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The Winding Stream at Berkshire Int'l Film Festival

Documentary Follows the Course of Country Music from its Roots

By: Steve Nelson - 06/09/2014

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Beth Harrington in Great Barrington at BIFF (photo: Steve Nelson)
Beth Harrington in Great Barrington at BIFF (photo: Steve Nelson)
The Carter Family in earliest known photo, c. 1927
The Carter Family in earliest known photo, c. 1927
Bristol, where they first recorded
Bristol, where they first recorded
Studio portrait, c.  1927
Studio portrait, c. 1927
Lesley Riddle (r) with young future blues great Brownie McGhee (date unknown)
Lesley Riddle (r) with young future blues great Brownie McGhee (date unknown)
The Carter Family, 1937
The Carter Family, 1937
The Carter clan during their border radio days
The Carter clan during their border radio days
Chet Atkins with Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters
Chet Atkins with Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters
June Carter and Johnny Cash
June Carter and Johnny Cash
Mother Maybelle Carter, 1987
Mother Maybelle Carter, 1987
Rosanne Cash
Rosanne Cash
Janette Carter and her brother Joe
Janette Carter and her brother Joe
(L-R) John Carter Cash, his wife Laura and Janette’s son Dale Jett (2010)
(L-R) John Carter Cash, his wife Laura and Janette’s son Dale Jett (2010)

In the late 1940s Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters -- her daughters Helen, June and Anita – were on the road playing their music in rural venues and on country radio stations. Maybelle’s musical career began twenty years earlier, when she played guitar (or autoharp at times) and sang harmony with the original Carter Family, along with her cousin Sara on lead vocals and autoharp (or guitar), and Sara’s husband A.P. on vocals. What the pioneering trio played in their early recordings and performances was not even known yet as country music.

It seemed like Maybelle and the sisters were about to catch a big break when the Grand Ole Opry invited them to perform. There was a catch, however. The Opry did not want them to bring their young guitar player on the show, because it considered his electric guitar stylings too “jazzy.” But the Carters held out and the Opry relented, giving the young Chet Atkins his first chance to play in that country music tabernacle.

This story is one of many told in director/producer Beth Harrington’s moving new documentary The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music, which screened at the recent Berkshire International Film Festival after its lauded world premiere in March at SXSW in Austin. The Atkins episode is a reflection of the Carters’ devotion to their music, standing by their man in the band at the risk of losing the Opry gig. It also illustrates the broad influence they had on American music. Atkins became an Opry stalwart who was instrumental in modernizing country music with a more pop-oriented “Nashville sound.” He also played on and helped produce Elvis Presley’s breakthrough record “Heartbreak Hotel,” and mentored The Everly Brothers and played on several of their big rock ‘n’ roll hits.

Beth’s film is crafted like a great country song, full of love, heartbreak, triumph, loss and redemption. A former musician herself, she has an ear and a love for the music at the heart of this multigenerational saga. The film has many remarkable and personal interviews with Carter descendants, friends and devotees, not the least of which is the one she did with Johnny Cash at his home shortly before he died. But with the many talking heads, you’re never far away from hearing another classic Carter song, or seeing one performed by many of the musicians they’ve influenced.

Johnny himself grew up listening to The Carter Family on the radio, which influenced his music. As fate would have it, he wound up marrying Carter Sister June, who unfortunately passed away just before production of the film began. Johnny’s daughter (by his previous marriage) Rosanne Cash, yet another fine musician in the lineage, says in the film that her stepmother June gave her “wings” as a performer. And it was Rosanne who, by opening the door to her dad and the family, gave wings to Beth’s dream to do this film.

For her previous film, Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, Beth was looking for a female narrator who could bridge the generations of rockabilly fans who were its intended audience. She thought of Rosanne, and as luck would have it, a good friend in the music business had her phone number. Rosanne quickly agreed to do it, despite never having narrated a film before, and more importantly, not having performed for over two years after an operation to remove polyps from her larynx.

When I asked Beth at BIFF about the genesis of her new film, she said, “I had such a good time doing the rockabilly thing that I thought I would love to keep going and keep making music documentaries.” So when Rosanne asked her after Club wrapped if she would like to interview Johnny, it was just what she was hoping for. That was in 2003, so the labor of love that is The Winding Stream was over ten years in the making, with Rosanne a key figure in the film. Beth’s goal was to “connect the dots” between the Carters and the Cashes, a relationship she felt too few people understood. Significant funding was raised through Kickstarter, which didn’t even exist when the project began.

New technology also played a large part in the careers of the Carters and Cashes. The first four original Carter Family records were produced in 1927 by Ralph Peer for the Victor Talking Machine Company on “portable” equipment he set up on the second floor of a hat factory in Bristol, a town which straddled the Tennessee-Virginia border. Fishing for talent, Peer placed a small ad in the local paper which caught the eye of A.P. Carter. So he, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle set off for Bristol in a borrowed car to try their hand at making records. Peer’s ad also landed Jimmie Rodgers, another country music founder who was known as “The Singing Brakeman” and renowned for his yodeling.

Radio was still in its infancy at that time, so records played at home were the primary means by which people listened to music. All told the Carter Family cut 260 songs for Peer. As radio grew rapidly in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, the federal government implemented regulations governing the frequencies assigned to stations and the power of the signals they could transmit. Not everyone was pleased by the new order of things. So a few enterprising broadcasters set up stations in Mexico, beyond the reach of the feds.

