The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music

by Sean Jewell::

Northwest Film Forum has announced the full lineup for Local Sightings Film Festival, and among a ton of other great looking movies is Beth Harrington‘s The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music. This will be the Seattle premier for Harrington’s film, which was years in the making. It documents the origins of country music through the efforts of The Carter Family: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and their sister-in-law Maybelle Carter using old photos, sound recordings, and new footage. The story of the original, internationally famous family of country music is rich with legends from the mountains of Virginia and beyond, and the family’s legacy continued through June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash, and still continues today with their children and a whole host of others.

Photo courtesy of John Carter Cash
Photo courtesy of John Carter Cash

The film is an intricate piece that touches on the Carter’s participation in music as folklorists and recording artists, and delves deeply into the family history. In keeping with the raw, honest style of the Carters’ music, the film is an exposé of the family’s (sometimes painful) history as much as it is the music. Particularly interesting is the untold stories of men like Lesley Riddle, an African-American whom A.P. Carter befriended and took to the road with for years gathering tunes from all over to record. There’s the story of eccentric (de-certified) Dr. Brinkley, whose million watt Mexican “border radio” station XER was among the first to employ the Carter family on one of its programs. Despite being far away in Mexico, the station transmitted so powerfully that it reached the radio of a young Johnny Cash all the way in Arkansas. Much needed coverage is given to the power, strength, and character of Mother Maybelle, the original guitar (banjo, and autoharp, too) player in the Carter family, whose famed “Carter scratch” became the sound of country guitar. And did you know Chet Atkins came to Nashville at the behest of the Carters, as a member of their band?

On top of being a well made, informative, emotional documentary, one can’t help but learn a few things along the hour and half journey with the Carters and the Cashes. Appearances are made by John Prine (who plays a blistering version of “Bear Creek” to open the film), Murry Hammond (The Old 97s),  Mike Seeger (New Lost City Ramblers), and Dom Flemons and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The film also captured what was to be one of Johnny Cash‘s last interviews, and combines plenty of old footage of all the Carter women past and present. The stories, as the film documents, are the stories of America. There isn’t a song you can hear that doesn’t owe something the the melodies, perseverance, righteousness, or personality of The Carter Family.

You can catch The Winding Stream‘s Seattle premier Monday September 28th, 7pm, at NWFF’s Local Sightings Film Festival.