The Beverley Hillbillies, perhaps the most visible stage hillbillies have ever had and certainly not their finest hour, still remains one of the most iconic images of hillbilly life in America. The show, a hit for CBS in the 1960s, proudly displayed all of the clichés that have come to define hillbillies: toothless, gum smacking, silly, ignorant, and most of all dumb with a capital D hicks.
Homemade Hillbilly Jam , a documentary by Rick Minnich seeks to dispel those myths and show a truer representation of hillbilly culture. Part concert film, part warm family jamboree, Hillbilly Jam focuses on the music created by the hillbillies of Southwestern Missouri, mostly descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the Ozark Mountains in the mid-19th century.
The film revolves around several singing groups though the most charismatic is the hillbilly-proud Big Smith and their gentle, soft-spoken lead singer/songwriter Mark Bilyeu. Bilyeu, who looks more like a scruffy hippie than a backwoods hick, becomes the film’s moral center and eloquent spokesmen for what he sees as a dying hillbilly culture.
For Bilyeu, playing hillbilly music—raucous or religious—is a way of connecting to his grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom were a part of the same musical tradition. As he explains it, continuing to play these songs is “a preservation thing…it’s bound up in the people who play the music…and it’s up to us to keep it going.” Several scenes in which members of the Bilyeu family gather around to play music together are sweetly touching, managing to be quaint without being saccharine.
If the Bilyeu family are the heroes of hillbilly culture, carefully preserving it and their relatively rustic lifestyle in the Ozark Mountains, its backwards cousin is the Baldknobbers Jamboree in Branson, Missouri (the “family-friendly Las Vegas”). A veteran performer who goes by the name Ol’ Uncle Bill manages and performs in a hillbilly show where a quartet of older men don false gapped teeth, brightly colored mismatched clothes and the dumbest expressions they can muster on their faces, playing more for laughs than for musicianship.
The audience hoots and hollers at the act—sandwiched between musical numbers full of glitter, patriotism and hairspray—and Ol’ Uncle Bill glad hands visitors like a true showman. The Baldknobbers began as an authentic musical group in the ‘60s (vintage footage from 1969 shows them in far less flashy garb) but they have clearly changed to appeal to the Branson audience. When the filmmaker asks Ol Uncle Bill if he would ever consider going back to old time hillbilly music he scoffs, saying it wouldn’t go over well, because the audience is “too sophisticated” for that kind of thing.
In tone, the film is rather nostalgic for rural life; there are countless quiet shots of untouched fields and rivers and of family members harmonizing and making beautiful music. Yet even as the film warmly depicts the members of the Bilyeu family, it’s rarely introspective about hillbilly culture itself.
Religion and hillbilly music appear to be strongly intertwined—Mark Bilyeu’s Grandma Thelma found religion, and as a consequence, music at a tent revival and managed to convert the entire family for generations—but oddly, the movie has very little to say on the intersection of religion and hillbilly music. Uncle Hornea, a musician and pastor most explicitly straddles the line, preaching at a mega church while also maintaining his simple family sing-alongs to old tunes. But little insight is given into what defines hillbilly music. Uncle Hornea claims that he feels “more responsibility to the songs that we sing and the way it sounds, the feel of it” than “on the preaching.”
Was it always this way? And most importantly, what exactly is hillbilly music? It sounds quite similar to Bluegrass (and certainly has the same Scots-Irish roots), but is it the same thing? What is its relationship to Gospel and Folk music? For those outside of hillbilly culture, these questions are never really addressed.
The film rather bluntly makes the point (and a relatively simple point at that) that pure, rustic music is the best, while mainstream hillbilly music for more mainstream audiences as in Branson or the mega church lacks the same emotional power. The filmmaker audibly asks leading questions, asking Uncle Hornea “Do you think you maybe drifted away from your country roots?” and “Do you feel more like an entertainer than a musician now?” At times, all of this can feel heavy-handed.
The movie works best when it focuses on the music, and so much of it is quite simply wonderful. Even as the film laments the passing of rustic hillbilly life in the Ozarks, its larger point is that the music is still very much alive. Towards the end of the movie, Big Smith plays the same song in a school gymnasium packed with children and grandparents that it does in a bar with young 20-somethings holding beers and singing along. It’s clear from the audience’s enthusiastic responses that this music, hardly a relic, thrives.