For seven years starting in 1996, every Wednesday evening the downtown tavern Ken's Bar hosted a bluegrass hootenanny performed by a group whose members, by their own admission, didn't know the first thing about playing bluegrass. At least not at first.
Cork n' Bottle String Band: The Ken's Bar Story, directed by Jeremy Gotcher and Cork n' Bottle mandolinist Greg Dierks, documents the unlikely success of an ensemble that has become a Madison institution. Why unlikely? From the beginning the project was so low-key that the musicians themselves assumed the weekly gig would last just a couple of months, at most.
But after just a few weeks word began to spread, and soon the band was playing to crowds so massive that the tiny bar became uncomfortable during shows. And still the people came. The stint ended when Ken's closed its doors, but now the band plays every Thursday evening at Memorial Union.
The 89-minute film, shown Saturday night at the Wisconsin Historical Society, tells this yarn in great detail -- at moments almost too much detail. The filmmakers interviewed many people: the musicians themselves, their fans, other musicians and notables like local country authority Bill Malone. Their combined testimony makes for a very well-documented story, but too often particulars are told by one person (the fact that the band played for beer, for example) and then retold by others, and retold, and retold.
But this makes a kind of sense, since one of the pleasures of being with friends is the telling and retelling of stories, and the musicians are both bandmates and friends. (They compare their weekly shows to a bowling league or a regular poker game.) And some of the stories the members of the Cork n' Bottle String Band have to tell are indeed spectacular, like the one about the night the hippies got their dreadlocks stuck to the wall.
Unsurprisingly, the best thing about the documentary is the music. Their humility notwithstanding, the members of the Cork n' Bottle String Band are very good musicians, and they play both their own music and bluegrass chestnuts ("White House Blues," "Little Maggie") with gusto. A highlight is "The Auctioneer," the tongue-twisting old Leroy Van Dyke tune sung by Cork n' Bottle guitarist David Landau with such dexterity that the audience at the historical society gave it an ovation.
The film's biggest and pleasantest surprise is the mock newsreel that opens it, a very convincing pastiche of World War II-era clips and footage that was, as Dierks told the audience after the screening, filmed on the cheap.
"Why do movies cost $80 million?" Dierks wondered. "We shot that in a fiddler's driveway."