contemporary photos, footage and recordings. The film also chronicles how bluegrass music evolved as American culture and politics played out.

Helton says a key element was getting an interview with Osborne.

“We caught Bobby during some downtime,” Helton says. “He is amazing, and he’s still touring and creating new music. It was great to include him, and we felt like this was an interview that we had to get.”

Grimm chimes in, “You don’t see Bobby on stage unless he’s wearing a three-piece suit.”

Now that the film is complete, both Grimm and Helton feel a sense of relief.

The film has been shown at a few festivals and has been warmly received.

“We’d hoped that those that know about the music will learn something new,” Helton says. “The music helps tell the story, and in many ways, it shaped the final product.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email film@ABQjournal.com. Follow me on Twitter @agomezART.

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