The Winding Stream – The Carters, The Cashes And The Course Of Country Music

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Rocker-turned-documentarian Beth Harrington (“Welcome to the
Club: The Women of Rockabilly”) celebrates the Carter and Cash family
and its enduring contributions to country, folk and roots music in “The Winding Stream,”
an impressively researched and deftly crafted feature that doubtless
will find an appreciative audience through exposure in home-screen
platforms (especially public television) and regional fest screenings.
The marquee value of performances by such diverse notables as Sheryl
Crow, George Jones and the Carolina Chocolate Drops might help the doc
also attract ticketbuyers in limited theatrical and nontheatrical
playdates.
Clearly a long-gestating labor of love, “The Winding Stream” boasts among its highlights a revealing interview with an aged Johnny Cash,
taped just weeks before the Man in Black’s death in 2003. But the movie
is about much more than the most famous member of the musical dynasty, a
point Harrington cheekily underscores by identifying Cash as “Maybelle
Carter’s son-in-law.”
Indeed, Harrington goes all the way back to the early years of the
20th century to begin with A.P. Carter, the Virginia-born musician and
amateur musicologist who helped preserve key elements of American
cultural history (and earned a tidy sum in the bargain) by collecting
“old-time music” throughout Appalachia for record companies.
Together with Sara, his wife, and Maybelle, Sara’s cousin, he founded
the Carter Family, one of the first commercially successful country
groups. The origins of this ensemble — and their definitive recordings
of such standards as “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Can the Circle Be
Unbroken” (a song later revised and better known as “Will the Circle Be
Unbroken”) — are vividly detailed through Harrington’s artful employment
of archival material and newly filmed accounts by historians and
surviving family members. (Here and elsewhere, however, Harrington gets
decidedly mixed results from using “animated” still photos, some of
which come off as inadvertently comical.)
“The Winding Stream” recounts a colorful tale of personal and
professional triumphs, breakups and reconstitutions while following the
Carter Family over decades of touring and recording. Arguably the
strangest twist in this saga: the group’s extended gig as regular
performers on XERA, a multi-watt, Mexican-based border radio station
operated by John R. Brinkley, a notorious quack who performed dozens of
dubiously effective goat-gland transplants for gullible men desperate to
revitalize their fading virility. Harrington provides just enough info
about Brinkley, his grandiose claims and his multiple brushes with the
law to whet appetites for some future documentary devoted solely to his
outrageous exploits.
It was during the Carter Family’s run at XERA that an impressionable
young listener in Dyes, Ark. — Johnny Cash — became aware of June Carter,
one of Maybelle’s three performing daughters. “The Winding Stream”
affectionately portrays June as a natural-born, well-nigh irresistible
talent who likely wasn’t as technically accomplished a singer as her
sisters Anita and Helen, but who far surpassed them in pure showmanship
with her flair for comedy.
According to the film, Carter kinfolk reacted with a fair amount of
dread when June and Johnny became an item. Harrington gives us some idea
why the clan had just cause for concern by showing how Johnny could be
at once amusingly engaging and ineffably unsettling in a vintage clip
from a TV show hosted by folk singer Pete Seeger. Both Seeger and June
Carter appear increasingly apprehensive, even while straining to smile,
as Cash rambles on and on and on, obviously under the influence of
something or other.
Cash inevitably looms large in “The Winding Stream,” but Maybelle
Carter — or Mother Maybelle, as she was known to intimates and the
general public — lays equal claim to being a star in the documentary’s
cast of characters. She also figures into the movie’s funniest anecdote,
when it’s recalled how she innocently misinterpreted the ’70s stoner
tune “One Toke Over the Line” as a spiritual tune — and briefly
considered recording it.
“The Winding Stream” is cogent and compelling as a pop-culture
history lesson, and genuinely uplifting while it shows how contemporary
artists — along with descendants like Rosanne and John Carter Cash —
keep the legacy of A.P., Mother Maybelle, June and Johnny alive and
thriving. There are several fine performances of Carter Family standards
scattered throughout the film, but Murry Hammond’s haunting rendition
of “In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain” is the uncontestable standout.

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