Harder Than It Looks

In January 2001 first-time filmmaker George Goehl told me he expected to finish the documentary he was working on by that fall. That turned out to be classic rookie optimism. He didn’t get done with King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin until this past March, and its local premiere is this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with screenings Sunday at 7:30 PM and next Thursday, October 30, at 8:15 PM.

The film follows the 76-year-old singer and guitarist’s life in music, including his influential stint with bluegrass titan Bill Monroe and a solo career spanning five decades. But the central issue is Martin’s ongoing exclusion from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Though he maintains he has no interest in becoming a member of country music’s most celebrated fraternity, he’s clearly bitter; former bandmates J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams and country star Marty Stuart lament Martin’s situation even as they blame it on his outspokenness. There’s plenty of terrific performance footage, both vintage and contemporary, including a fine duet with Ralph Stanley, and Martin’s near compulsive candor and emotional volatility are consistently absorbing.

Goehl underestimated how long it would take to edit more than 80 hours of raw footage down to a concise 66-minute portrait. He’d planned on doing it himself, but veteran editor Kathleen Dargis read about Goehl’s project in this column and offered to help. She agreed to accept deferred payment, and the pair spent more than a year putting the film together.

He also underestimated what music licensing fees would cost: of the roughly $80,000 he spent making the film, Goehl guesses that between $30,000 and $35,000 went toward obtaining rights to use the recordings, excerpts from television appearances, and performance sequences he needed to tell Martin’s story. “So many creative decisions had to be based on an economic reality, which is kind of heartbreaking at times,” he says.

Goehl was a community organizer for the National Training and Information Center; in August 2002 he was offered a position as organizing director. He accepted–aside from his personal investment in the organization, he needed the raise–but suddenly he had “a very intense, more-than-full-time job.” The editing process slowed further, and much of it had to be done after hours. In July he left NTIC to focus on getting the film into festivals and preparing the expanded DVD version.

Martin is thrilled with the results, Goehl says, although for about 24 hours after Martin first saw the final cut Goehl received a steady stream of e-mails from Martin’s girlfriend passing on questions about editing decisions: “How come you don’t have my grandson in there shooting his BB gun?” “How come you don’t have me singing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?'”

Goehl has shown King of Bluegrass at five festivals since premiering it at the Nashville film fest in April, with a few more still to come, but now he’s devoting his energy to the DVD and VHS release, which he’s also financing himself for another 20 grand or so. The VHS version is available by mail now from Thrill Jockey, the DVD is due out in a few weeks, and in January Thrill Jockey will distribute both formats to retail. A sound track to the film is tentatively scheduled for release by the label in March. Goehl knows that if he’s to recoup his investment it’ll be through home video sales. “I’m pretty nervous,” he admits. “I don’t want to be looking at these credit card bills for the rest of my life.” Goehl will attend both this week’s screenings and participate in discussions afterward.

Vinyl Decision

The first two releases from the local reissue label Aestuarium were a late-60s African-influenced jazz album by Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble and an EP of Afrobeat tracks recorded in ’79 by Ghanaian expat Dan Boadi. But Aestuarium owner Jamie Hodge’s obsession is collecting soul and funk 45s that were never released on a real label, and he’s dipped into his private reserve for the new Chicago One-Stop: Staff Picks, Vol. 1. It’s a set of three seven-inch vinyl records, individually packaged in die-cut green cardboard sleeves, that were originally put out as singles in the 70s by three obscure midwestern artists–Joey Irving (from Rockford), Wayne Carter (Springfield), and Sugar Hill (Milwaukee).

When I interviewed Hodge in the summer of 2001 he told me, “This is not a rare-groove label. It’s not a coincidence that I’m only doing CDs now.” He still isn’t interested in catering to producers and DJs in search of sample fodder, but he did wind up putting out the Cohran and Boadi records on vinyl as well. “My preferred mode of listening is via the computer,” he e-mails from the Netherlands, where he’s begun work toward a master’s degree at the Institute of Sonology at the Hague’s Royal Conservatory. “However, the buying audience clearly disagrees. Vinyl sales of the first two releases have been consistently higher than that of CDs. I’ve never understood the motivation to purchase vinyl pressings of digital masters, but I seem to be in the minority.”

Hodge’s manufacturing and distribution deal with local Hefty Records allows him to keep the label active while he studies overseas; next year he hopes to reissue an early 70s album by the politically charged funk band Boscoe and music of similar vintage by the African American Jazz Ensemble, a band formed at Malcolm X College that included Malachi Thompson and Sonny Seals. He also intends to reissue more singles in the Chicago One-Stop series.


On Saturday night Clem Snide, Califone, and Okkervil River (see Spot Check) play a show at the Logan Square Auditorium (2539 N. Kedzie) presented by the Empty Bottle. The Bottle first used the space–whose capacity is 800, about three times that of the club–in July to host a performance by the comedy group Stella. The event’s success convinced Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman to make a deal with the auditorium to put on 24 all-ages shows there over the following year; the first was in August, with Icelandic quartet Mum and New York’s ragtag Animal Collective.

“There’s been a lot of demand on the market for a room of that size, between the Bottle and the Metro, that’s all-ages,” says Finkelman. “It gives us more options.” The arrangement allows the club to continue working with acts whose popularity has forced them to move up to larger venues. The only other Bottle show currently scheduled at the auditorium will feature Low, Juana Molina, and Haley Bonar, on December 6. Tickets are available in advance through the Bottle’s Web site and at the door; Saturday’s show begins at 9:30 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Will Wall.