Like a brush fire spreading across a mountainside, the Highwoods String Band stoked a burning enthusiasm for old-time music and sparked legions of new converts to the sound of fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass. The band, which featured fiddlers Walt Koken and Bob Potts, banjoist Mac Benford, guitarist Doug Dorschug and bassist Jennifer Cleland, first played together in 1972 at the Old-Time Fiddler's Convention in Union Grove, N.C.
The Highwoods recorded three LPs with Rounder Records ("Fire on the Mountain," "Dance All Night" and "No. 3 Special") before breaking up by the end of the decade. Although their tenure may have been short, there influence continues today.
Horse Archer Productions, which has produced two previous films related to old-time music, is developing a documentary on the Highwoods, titled "Touched With Fire: the Highwoods String Band Story," which is slated for release this spring. These films are self-funded projects that producer and director Chris Valluzzo says "show the linear nature of old-time music."
"Touched With Fire" joins "The Henry Reed Legacy," about the influential fiddler, and "Why Old Time?" which explores the current old-time music scene. Horse Archer is also working on another film about the Green Grass Cloggers.
"So far these films are all connected in some way," Valluzzo says. "The Highwoods played Henry Reed tunes. The Highwoods influenced a bunch of folks who appear in 'Why Old Time?' So it's a connection that we're showing."
Valluzzo grew up in northern Virginia and graduated from Virginia Tech in 1998 before attending the New York Film Academy. He spent a couple years in the "D.C. Metro indie film scene" before returning to Blacksburg, Va., where he worked for Montgomery County for a time and is now a video producer at Virginia Tech, while working on his own projects on the side. He formed Horse Archer Productions in 2006 with his friend Sean Kotz.
"I have a 2-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, so I need a steady day job, which I totally love," he explains.
According to the website for "Why Old Time?" Valluzzo first remembers hearing the music in 1992, but didn't catch what he calls the "Old Time Bug" until 2004. Before then, however, he began to ask why people were so passionate about this music, and the seeds for the 2009 film were planted.
The Self-Funded Route
After Valluzzo went to the New York Film Academy, he worked in the Washington, D.C., metro film scene as everything from a production assistant to writer and director.
"We had a group of folks that would each work for free on each others' projects. That's really the only way to get things done," he says. "When I started at Montgomery County, I had the chance to film some feature-length historical documentaries. My first was a history of coal mining in the county."
After forming Horse Archer Productions, Valluzzo and Kotz made their first film on Virginia Tech Hokie football fan culture, which was released in 2007. They released "Why Old Time?" and the "Henry Reed Legacy" in 2009.
These films followed a similar model as the films Valluzzo worked in Washington, D.C. While the self-funded structure presents a challenge, it has so far paid off.
"Basically what we do is we bring people on as freelancers, and everyone, including us, works for free and hope we make enough DVD sales to pay everyone back," he says. "So far we've been able to pay people after the fact on all our films, though sometimes it takes a while to get them paid. I'm proud of that. I pay people well for all our projects, and I worked for free never making a dime in D.C. So, I feel good that I'm able to do something in little ol' Blacksburg that no one could do in a much larger film scene."
Another challenge to the self-funded model, Valluzzo says, is time. With two young children, working on the road and not making money up front on these projects is difficult to justify to his family. He's thankful for their support and the sacrifices they make.
"Without my wife on board I'd probably not be doing this," he says. "In fact, that's why we did 'Hokie Nation' first. On game day, I'd drive eight miles to the stadium and I had 65,000 potential interview subjects packed into an area about a half a mile wide. With two cameras getting interviews, we could get two dozen interviews in a five-hour period, which keeps costs down."
Staying local is a hallmark of all the films Horse Archer has released, and Valluzzo likes it that way.
"Ninety-five percent of my interviews for Henry Reed were a 10- to 40-minute drive for me," he says. "As a matter of practicality on no budget, keeping local or regional keeps costs down. I could do a documentary on Cape Breton fiddlers, but I'd never have the budget or time to do it."
With two films on old-time music released at the same time, one about an old-time musician of an earlier generation and another about current practitioners, "Touched With Fire" falls between those time frames to look at a seminal old-time revival band.
The film first came to mind in 2009 while Valluzzo and was filming "Why Old Time?" He went to the band members in 2010 to ask permission to make the film and slowly began whittling away at the project. The band was finally interviewed in May 2012. Once again, finding time was a challenge.
"I could have shot this in a few months, but I'd never see my family," he says. "So I take my time. The process has been slow, but it's been a rewarding experience. I've made lots of new friends in the course of the making of these films."
The Highwoods arrived at a time when people from outside the indigenous mountain culture were coming in and playing old-time music, Valluzzo says. Their acceptance by the locals and their success had a ripple effect on a wide audience.
"The Highwoods were tight and really good. And they made it look easy," he says. "The energy they brought ignited in many people the desire to play this music. I think that's they're biggest legacy."
The Highwoods showed people how playing the music is done, and influenced others after them to do the same.
"Before you know it, you have a thriving old-time scene," Valluzzo says. "They certainly didn't do it by themselves, but they did it early, and I think they did it the best."
The Highwoods "made the old stuff their own," he says. They were one of the first old-time string bands to add a bass to the ensemble, which wasn't a common feature at the time, and their showmanship and vocals set them apart from other revival bands.
Working on these films about old-time music has provided Valluzzo a connection to others, with those who play the music today and those who came before.
"I've learned that this is not a huge scene. But it's a dedicated scene," Valluzzo says. "Folks really live this music. I'm not a huge musician, but I feel a connection with this music that I've not had with other styles. I like that it's a link in a chain that goes back hundreds of years. And I look out at the same mountains while playing or listening that someone who just arrived from Ireland 250 years ago. And we're playing or listening to the same tune. That's pretty cool to me."
Horse Archer has a number of projects under way, but the Green Grass Cloggers film is the only other one that is related to old-time music. The other projects are of regional interest, with topics such as UFOs, civil rights and a professional wrestler, but Valluzzo would like to continue exploring old-time music through film.
"I'd like to go back a lot further and take a historical look at a region and it's musical style," he adds. "I'm thinking a history of old-time music in Grayson County, Va. I'd also like to do a film on Charlie Poole. I love his music and I love his story. Very rise and fall of a talented yet flawed person."
"Touched With Fire: the Highwoods String Band Story" will be released in the spring. You can pre-order the film at www.WhyOldTime.com. The price is $20, but Horse Archer is currently offering it at the discounted rate of $15. Pre-ordering helps Valluzzo and company pay for post-production costs and ensures the film is released sooner.