Even an unbroken circle has to start somewhere, and Beth Harrington’s The Winding Stream — an earnest, engaging doc history of the Carter Family — picks up at the precise moment when commercial music flowered on the wildwood of tradition. In 1927, A.P. Carter, the songwriter and mastermind, talked his wife Sara and her sister Maybelle into motoring down to Bristol, Virginia, from their mountain home in Maces Spring. In Bristol, the family sang for a man in town to audition local musicians; a couple months later, the Carters were earning royalties from the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Their lives changed: A.P. endeavored to track down every old mountain song he could, and they recorded hundreds, even after A.P. and Sara divorced. American music changed, too: Sara and Maybelle’s high-mountain belting is now our very idea of an “authentic” past, and Maybelle’s self-taught guitar heroics — she could switch from rhythm to lead all throughout a song — are still known as the “Carter scratch.”
The film breezes through this history with the usual doc assortment of interviews, archival clips, and celebrity testimonials. The treatment’s never as deep as the stream of the title, but it’s certainly diverting, and it’s likely to thrill devotees as it hips new audiences. “People should know who they are just like they should know who the first president of the United States is,” says Texan rock/country master Joe Ely in the first moments, and he’s not exaggerating (much).
Family of the Family speaks of the old days and the new in footage that feels charmingly close to informal, personal interviews; there are also priceless, late-life scenes of June Carter Cash, who was Maybelle’s daughter, and her oak of a husband, Johnny Cash, both of whom died in 2003. “Maybelle Carter is the greatest star I’ve ever known, without trying to be a star — without wanting to be a star,” Cash rumbles, his voice still mighty even as his body nears its end.
The dead haunt this film something like the way the ghosts of a long-gone America haunt the Carters’ songs: George Jones turns up to sing a number, and hot damn he sounds good. Other performers on hand: John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, and Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; Grey DeLisle and Murry Hammond. Plus, subsequent generations of Carters air favorites from the songbook.
The world has few live recordings of the original Carters, but the Fifties iteration of the group — mother Maybelle, daughters Anita, Helen, and clowning June, plus the gentleman guitar scorcher Chet Atkins — charms so much in clips from its Opry stint that you’ll likely clock some YouTube hours hunting down more. But it’s the originals whose records spin throughout The Winding Stream, songs from a time when music was still an event rather than world-filling product. The film stands as a reminder of how much it can mean just to listen.
The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music
Directed by Beth Harrington
Opens December 18, IFC Center