Sensationalist articles about Billy Connolly “nearing the end” have been clogging tabloid-minded news feeds for some time – the legendary Scottish stand-up comedian is suffering Parkinson’s disease, among other ailments – but his grandiloquent introduction “It is I, Billy,” is enough to cancel the wake and settle into a three-part travelogue showing there’s plenty of life left in the Big Yin.
Answering one of the most pressing questions of the modern televisual age (namely, do we need yet another celebrity-driven travelogue?) with an emphatic “Aye”, Great American Trail follows Connolly as he traces 1000 years of Scottish history in the United States, plotting a line from Massachusetts to Nashville, travelling 3000 miles through 10 states in the nation’s east. About 27 million Americans claim to have come from Scotland, he says, without elaborating on whether that means they’re Scottish-born or simply have a predilection for tartan. But we’re not here for Connolly’s flair for statistics. At the age of 77 the firebrand has inevitably mellowed, distilling his manic energy into the kind of algorithms that see the best in everything, making him the perfect companion on this little jaunt.
His subjects respond in kind. From taxi drivers to fellow celebs, Connolly’s genial personality draws out a shared humanity, and it’s that which flavours his rambling trail. Connolly has filmed America before in Route 66 and Tracks Across America, but Great American Trail takes the kinetic energy and replaces it with a banjo, an inquisitive mind and an autumnal sense of melancholy.
Scottish hotspots include the New Jersey town of Kearny, where the local butcher makes haggis and a mutton pie known as a “Scots pie” (it has a hole where you can insert your finger in to see if it’s hot enough, which is evidence of genius) and where school attendance plummets during the World Cup. He travels through the remote mountains of West Virginia, which no one wanted except the Scots until they found coal, and explores the indelible country music connection between the Scottish imports and the birth of country music.