Raising a ruckus

UGA graduate Jim May has been filming musicians for more than 30 years

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Jim May

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Jim May has a good gig: hanging out at nice clubs and listening to music. And getting paid to do it.

A video and television producer in Nashville, Tenn., May (AB ’67) co-produced 80 episodes of “Live from the Bluebird Café,” Nashville’s premier showcase for songwriters, which appeared on the Turner South television network between 1999 and 2003.

After a five-year run, the Bluebird series led May and his Ruckus Film crew to another project for Turner South called “Music Road.” For that show, they traveled to different Southern venues to record live performances in 2005 and 2006.

“We shot two shows in Athens at the 40 Watt Club—one with the Drive-By Truckers and the other with Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power,” he says. That series earned May regional Emmy Awards for direction, but was cancelled after 10 episodes when Turner South was bought and closed by the Fox Sports network.

May recalls shooting the Bluebird Café series when he and his crew used four hand-held cameras and minimal lighting to capture an hour-long show.

“We televised it without getting in the way or losing the intimacy of the club,” he says. “We emphasized the songwriters’ storytelling and the insider bits behind the songs.”

As the music industry grew, he worked on music videos and TV series with a lot of Nashville entertainers, including Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Keith Urban and Wynonna Judd.

May’s highest praise is reserved for the late actor and comedian Jim Varney, who created a memorable character named Ernest Worrell. May and Ruckus Film partner Coke Sams produced Varney’s CBS TV series, “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest,” which also won two Emmy Awards.

“Working with Varney was incredible,” May recalls. “His talent and abilities were phenomenal. Once we shot 28 different commercials with him in one day. And his off-camera antics were fun—he was a fountain of obscure information.”

He also has been involved in some feature films—“Dr. Otto,” “Existo,” “Ernest Goes to Camp” and “The Young Billy”—and wants to do more. Ruckus Film has several indie feature proposals in development, he says.

May, who attended Harvard Divinity School after graduating from UGA, also has worked on projects for the Nashville-based United Methodist Church, such as filming in Africa and directing a TV series titled “Catch the Spirit.” The Ruckus Film office is located in an old inner-city church building the company bought 20 years ago. The four partners of Ruckus Film have been together 25 years.

“Our business has changed dramatically, especially the technology,” he says. “Now I do editing on my laptop and that’s great. ”

“Thank my lucky stars I’ve been able to do things that are fun and stay in business.”

—John W. English, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia, is a frequent contributor to GM.