One of the first things Beth Harrington did when preparing for her documentary about the Original Carter Family, THE WINDING STREAM, was to sit down with a box set of their recordings in order to immerse herself in their music. When I spoke with her on April 19, 2016, she described the experience, and why she quickly realized that she was going about her preparation in the wrong way. A musician herself, she spoke about how she related to the Carters, and their famous son-in-law, Johnny Cash, who gave one of his last interviews to Harrington for this film. Her description of him arriving in the living room of his home by descending in an elevator as if he was descending from heaven bespeaks her own admiration for the man, and his gift for showmanship.
More than just a history of the family and their legacy, Harrington’s documentary describes the serendipity of how they all got together to begin with, and how they then went on to have a recording career. It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. She also finally gives proper credit to Leslie Riddle, the African-American man who accompanied A.P. Carter throughout the south searching for the music that the Carter Family would record. We also talked about the remarkable strength and independence of the Carter women, Sarah and Maybelle, who didn’t let cultural expectation about how southern ladies should behave stop them from doing what they wanted to do.
She also described the generosity she was shown when it came to getting the music rights to the songs heard in her doc, an obstacle that has kept many fine docs restricted to the festival circuit and never finding a general release. We finished up with a discussion of how spirituality, not religion, influenced Carters, Cashes, and other musicians who sprang from Appalachia.
The Original Carter Family who brought country music into the mainstream of American culture, starting with AP, Sarah and Mother Maybelle Carter, and moving on through their children, grandchildren, and a son-in-law named Johnny Cash. Told with new and vintage interviews of family members, and, of course, that glorious music, the documentary does more than tell the history of one family, it gets to the heart of why this music is so compelling, and how it both shaped, and was shaped, by this family and their descendants, biological and artistic. It also considers the wondrous confluence of talent and serendipity that brought the Carters together, and then to the world’s stage with music that might have been lost to history if not for them. Harrington’s previous work includes THE BLINKING MADONNA AND OTHER MIRACLES, WELCOME TO THE CLUB – THE WOMEN OF ROCKABILLY, as well as History Detectives and A Cringely Crash Course for PBS. She is also a singer and musician in her own right performing with the Spiricles and Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers.