The New Lost City Ramblers

Always Been a Rambler

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There's nothing too fancy or controversial about the New Lost City Ramblers; they're just one of the most respected and influential of the traditional/old-timey artists to have emerged from the mid-20th-century folk revival. Accordingly, this hour-long documentary is a straight-ahead overview of their career and legacy. All three of the Ramblers in their longest-lived lineup (John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwarz) are interviewed, as is the man from their original lineup who left early on, Tom Paley. Mixed in with the interviews are an impressive assortment of performance clips spanning nearly a half-century, in settings ranging from festivals and concerts to more informal environments in homes and the countryside. A good number of other folk artists offer brief testimonials to the Ramblers' importance and durability, from David Grisman and Maria Muldaur to Ricky Skaggs and (via voiceover) Bob Dylan. Attention is also paid and credit given to the Ramblers' work in helping to promote and popularize the music of other folk artists, including Elizabeth Cotten, Roscoe Holcomb, and Maybelle and Sara Carter (all of whom are also shown in bits of archive footage). If there's anything that might disappoint the less intense folk or popular music fan, there wasn't really a dramatic arc to the New Lost City Ramblers' performing and recording career; they became established in the folk revival and maintained their standing as respected artists for decades, even though their time would eventually be divided between the Ramblers and some other bands and musical projects. Perhaps partly for that reason, the documentary jumps around somewhat chronologically, but it still works well in conveying both their musicianship and their musicological/sociological contributions. As considerable bonuses, the DVD also includes a 24-minute 1969 color film of the Ramblers rambling around the countryside, during which they play eight diverse songs (with diverse instrumentation) and engage in some lightly comic banter apparently intended to reflect the slow-paced humor of rural life. A much shorter but likewise significant bonus is never-before-seen footage of the Paley lineup doing a couple songs in 1959 in a TV soundstage-like setting.