Few musicians are regarded as being as complex and calculated as those in the bluegrass genre, and if you didn’t think so prior to now, there’s a good chance that the new wave of bluegrass music coming out of the American underground this summer and autumn will have a good shot at changing your mind. Although not a record nor even a concert film, listeners would be smart to take a peek at Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage if they have access to Prime Video this November to learn about and experience firsthand the artistry of James Reams as a soloist and frontman of the Barnstormers, who himself has been one of the pillars of the American bluegrass underground in the last twenty-five years.
Getting a runaway start (literally) to a career that would take him from a homeless shelter to the arms of his soulmate and into the studio with some of the biggest heavyweight players in his genre, the patchwork of Reams’ incredible life is on full display for all the world to enjoy in this stunning new documentary, and whether you’re familiar with his collective discography or not, something tells me that most music fans out there are going to appreciate what this film has to share.
Reams doesn’t seem to have any trouble discussing his unique background here, and though much of the story he tells tends to center on the love and loss that came with the meeting and eventual passing of his beloved life partner and aesthetical collaborator Tina Aridas, there are few moments in Like a Flowing River that feel specifically elegiac in nature. There’s fondness, even in moments of recalling stern competition with the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Chieftains for yearend awards, for the big picture of his career that has been increasingly difficult to come by in most any genre in the American pop spectrum, and while he doesn’t ever allow himself to get particularly boastful in his sentiments, you can tell there’s a pride behind his work that extends itself even to the independent players he’s shared a studio space with in the past. His energy is infectious and surprisingly just as strong as it has been in past records.
A provocative look at a talented artist who hasn’t received quite the attention from critics that he’s been due in his time, I would say that Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is absolutely a must-see for fans of both James Reams and those who are into bluegrass music overall. Whether a diehard or simply a casual passerby, audiences should expect to come into this film prepared for an honest dialogue between player and fans that typically isn’t easy for many in his medium to secure, and even though this has been one of the more competitive years for bluegrass of the past decade, I would be lying if I said that this documentary didn’t stand out to me as one of the more exciting releases (of any kind) that the genre had to behold in 2020.
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