New documentary sheds light on Carter Family

by Bruce Sylvester

“There is a stream that courses through American roots music. Its source is the Appalachians in a place called Maces Spring, Virginia. There, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle began their careers as three of the pioneering stars of country music. From their earliest days as Victor recording artists to their international success via the phenomenon of border radio, the original Carter Family made their mark on the history of American recorded music,” film director Beth Harrington states in her Carter documentary The Winding Stream (and in the notes to a separately available CD on Omnivore Records of that title featuring Carter originals plus covers by John Prine, Carolina Chocolate Drops, George Jones and others).

The so-called Big Bang of American roots music occurred in 1927 in the Tennessee/Virginia border-straddling town of Bristol, when Victor talent scout Ralph Peer within a few days discovered both the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.

Maybelle’s guitar innovations are still honored. As the film relates, A.P. started out playing the fiddle, which he dropped in the belief that it’s the devil’s instrument. He first encountered his future wife Sara as she sang gore-drenched “Engine 143” based on an 1890 train wreck. (Folk balladry back then served the purpose of tabloid newspapers.) Of course, the film and CD include the Carter’s 1929 recording of the song. A.P. got a royalty check before he knew that any of their tracks had been released.

winding-streamA flier advertising a Carter performance stated, “This program is morally good.” These were church-going people. People who’ve read well-researched Carter bio Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg have seen the flier before.

But there was disharmony behind their harmonies. In a photo of the extended Carter clan, A.P. stands on the side, a bit apart from everyone else. Maybelle later said, “We never depended on him for anything.” One February, he left Sara with no stove wood or money to feed their three children while he traveled Appalachia in search of story songs, parlor ballads, gospel, and blues to adapt and record. Today, his collecting is a linchpin of American music, but it’s not surprising that Sara fell in love with his cousin Coy Bays, whose family ended their relationship – at least for a while — by moving to California.

As an alternative to touring, the performing Carters moved to Texas near the Mexican border to broadcast on high-power XERA, a Mexican station. Free of U.S. government regulation, its signal was so strong that people joked that you could pick it up from bed springs. Via a broadcast, Sara rekindled her romance with Bays by singing “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” Hearing it far away, he realized how much she still loved him so he journeyed to Texas to claim her.

After Sara left the group, A.P. (who’d collected more songs than he sang) returned to Virginia. Maybelle continued the act with daughters Helen, Anita, and June (the future wife of Johnny Cash). Though the original Carter repertoire could be backward-looking, The Winding Stream has a 1950s clip of Maybelle and daughters covering Fats Domino’s (and then Teresa Brewer’s) “Bo Weevil” with live-wire June singing lead. Another playful delight in the 90-minute DVD is the periodic animated sequences that lighten and enliven the mood.

We learn that in the hippie era, Maybelle wanted to record Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke over the Line” until someone explained its reefer references to her. Jeff Hanna recalls Maybelle and other early country greats bridging cultural and generational gaps by playing on Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1973 three-LP extravaganza Will the Circle Be Unbroken, though June later confided in him that Maybelle referred to the Dirt Band as “them dirty boys.”

As Rosanne Cash remarks, “The Carter Family are like the Beatles. They’re woven into everything that came after them.” The Americana movement and current trad folk revival prove her point.

People who’ve already seen Harrington’s previous Welcome to the Club on the women of ’50s rockabilly (with narration by Rosanne) may remember the depth and breadth of its interviews with Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Lorrie Collins, and the late Janis Martin. There’s also its admirable avoidance of the stock phrases that fill too many music documentaries. With The Winding Stream, Harrington reaffirms her status as one of our most worthy musical film directors.

About Bruce Sylvester

Bruce Sylvester is a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine.

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