Bluegrass In Excelsis

NEAR THE BEGINNING OF HIGH LONESOME, Rachel Liebling's documentary about bluegrass music, the screen suddenly explodes with energy. illustrating the period in the '20s when industry invaded the bucolic Appalachians, Liebling shows old footage of huge logs plummeting down a flume and steam trains hurtling down the tracks. As counterpoint, she fills the soundtrack with Bill Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge," a driving instrumental that marries the skirling fiddles of his Scots-Irish heritage to the streamlined rhythms of modernity. The cinematic fusion of sound and image precisely evokes the passage of old-time mountain music into quick-tempoed bluegrass.

There are few moments quite so fine in this film, but for anyone curious about bluegrass, this is a fine place to start. Intercutting performance footage with interviews. Liebling spotlights the music's principal figures, including Mac Wiseman, Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin. She slights no one, but after a while-you wish she hadn't fretted about fairness, because when she obeys her instincts and points the camera at her heart's darling-82-year-old Bill Monroe-the movie takes wing. A Kentucky country boy, Monroe came out of a homemade world ("My mother, she used to walk through the house singing, and she could play the fiddle," he proudly recollects); with audacious genius he singlehandedly forged country songs, blues and early jazz into the music we call bluegrass. Eavesdropping on this old autocrat as he muses on his triumphs, Liebling leaves no doubt that we are beholding a true American original. "High Lonesome" gives him his due.