‘The Winding Stream’ is a saga of country music’s royal clan
The original Carter Family: A.P., Sara and Maybelle.

‘The Winding Stream’ is a saga of country music’s royal clan

BRATTLEBORO — We northerners and flatlanders will learn a thing or two from The Winding Stream, which tells the story of a family considered the royalty of country music.

The Carter-Cash clan is a winding stream that becomes, in the words of Director Beth Harrington, a “rushing river.” A wide one, too - one that eventually encompasses country rock, the 1960s folk revival, and rockabilly.

Told through a combination of animated photographs, archival footage, still photographs, anecdotes, letters, film footage of performances, behind-the-scenes sessions, and interviews - most poignantly, one with Johnny Cash near the end of his life - The Winding Stream is a pitch-perfect documentary.

Like the guitar playing of Maybelle Carter, which could combine melody and bass line, the film makes no attempt to separate music, careers, or personal lives. Its strength lies in acknowledging the inextricability of all three.

We are told in the film's opening moments that country-music aficionados know about the Carter family the way citizens of the United States are “expected to know the first President.”

Yet there is so much here that I, for one - even with family in Nashville (and musicians at that!) - didn't know.

While we in the Northeast have our own history of discovered folk songs, in large part thanks to Marlboro's Margaret MacArthur, that songbook did not become a part of the American country music vernacular the way the “Mountain Music” of Virginia and Tennessee did.

* * *

The film starts modestly, recounting the story of brothers A.P. and Ezra Carter, who lived up in the Clinch Mountains in the foothills of Appalachia. The brothers married cousins, Maybelle and Sara.

A.P. Carter traveled through the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee, collecting songs much the way ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax traveled through the Mississippi Delta region. Carter traveled with his sidekick, an African-American named Lesley Riddle, who never received any credit for the enterprise.

Riddle documented the music (“I was his polly parrot, his tape recorder”), while A.P. wrote down the lyrics. Riddle quotes Carter: “He'd say he could tell if a house had music in it just by looking at it.”

During the 1920s and the Depression era of the 1930s, there was a hunger for this music. The Carters were brought to Bristol, Va., to record for RCA Victor. Fame and fortune did not immediately follow, but “the Bristol Sessions” have come to be regarded as the big bang of the country music tradition.

The performance footage of Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and Rosanne Cash, as well as the musicians they influenced (as vividly shown in performances by John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, and others) are almost alone worth the price of admission.

The Winding Stream is not sophisticated filmmaking (the animated sequences are nothing to write home about), but it is charming and loving, without being cloying or idolizing: a wonderful introduction to the genre and an important gathering of threads in the history of one of the true grassroots musical traditions of North America.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates