There aren’t many things in this world as personal to an artist as their craft, and if you’re shaky on this notion, you need to see James Reams’ Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage on Amazon Prime Video as soon as possible. I’ve always been a little pickier than most when it comes to bluegrass music, but if you’re into the genre, you know that Reams has been around through a hectic stretch in its history and turned in some of its most compelling works along the way – here, his story gets the platform it earned two and a half decades ago. 


Breaking down his childhood in his own words feels like a crucial element for James Reams in Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage, and similarly to the collaborative records he’s performed on in the past, this film at times feels like an expression piece even more than it is a biography. The origin stories of songs are intermingled with personal accounts of turning up in places like Freedom, Wisconsin and Brooklyn, New York in the same breath, and although he’s never self-righteous about any of his statements here, it’s very obvious that Reams takes bluegrass itself far more seriously than most anyone else in the documentary does. 

Now, while that might be hard to believe when you look at some of the other names in this film, the very juxtaposition of this player’s east coast and west coast lives presents us with a very authentic narrative with regard to how much Reams loves what he does. Even in the grief of losing a spouse, the music was still there to comfort him, to bring him across the country to start a new chapter and advance what he had started so many years prior in New York (only with the confidence and skill of a mature man). 

Collaborations are always one of the most important features in any bluegrass musician’s body of work, and this is certainly true of this player. Some of Like a Flowing Rive: A Bluegrass Passage’s most intriguing scenes include the stories (and footage) of banjoist Walter Hensley ripping it up in synchronicity with Reams, and whether you were lucky enough to be present for any of these events yourself or not, they’re very exciting to hear now, as told from a direct source. There are no artificialities to hide behind here, but rather avenues through which James Reams shows us another layer of James Reams. 


If anybody thought this artist was starting to slow down after a quarter of a century worth of playing and performing on the stage and in the studio professionally, Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage is going to quickly put those beliefs to bed in 2020. James Reams doesn’t have to play a dozen of a his most recognizable tunes to pique my interest in this provocative new documentary, and after you’ve watched it on your own, I think you’ll be inclined to understand what all of the fuss has been about. 

Garth Thomas