One was Dr. John R. Brinkley, whose sole contributions to medicine were quack sex-related surgeries. His “border blaster” station XERA, built in 1936 just across the river from Del Rio, Texas, broadcast such a powerful signal that it reached the entire U.S. and beyond, and supposedly could be heard through vibrating bedsprings and tin cans. On its air, along with patent medicine pushers and radio preachers, was a duo called The Monroe Brothers, the first professional group of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. By 1938 The Carter Family had become the station’s biggest stars, getting up to 25,000 fan letters a week. But this chapter in their story was shortlived, due to tension between A.P. and Sara, who had divorced in 1936, and the family’s unhappiness living away from home.

The group carried on professionally, for a while with Maybelle’s three daughters plus A.P and Sara’s children Janette and Joe added to the lineup. It finally disbanded in 1943, before the advent of television. In 1969 TV brought Johnny Cash to greater prominence with his own weekly show, where he established his public persona as “The Man in Black.” A regular on the show was rockabilly great Carl Perkins, who like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny emerged from Sun Studios in Memphis through the new medium of 45 rpm singles. Also featured was his new wife June, and guest stars like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Neil Young and, most famously, his friend Bob Dylan.

As Johnny says in The Winding Stream, “I’ve seen ‘em all,” yet for him the biggest star who appeared on his show was the mother-in-law he adored, Maybelle Carter. The renewed recognition from her TV exposure led to appearances reunited with Sara as a “traditional” folk duo before audiences of college kids and stoned hippies, and to recording with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the 1972 LP Will The Circle Be Unbroken, named for the Carter Family’s most well-known song.

Circle was derived from an old hymn and reworked with new lyrics by A.P. It was he who wrote the material for the Family, often derived from songs, or even just bits of songs, he went “hunting” for in the hills of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. For ten years he was joined on these quests by Lesley Riddle, a black man with a peg leg. It’s hard to imagine how, in those days, this very odd couple could travel to both white and black communities. And when they’d return from their journeys, Lesley would often stay at the Carter home in Maces Springs, Virginia working on the material they brought back. While there he would show Maybelle blues licks on the guitar.

She was a natural virtuoso, credited with bringing the guitar into prominence in “old timey” music as a lead instrument, whereas before it played a minor role behind the banjo and the fiddle. She is most renowned for inventing the “Carter scratch,” a difficult technique in which she picked the melody of a tune on the lower strings with her thumb while playing rhythm on the upper strings with her other fingers. You can see how she did it in some of the old footage in the film.

There’s no way of knowing how much she may have learned from Riddle. But there’s no question about the influence of African-American music on The Carter Family. The film opens with John Prine doing a rolicking version of their song “Bear Creek Blues.” You may think of the Carters as country, but this is straight-ahead 12-bar blues, albeit with a twang:

   Way up on Bear Creek watching the sun go down.
   Way up on Bear Creek watching the sun go down.
   It makes me feel like I’m on my last go ‘round.

With a different tune and tempo, it echoes the lyrics of W.C. Handy’s earlier classic “St. Louis Blues”:

   I hate to see the evening sun go down.
   Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down.
   ‘Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round.

Harrington points out that a lot of those early records, by both white and black artists, were in everybody’s home. But labeling by record companies, as white “country” or as black “race” music, obscured its origins and divided the listening market. Appearing in the film are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are preserving the tradition of black Southern string music. Despite the evidence of your eyes, close them and what your ears hear sure as heck sounds a lot like what you might have thought of as white Southern string music.

The many musicians influenced by The Carter Family have upheld their tradition. But as A.P. lay dying in relative obscurity in 1960, his daughter Janette recalls his saying to her, “I want you to promise me that my music will be carried on.” So she eventually created the Carter Family Fold, a rustic amphitheatre next to the grocery store A.P. ran after his Carter Family days, dedicated to the memory of the Carter Family’s music and presenting live performances every weekend. On opening night Janette waited anxiously for cars to come up the road. They came, and kept on coming, from nearby and around the world, for the 30 years Janette ran the Fold with her brother Joe, until her death in 2006. But the Fold goes on, as does the Carter legend.

Janette was not the only one who appears in the film but has passed away. So has Joe and other family members and friends, including of course Johnny Cash. Mike Seeger, of the old-timey revivalists New Lost City Ramblers and who worked for many years with the elderly Lesley Riddle, spoke and played in the film, but died in 2009. Country icon George Jones sang a downhome rendition of The Carters’ 1930 recording “Worried Man Blues,” and died in 2013. Pete Seeger, the folk legend who passed away this year, was not filmed for Stream but appears in a clip from his short-lived TV show with Johnny and June as his guests.

Beth came along just in time to capture first-hand accounts from so many people who were part of the story of the Carters and Cashes, or who had valuable insights as musicians and historians. In doing so she has not only made an enjoyable film, ear candy for those who love this music, but has created an important historical document about the flow of a unique strain of American music through the generations, from A.P. and Sara and Maybelle on down to Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash and his contemporaries. Some fifty hours of footage shot in the making of the film deserves to be preserved in the Smithsonian Institution or Country Music Hall of Fame.

With her once beautiful but craggy timeworn face, Janette Carter is a compelling figure who haunts the film. She promised her daddy to preserve the family legacy. Beth Harrington has helped her to keep that promise. The Winding Stream will be screened at the Carter Family Fold sometime this fall. A.P. would be pleased.

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Film website: http://thewindingstream.com/

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