ABQ FREE PRESS • September 23, 2015 • 23
‘Winding Stream’ Offers Crash Course in Country BY CAPTAIN AMERICA
hen you’re called on to create a documentary about epic star-crossed country music families the Carters and the Cashes and their cultural dynasty and when you’re Beth Harrington, you sign on to a decade-plus commitment as producer and director of “The Winding Stream.” It’s not her first rodeo. A behind-the-scenes PBS stalwart and former member of The Modern Lovers, her mid-to-late ‘90s films examined miracles and data transmission. The early aughts found her immersed in the women of the rockabilly subculture. Now Harrington’s country doc is showing in cities lucky enough to have indie theaters; the film’s entire title is: “The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music.” “The Winding Stream” does an admirable job despite its missteps. Foremost on that list: We are informed numerous times in interviews with popular musicians how the Carters influenced them and country music. Harrington also devotes more time to talking heads covering the Carters than she does letting us hear the originals play the originals. That last phrase sounds redundant, and it is; to some degree, so is the video of John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and Carolina Chocolate Drops covering Carter Family tunes. While they all do a fine job (especially the latter), it’s as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the audience to appreciate 80-yearold recordings except in snippets. I suppose she’s trying to emphasize the Carters’ influence over the genre’s collective output. For example, mediocre hippiecountry group Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was (and sadly still is) barely on par with a certain subset of “Americana” kids whose anemic output would set Alvin Pleasant Carter rolling in his Virginia grave. The only reason anyone remembers the Dirt Band at all was their commercial acumen in recording a triple-album with country music’s finest – not the “Hee Haw” crowd. This LP set, titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” features Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Bashful Brother Oswald, Vassar Clements and the criminally overlooked Mother Maybelle Carter, showcasing their own signature songs. When I say Mother Maybelle was “overlooked,” I’m speaking confessionally. My age bracket was one decade junior the original hippies. In high school, we listened to The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers as they ushered in something called folk-rock. We revered Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley in his youthful fifties. “The Circle Album,” as we called it, was in heavy rotation but we found Maybelle rather … quaint. At the time, we didn’t realize how innovative her simultaneous lead and rhythm style aka “the Carter Scratch” was, nor did we know of her roots with the most influential rural band ever recorded. Alongside cousin Sara and her husband A.P., Maybelle was the instrumental anchor of the Carter
photos courtesy of Beth Harrington Productions
“The Winding Stream”
Sunday, Oct. 4, through Thursday, Oct. 8, at 4:30, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. The Guild Cinema 3405 Central NW guildcinema.com
Family. The Carters were pop stars for country folk – real country folk who butcher their own hogs every fall and mail-order shoes from Sears Roebuck. Learn how the Carters sold thousands of 78 RPM shellac (not vinyl) records and played hundreds of live radio shows in a time when dire struggle was everywhere. Even traveling by car was a feat during the Great Depression. Their audiences never saw much cash; if they did, it probably got spent on staples they couldn’t make or raise themselves. It was a time of change. America was still largely rural but the lure and power of the city eclipsed the workaday countryside. Part of the Carters’ allure was a reaffirmation of the ideals and values of country life. Ways of doing and being were shunted aside in favor of steel, the Jazz Age and feverish “progress.” The more well-known Woody Guthrie sold the same idea later, when urban takeover was real and irreversible, but even Guthrie gleaned much of his material from the Carters. Obsessed from an early age, A.P. Carter traveled far and wide to learn traditional songs before they were forgotten. He collected the gamut: lovesick blues, jailhouse laments, hillbilly waltzes,
From top, the Carter sisters ham it up as Mother Maybelle looks on. Below, a candid snapshot captures quintessential country-Western couple June Carter and Johnny Cash.
proto-bluegrass instrumentals and stern gospel. A.P. documented age-old tunes sung in the fields, the hard rock coal mines and while rocking a cradle; songs passed down via oral tradition for generations, some with faded roots in the British Isles. These melodies and lyrics were (and are) perpetually mixed, matched, tweaked, reconfigured and amplified, forming the essences of country and Western, and folk music. Their field recordings and catalog of endangered songs should be remembered in their legacy as prominently as their performances or impact on other artists. The Carters were musicologists. Popular tastes changed, and a troubled A.P. slowly withdrew from the stage along with Sara. Maybelle forged ahead, recruiting daughters Anita, Helen and June to form The Carter Sisters in 1943. Johnny Cash encountered June – which set in motion one heck of a star-crossed love story – by 1950, and they eventually married. By the ‘60s, Cash used his fame to restore the name of the family he’d heard on the radio years ago. He worked tirelessly to bring The Carter Family’s work back to prominence. In interviews recorded by Harrington mere weeks before his death, Cash’s air of humble awe and unflagging reverence is plain to see, and it’s a definite highlight of the film. Harrington’s admiration for the Carter Family is equally apparent in her work. Her 90-minute documentary reintroduces America to The Carter Family in limited release engagements. That only happens in places where independent theaters, like The Guild Cinema, still exist. Captain America is a longtime nuevomexicano music — journalist and zinester, editor of “Wig Wam Bam: Albuquerque’s Zine of Music and Nepotism.”
Longtime nuevomexicano music journalist and zinester Captain America returns to alternative print journalism with a review of country-Wester...