'The Winding Stream': Film Review

The Winding Stream Still - H 2014
Courtesy of The Winding Stream

The Winding Stream Still - H 2014

Essential viewing for anyone interested in the roots of American music.

Beth Harrington's documentary chronicles the history and music of the Carter and Cash families

Director Beth Harrington packs enough drama, music and history to fuel a miniseries in her thoroughly entertaining and comprehensive account of the Carter and Cash families and their enduring contributions to American music. Recently showcased at Lincoln Center’s Sound and Vision music-themed film festival, The Winding Stream is a natural for cable and public television exposure, and should also reach appreciative audiences at art houses and on VOD.

Harrington, a former musician herself — she was a singer for Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers — brings an obvious passion for the subject matter to her incisive documentary. The story begins in the 1920s, when Virginia amateur musician A.P. Carter teamed up with his wife, Sara, and her cousin Maybelle to form the Carter Family. Distinguished by Sara’s ethereal vocals and Maybelle’s virtuosic guitar playing, the group was discovered by music producer Ralph Peer, who had ventured to Appalachia in search of “old-timey” musicians. Their initial recording sessions in Bristol, Va., dubbed “The Bristol Sessions,” later came to be known as the “Big Bang of Country Music.”

The group found their biggest fame thanks to XERA, a Mexican border radio station whose immense wattage enabled it to be heard throughout the country. It was founded by one John R. Brinkley, a doctor of dubious distinction who found fame and riches with his quack surgeries purporting to correct impotence in men and sexual dysfunction in women.

Carter — who roamed the region in search of old songs that he would then rearrange and often put his name on — kept the group together even after he and Sara divorced. She later married his cousin, in but one example of the many drama-fueled backstories that give the film emotional resonance.

The group eventually split up, with Maybelle continuing to perform with her three young daughters under the name Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. One of those daughters was June, whose irrepressible humor and stage personality made her a star. She would later go on to marry Johnny Cash, who had grown up listening to the music of the Carter Family.

Cash, seen in interviews conducted shortly before his death, effusively testifies to their influence on him, declaring that “Maybelle Carter was the greatest star I’ve ever known.” He also describes how he fell in love with June at first sight, although their relationship — as anyone who’s seen Walk the Line well — was made tempestuous by his personal demons and addictions.

The film, which also includes audio recordings of interviews with Maybelle and Sara and comments by the current generation of Cashes and Carters, heavily concentrates on the music. Renditions of Carter Family classics are delivered by the likes of George Jones, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Prine, Sheryl Crow and others.

The filmmaker’s sole misstep is her awkward use of photo-animation to bring old photographs of the Carter Family to musical life. Alternately cute and creepy, they recall Terry Gilliam’s similar efforts for Monty Python.

That quibble aside, The Winding Stream emerges as a loving and comprehensive tribute to the timeless music of this musical dynasty that has influenced countless artists who have followed in their wake.

Production: Beth Harrington Productions

Director: Beth Harrington

Producers: Beth Harrington, Amy Harrington, Nancy Harrington

Executive producers: David Vernier, Christine Vernier

Director of photography: Tom Shrider

Editor: Greg Snider

No rating, 90 minutes