Arts & Events

The Winding Stream: Cash in on this Country Music Romp

Gar Smith
Friday April 22, 2016 - 05:00:00 PM

Opens April 22 at the Berkeley Elmwood

The Winding Stream opens in Poor Valley, Virginia, with powerful visuals of a locomotive rattling down rural rails and a close-up of John Prine hunched over his guitar, pouring a wail of country soul ("Bear Creek Blues") into a microphone. And Director Beth Harrington's film just keeps a-chuggin'—full of steam, energy, recollections and lots of great country tunes—through seven decades of bedrock American musical history.

Early on, Rosanne Cash responds to an interviewer's question by calling the Carter Family's music "primal" and musician Murray Hammond agrees. "The Carters are like the graveyard," he says, "there's nothing standing between their human heart and your human anguish." The music was all about honesty.

Beth Harrington is the perfect person to make this film. A singer and musician herself, she directed one previous film called Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly. In her "Director's Statement," she recalls something Sara Carter's grandson Dale Jett told her: "Love music and it will love you back." This film is her valentine to the Carters.




The Carter family emerged from a world very remote from our modern lives. Struggling to raise a familiy on a hardscrabble frontier farm is practically unknown today. Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Carter, the family patriarch, didn't plan to be a performer but he had an uncanny obsession with music. He met his wife Sara while traveling going door-to-door, selling (of all things) trees. Before he even saw Sara, he heard her singing to herself inside her family house. The sound stopped him dead in his tracks and he proposed that very day. 

This incredible linkage between music, emotion, family bonds and human love is the major ingredient that ties this film together over the decades as children are born, marriages are challenged, and loved ones grow old and inherit the Earth. 

There were no videos of those early days, but the filmmakers have created a stunning alternative—a fascinating form of animation that puts movement into the black and white images lifted from old photographs. As these old portraits begin to move (like 2-D puppets), we see the Carters—A.P., Sara and first cousin Maybelle—fingering their instruments, blinking their eyes, and mouthing the words to signature ballads. The photo-replicants even hop inside (a photo of) an old jalopy and head out cross-country, over dirt roads and bridges, to reach their first 1927 recording session in Bristol, Tennessee. 

A.P. missed the second day of recording because he was out trying to buy a new tire for the car they borrowed to make the trip. So the two women recorded that day's set—a radical act in an era when most songs were recorded by men. Women were still unliberated and consigned to domestic chores at home and backup roles on stage. Sara's voice knocked New York record producer Ralph Peer for a loop, especially when she sang a song called "Single Girl, Married Girl," a topic that was almost scandalous by the Puritanical standards of the day. 

The Carters quickly forgot about the trip to Bristol but three months later, A.P. received an envelop from New York and inside was a check from Victor records. Their records were selling and the Carters were on the road to fame as the First Family of Country Singers. 

There was not much money in performing, in the early days. Harrington includes a shot of a handbill from one of their first gigs. It promised "The program is morally good" and listed the two-tier admission as 15 and 25 cents. 

When Victor Records begged for more songs to meet the growing demand, A.P. became a sort of roving grassroots ethnomusicologist, tracking down indigenous, itinerate backwoods singers in their dirt-poor shacks. A.P. also recognized that a lot of this "unknown" music— gospels, blues, shape-note songs—was to be found in the African-American South. (Here The Winding Stream offers rare footage of black southerners relaxing and dancing to music, much like their white counterparts.) 

A.P. met up with Lesley Riddle and the two spent ten years on the road traveling to forgotten black communities searching for unique songs. AP wrote down the lyrics and Riddle captured the music. Had it not been for Carter and Riddle, much of this folkloric tradition would certainly have been lost. They were an unlikely pair since Riddle was an African America. (The filmmakers note that, while the Carters made money from harvesting these ethnic treasures, no profits seemed to trickle down to Lindsey Riddle. Was he bitter? Was he "OK with that"?) 

There is a lovely moment in the film when two African American musicians—Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops—bend over their instruments and harmonize on a sweet country tune. Country-Western meets Soul. 

Between 1927 and 1938 the Carters recorded 260 songs for Victor and this growing stack of shellac dove-tailed nicely with the arrival of so-called "border radio." 

Across the Texas/Mexico border, bands of radio pirates were setting roots and erecting antennas. At the top of the heap was Dr. John R. Brinkley, the Big Daddy of Border Radio, and his station, XERA. It was radio without rules, unconfined by the regulations of US broadcast laws. Border radio was the first to feature on-air preachers, psychics, live music and commercials for everything from magic potions to autographed photos of Jesus. 

While US law limited station owners to 50kW of broadcast power, XERA poured out 250 kW—and a directional antenna gave Brinkleys' bandit bandwidth an effective broadcast punch of one million killowatts! The station was famous for creating its own "northern lights" in the nighttime sky. It was rumored that XERA's broadcasts could be picked up on bedsprings and metal tooth-fillings all the way to Canada! Long before the Internet, XERA became the first global communications device. Country music—and the Carter Family —was going global. 

The Winding Stream is equal parts musical entertainment and an emotional human experience. The Carters, born in poverty but blessed with a rare talent to find, write, arrange and perform songs that spoke to the ears and hearts of post-Depression America, were all well-chiseled individuals. Only A.P. Carter remains a bit enigmatic. We only learn about him when others talk about him. On the other hand, the documentary is bursting with colorful characters who fill the screen with earnest, self-effacing recollections—from Mother Maybelle and the talented kids, the Carter Sisters, to Johnny, June and Rosanne Cash. This is a film about family and a film about some strong, smart, and talented women. 


A particular reason to see the film is the extensive interview with Maybelle Carter's son-in-law—an elderly but still vital Johnny Cash, who almost tears up recalling his late wife, June, the "clown" of the Carter Sisters. 

At 92 minutes, you may find yourself wondering how many times more times you'll find yourself listening to a rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"—and you may wonder if a segment featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was really necessary—but the film manages to effectively bridge the Sixties and deliver us into the present day. And it leaves on a memorable note as Rosanne Cash bestows a powerfully intimate performance of her mother's favorite ballad, "The Winding Stream." 

And now let's send this review home with a blast of "Jackson."