There is a stream that courses through American roots music from which virtually all country music flows. Its source is in the Appalachian foothills in a place called Maces Springs, Virginia. It was there that A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle began their careers as three of the earliest stars of country music. From their earliest days as Victor recording artists to their international success via the phenomenon of Border Radio, the Original Carter Family made their mark on the history of American recorded music.
These three didn’t just play the music emerging from their hill country upbringing. They invented it. A.P. was both song collector and composer, crafting and arranging snippets of ancient, musty melodies into commercial American popular music. Maybelle took the then-underplayed guitar and made it into the cornerstone of country instrumentation that we know today. And Sara became the first well-known woman’s voice in country music, stamping it with the eerie Gothic quality we find in so much of the country canon.
The stream these three created has turned into a rushing river and has moved through several generations of musicians, both inside their family and without. There would be no Folk Revival of the ’60s without the Carters, no country–rock bands of the ’70s, and no alt-country hipsters of our present era. The Carters crossed styles, crossed genres, crossed generations.
And yet, the Carters suffered periods of obscurity, with AP and Sara divorcing and – despite trying to keep the act alive – all three going their separate ways. AP died never fully realizing the impact he had on American music. Sara moved to California vowing to live a quiet life with her new husband, AP’s cousin Coy. Maybelle, fiercely devoted to music, struggled to envision what the next step would be.
The Carter story might have ended there. But it didn’t. No one would have guessed that a young man, who, at first blush, seemed more renegade than reverent adherent, would be the one to lift up the Carter legacy. That man was Johnny Cash, and his love for the Carter music dated back to nights as a boy in Dyess, Arkansas listening to the Carter Family perform on the air (at that point featuring the next generation of Carters, including little June Carter), their melodies blasting across the Mexican border into his bedside radio. It was a wonderful twist of fate when Cash, as a Sun Records artist, first met Mother Maybelle and her girls, the Carter Sisters and vowed to June that “I’m gonna marry you someday.”
The Winding Stream – a 90–minute documentary shot in High Definition – tells these stories and others through narrator–less interviews; this saga is punctuated with studio performances by celebrated roots music practitioners like Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and others. The film’s goal is to illuminate the foundation–forming history of this multi–generational musical family. Country music would not be what is without them.
Beth Harrington is an independent producer, director and writer, born in Boston and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. She most often focuses on work that explores American history, music and culture. Harrington’s independent production Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly, a music documentary about the pioneering women of rock and roll, was honored with a 2003 Grammy nomination. This and other work reflects a long-standing love of music. She is a singer and sometimes guitarist, most noted for her years as a member of Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers on the Warner Brothers Sire Records label. In 2014 her film The Winding Stream – The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music premiered at SXSW, later appearing at over 30 film festivals in the U.S. and abroad and now currently available on Netflix. Her latest projects include the documentary Beyond the Duplex Planet about artist David Greenberger, and a music-based digital series,The Musicianer. Harrington has also worked with public television stations WGBH in Boston and OPB in Portland producing, researching, and developing shows for both national and local air on series such as NOVA, Frontline, History Detectives, Oregon Art Beat and Oregon Experience. Her work has been nominated for numerous Emmy awards.