REVIEW: James Reams — “Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage” (DVD)

In the new documentary Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage, you don’t necessarily have to come into the film having been a lifelong fan of James Reams and the Barnstormers to walk away with a newfound love of the bluegrass music the iconic player has been producing in the past 25 years, but for those who are, it’s a landmark release without dispute. Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is a documentary about the life and times of Reams more than it is the Barnstormers or any of the specific records or collaborations he’s engaged in since first finding some fame back in the early 1990s, but if you’re a serious ‘grass fan, you’ll see that it wasn’t made strictly to honor the career of one man alone.


There’s something about bluegrass music that always makes whatever environment it’s being played in feel like a party, and at times this can be said of Like a Flowing River. Reams is a good storyteller, and rather than trotting out predictable tales of turbulent times in the studio exclusively, he gets very personal very quickly in this film, cutting into his romantic life and professional experiences with the same degree of sharpness he would an acoustic harmony. It takes precision to deliver this kind of a confession without sounding a little bruising in the grander scheme of things, but you would never think as much if you were going off of what Reams presents us with in this release.

If you’re in the market for a music documentary, one of the most important elements of the film you are likely to be curious about is also the most obvious — the soundtrack — and I can assure readers that what they’re getting into with Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is as endearing a product as any album the James Reams moniker has been emblazoned across. As he talks about battling back from vocal cord paralysis (a horrific result of the first in what would be two rounds of next surgeries), it’s obvious how big an effect the same LPs he grew up listening to had in fostering new creativity and, furthermore, a second wind his professional life.


While I still feel like I need to see James Reams play in concert for myself to completely feel the depth of his artistry for myself, seeing the story of his life on screen in Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is absolutely something that I think his fans and those of the traditional bluegrass mode should go out of their way to do this November. Reams is a very charming fellow, and if there’s something to be learned about his legacy from the recounting of the events that made his work what it is today, it is that the downhome roots music that inspired his start is essentially what he continues to record in 2020. Bluegrass doesn’t come in waves but is an everlasting aesthetical movement carried on from one generation to the next, and in Like a Flowing River, Reams acknowledges this is to be his own gospel truth.

Colin Jordan



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