Very early in Beth Harrington’s excellent documentary, The Winding Stream, the singer and songwriter Joe Ely says, “people should know who [the Carter Family] are just like they should know who the first president of the United States is.” By the end of the movie, it’s hard to quibble with the assessment. The Carter Family (originally A.P., his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle) are arguably the very foundation of country music. Their story and ancestors wind through the history of the form.
A.P., Sara and Maybelle’s career begins as a casual outfit playing songs, but A.P.’s ambition and feverish collecting of local tunes pushes the family to greater exposure. Small local shows quickly blossom into cutting sides, traveling to Texas to play on the famous border radio station XERA, and then suffering the usual side effects of being on the road—losing touch with family, home and one another.
Often in music documentaries there is an imbalance in the historical perspective of the artist. Too many famous people paying their respects can turn the tone sycophantic—too many first cousins talking about the old weathered house where they used to play cards and the movie begins to drag. Luckily for Harrington, the Carter Family is so influential and their reach so vast, that many of the “family” interviewed in the movie are famous themselves.
Case in point, Johnny Cash, who married into the family via Maybelle Carter’s daughter, June. To hear Cash’s high opinion of his adopted family and to see him play these old songs with June and their son and daughter is worth the price of admission alone. Through Cash and others, one gets the sense of a long line of talented artists and their importance to the history of music. Harrington is smart enough to step out of the way and let the music and the history tell the tale.
What we’re left with in the end is a fine balance between the life and the art, how they suffered, how they played and finally, how the music redeemed them. A great doc, expertly handled with exceptional music throughout.
[The Winding Stream screens at 5:30pm on Saturday, Nov. 15th @ Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.]