Chasing an ambition as big as stardom can be quite the challenge, and if there’s anyone that knows this from a personal standpoint, it’s singer/songwriter and longtime bluegrass player James Reams, star of the new documentary Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage. In more ways than one, Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is everything its title would have us believe it to be and more, encompassing the story of Reams’ life while also unfurling a narrative about a classic American genre as it could only be seen through the lens of an independent artist. It’s a fine documentary film and, in short, something bluegrass buffs really need to see for themselves.
Right off the bat, it’s obvious that the most important influence in the whole of Reams’ career hasn’t come from another player within the industry or even a concept within the bluegrass aesthetic, but instead from the great love he shared with his soulmate Tina Aridas. Interspersed with the story of his professional conquests, Like a Flowing River takes us into the romantic relationship that gave life to so many of the lyrical notions and melodic bursts of catharsis that would later make his music with acts like The Barnstormers so hard for fans to put down.
There’s a lot of jamming to be enjoyed in this film, but it never takes center stage ahead of the dialogue we get from Reams himself (not to mention what feels like scores of bluegrass musicians, DJs and insiders giving their two cents on his career). The appeal of the soundtrack transcends the placement of the songs with specific scenes not because of the directing style but through the way in which one melody seems to flow into the next, with the only real distinctive linchpin in the narrative coming to us through Reams’ frame by frame commentary.
The Kentucky Songbird and 25 years of Barnstormin’ – “Like A Flowing River : A Bluegrass Passage,” tells the story of James Reams who burst onto the bluegras…
I really like the anti-rigid approach taken to the directing style in this documentary, and I think that it allows for the music to impart a lot of the mood to us in moments that are clearly too profoundly personal for the man of the hour to discuss in any greater detail. Through a vocal cord-paralyzing surgery, tackling the tough issue of contemporary coal mining through his lyricism and even losing Aridas to cancer in 2011, the harmonies in the backdrop seem to resonate with the individual expressions we get from Reams in his interview, which is something I haven’t seen as much out of films centering on similarly-successful artists in country and folk music lately.
James Reams might not be a household name outside of the bluegrass underground that has given his life so much meaning in the past two and a half decades, but in Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage, he shines like the star he has always meant to be. This is definitely a documentary film that is worth getting Prime Video to see this fall, and I honestly doubt I’m going to be the only music critic to say so.