Banjo Movie Night! Must-See Roots Music Documentaries

“Know your roots” with these classic must-see documentaries.

By Patty Templeton
From The Rambler Archives – 2014

No good shows tonight? Watched every Calamity Cubes video on YouTube? Broke as a Prohibition rum jug after an agent’s ax? The Rambler’s got you covered. Picture, if you will, an anthropomorphic hot dog with a bolo tie and a popcorn bucket with a cowboy hat. Instead of them singing, “Let’s go out to the movies” they’re chanting “Banjo movie night!”

Banjo Movie Night

Here are eleven essential documentaries covering contemporary and old-time roots music. Blues and rock and roll docs have been excluded. These are full-tilt histories and micro-visions of music scenes, not individual musicians.

What was that? How are they ordered? Alphabetically. This ain’t a top ten eleven list. We aren’t here to tell you what’s best. We’re here to help find what’s out there.

Now settle in. Got your snacks? Feels like a Junior Mints and coffee night to us, but hey, maybe you’re more in a whiskey and nachos mood. Comfy? Here goes. Eleven must-see roots music documentaries you can find or buy (for cheap) online.

Country Roads: The Heartbeat of America
John Carter Cash said, “Country music is the lifeblood that runs through rural America…there are so many that are looking for solace within that music, and they find it.” Cash’s stance turns into German director Marieke Schroeder’s thesis as she mixes interviews with up-and-coming artists and archival footage to create a chronicle of country music. Filmed in modern hollers, dive bars, and classic Nashville locales like the Ryman, this doc has a roll call including Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose, John Carter Cash, Norah Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter), and Miranda Lambert

Ok. A lie. Country Roads ain’t on the frugal end of a date-with-yourself night. You can’t rent it yet and it’s 23 bucks on Amazon. Maybe request your library buys a copy, eh?

Folk America
Why is it that folks outside the U.S. are the ones making badass films about U.S. music? Maybe not the only ones (Ken Burns’ll have a country documentary out by 2018), but geez Louise, the BBC has a helluv an interest in narrating American music. You will see them repeatedly on this list.

Folk America is a four-part miniseries by the BBC. The first three episodes cover American folk music from the 1920s to the 1960s. The final, fourth installment is a concert hosted by blues singer and former train-hopper Seasick Steve.

(Side note: There is a whole other BBC doc called Seasick Steve: Bringing it All Back Home where he visits and talks about the American South.)

The Folk Singer
The Folk Singer is an interstitial, somewhat scripted film that’s like Waking Life, but for bands instead of philosophers. Possessed by Paul James tours from Texas to Louisiana talking to the likes of Scott H. Biram and Reverend Deadeye about the economics of being an artist and a person’s responsibilities to their talent and family.

Plus whiskey, guns, religion, and spontaneous fiddle playing.

Give Me the Banjo
The Rambler is going to say what everyone is thinking, Steve Martin is a silver GD fox. Man is a musician, actor, novelist, and here-and-there he narrates for PBS. Re: Give Me the Banjo.

Pete Seeger, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bela Fleck, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, and Steve Martin discuss “the complicated and checkered past” of the five-string banjo. Modern day performances, old-time footage, and passionate interviews frame the instrument’s 300-year history in America, from minstrel shows to anti-war rallies.

Hard Soil “The Muddy Roots Of American Music.”
Slowboat Films (the folks who created The Folk Singer and Voodoo Rhythm) crowdfunded Hard Soil. Filmed during the Muddy Roots Music Festival (MRMF) and Muddy Roots Europe in 2013, Hard Soil intersperses interviews with musicians and live performances. This isn’t the creation story of the MRMF festival, it’s a showcase of the musicians who play there.

You got Jayke Orvis and the Broken Band on stage and in a field discussing artistic goals. A sweat-dripping Reverend Beat-Man shout-preaches the wonders of one-man-bandom. Possessed by Paul James asks, “Is the intent of the music fame and success or is the intent of the music to make some monumental change that has greater value?” Never seen James Hunnicutt, Dad Horse Experience, the Goddamn Gallows, or Sean and Zander? Hard Soil’s got ‘em for ya.

Heartworn Highways
1975 was the year that the Talking Heads played their first show at CBGB, Springsteen was on the cover of Time, Rod Stewart went solo, and John Denver had a CBS Christmas special. And all the while…_Heartworn Highways_ was quietly being filmed.

Starring Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and a baby-faced Steve Earle, director James Szalapski captured the rebellion against the corporate hijinks of Music Row that led to Austin as a new center of American music.

High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music
If you like Ken Burns’ documentaries, you’ll dig on High Lonesome. Director Rachel Liebling was a cohort of Burns, and his style can be seen reflected in this hella solid portrait of bluegrass’ beginnings and Bill Monroe’s effect on it.

There are over a 100 songs and more than 50 archives were sorted through for material. (Ephemera so fragile it was transported in armored cars during production). Plus, geez, you got a polished up George Jones, Flatt and Scruggs killin’ it, the Osborne Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and Alison Kraus as a wee-sprite of a thing.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
Jim White went looking for the “gold tooth in God’s crooked smile” in director Andrew Douglas’ Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. (Yup, inspired by White’s similarly titled album.) White languidly rolls his 1970 Chevy Impala past juke joints, junkyards, mysticism, Christianity, trailer parks, prisons, Harry Crews, the Handsome Family, and David Eugene Edwards in this surreal, Deep South road trip.

Seven Signs: Music, Myth, and the American South
Colonel J.D. Wilkes is a manic, pube-throwing wildman for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and a helluva crooner for the Dirt Daubers. He’s also a painter, writer, and director. In Seven Signs, Wilkes weaves a series of vignettes that examine the American South through artists (such as godly sign painters), musicians (the Pine Hill Haints, Scott H. Biram, etc.), and other hardworking, occasionally eccentric folks.

The Lost Highway: The Story of Country Music
Here’s the BBC kickin’ ass again with a 4-part history of country. What we at the Ramblerappreciate is that Lost Highway recounts the mountain beginnings, the Nashville sound, and upcoming outsiders of country in a way that includes women. Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris are prominent speakers in this dynamic, thorough doc.

Voodoo Rhythm: The Gospel of Primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll
Blues trash, Cajun punk, PsychoSlavicCountry‘n’Eastern, and garage rock gospel is yours for the taking in Voodoo Rhythm – another madcap, gorgeous movie by Slowboat Films. Raw rock and roll interviews and performances with Reverend Beat-Man, The Dead Brothers, and The Monsters, are interwoven with the story of Voodoo Rhythm Records. Want “187% no MTV and top 100 shit” bound to get your blood hot, your pants dropped, that ass felt, and your brain to melt? Of course you do.

Ladies and gents, that’s all we got for you. What? Why are you looking at us like that? YOUWANT MORE?



Fine. We are in a generous mood. Here’s another one. Look up Dirty Country – it, exposesthe legends of filthy Americana whose music is mostly bought at truck stops.

Now get yourself some  popcorn and buffalo sauce and buy/rent/YouTube yourself some movies. And seriously, don’t forget about your public libraries, eh? They might have some of these for (usually free) rental or inter-library loan.

– – –

Patty Templeton is a writer, bookworm, and honky-tonk lover. A naked woman once gave her hella hundos for a story she wrote. Her first novel, There Is No Lovely End, came out this year. You can find her over by here or here.

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