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Carter family documentary taps into the roots of country

Q&A with filmmaker Beth Harrington

The Winding Stream (The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music). Directed by Beth Harrington. Kay Meek Centre, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m. Co-presented with DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Tickets: $10 Adults $7 Students. The screening opens with a 15-minute live performance by the band Fraser Union featuring vocalist Kathy Griffin. For more information visit

South Virginia's Carter Family didn't invent country music all on their own but they may as well have - almost everything we know about the genre can be traced back to their massive musical legacy. Beth Harrington's new documentary, The Winding Stream, tells us how it all went down back in the day.

North Shore News: What drew you to the story of the Carter family as the subject for a documentary film?

Beth Harrington: I had been working on a film prior to this one that was called Welcome to the Club and it was about women rockabilly singers who were peers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. I interviewed all these women who not only talked about the original Carter family as being an influence on them but they also talked about how many of them had toured with Johnny Cash and with Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters. I thought that was pretty interesting. I've always been a big Johnny Cash fan and so I thought this was a way of connecting the dots between the very early origins of country music all the way up to the present moment because some of their descendants are still playing. I thought it would be kind of a cool way of showing this dynastic roots music family in a certain context. I was interested so I hoped it would prove true for other people.

North Shore News: There's a lot going on in the film to tell the story, including historical archival material, interviews and new musical performances. What was it like doing the research for the film?

Beth Harrington: The good and bad news is it took forever to raise the money to make the film so it gave me tons of time to really dig into the interviews. At the time there wasn't that much written about the Carters. There was only one or two books on them. It gave me the opportunity to really know the family and talk to people who knew the original Carters and anyone who was familiar with the story in the present moment which were largely family members and musicians.

North Shore News: Were there any sources that were particularly helpful in your research?

Beth Harrington: I think the family in Virginia that still lives in the same town where the original Carters are from were probably the most helpful. They had the biggest backlog of stories. People like Janette Carter and her brother Joe and Janette's daughter Rita were all kind of people who were keepers of those stories. Johnny Cash was great but even though he was not a well man he was very gracious and willing to talk for as long as he could. He'd just been in the hospital that morning and still wanted to do the interview in spite of the fact that he had been hospitalized up until that morning. There was a passion there among certain family members to really share the stories. I think those were the key people. Each individual member had a piece.

North Shore News: A.P. Carter was ground zero, everything revolved around him.

Beth Harrington: He just was a guy who not only had a passion for music but decided with not a lot of evidence that he was going to be able to make a living doing this. It's never realistic to say you're going to be a musician and make a living at it I guess, but especially ,20s in those times in the there were only a few people that had successful records. Now the ones that did have successful records were hugely successful so I guess he got inspired by that. I think that if he had stopped to think of the odds it probably wouldn't have made any sense - fortunately for us he didn't think of the odds.

North Shore News: It's difficult to think we would have heard of A.P. without the talents of Sara and Maybelle. Beth Harrington: I think that's fair to say. Charles Wilson talks about him in the film as a master arranger and obviously someone with a passion and a great ear. He knew a good song when he heard it but the real musicians you've got to say are Sara and Maybelle. Sara's uniquely Gothic voice and Maybelle's incredible guitar playing transformed guitar playing in country music as we know it. Up until Maybelle guitar was almost treated like a percussion instrument. It was just a rhythmic thing and it wasn't a lead instrument by any stretch of the imagination. By necessity she figured out a way to do that that became a standard for country music. It's pretty amazing when you think about it.

North Shore News: The Carter Family met a couple of individuals who helped them get to the next level of their careers. The first one was Ralph Peer in Bristol. I've read that he was surprised by their appearance. A.P. showed up in overalls but as soon as Peer heard Sara's voice he knew they had something.

Beth Harrington: It's funny. The story of him showing up in overalls is an interesting story because the family denies that's the case. I think it was promoted by Peer himself. Rita and Janette say that they never would have gone to town in anything but their best clothing but Ralph Peer was invested in marketing them as old timey music stars of the time. And that meant rural and people who wore overalls and aprons. Pictures we use of them in the film it's hard to confirm but I think they might actually be promo pictures and Ralph Peer made them dress that way.

North Shore News: That's interesting because despite A.P.'s "hillbilly ways" he seems to have been very hip to the economic potential of their music.

Beth Harrington: Yes, I think he figured it out and I know he talked to other musicians who were successful at the time trying to size up who Peer was and what their odds were. A.P. had even taken Sara to a previous recording session at Brunswick Records. They were rejected not because the label didn't think they were good but they wondered 'Is there a market for this?' I guess that's like turning down the Beatles. I think A.P. was a student of what was going on and really tried to figure it out. Whatever Peer told him to do he would do because I think he trusted Peer and saw that Peer was cutting him in on all the deals and I think they had a good working relationship.

North Shore News: Did they do well by Peer?

Beth Harrington: They did fine by Peer. By today's standards the money isn't the same kind of thing. I don't know what the equivalent would be currently but they did great. They were able to buy things they didn't have. They bought luxury items, they bought a motorcycle, the ladies bought hats and clothing and Maybelle bought a $295 guitar in 1929 which was a lot of money. I think he did right by them and in turn A.P. did right by Sara and Maybelle because even though his name is on everything he always split everything three ways. That's the way he played it all the time even after he and Sara got divorced. He always made sure no matter how small the cheque was that all of them got their third.

North Shore News: That was one level of success and then Brinkley's border station pushed them into another level of mega-stardom. Beth Harrington: They started to have a national reach at a time when it wasn't easy to get any kind of national attention, and frankly you could argue international attention, because that signal was so ridiculously strong that people in countries outside the U.S. and Canada could hear them. At night the signal was uninterrupted and blasting through the atmosphere.

North Shore News: That was also a time when they introduced the children as performers in the Carter family. Beth Harrington: That's when the kids got into the act because they didn't want to leave the kids behind they were going to be gone for a long time. The kids were there, the kids sang and started getting attention and a fanbase of sorts.

North Shore News: What was the living situation then, did they commute back and forth?

Beth Harrington: They lived in Del Rio and commuted over to the station.That way Brinkley could continue to broadcast what the Federal Radio Commission considered illegal. They were out of the reach of the FRC.

North Shore News: That was really the last time that Sara lived with the family.

Beth Harrington: After that season ended she went to California with Coy and A.P. took the kids back to Virginia. And that's kind of how it stayed which was really sad for everybody I think.

North Shore News: That was the first time Johnny Cash heard June sing on the XERA broadcasts.

Beth Harrington: That's right which is incredible to think about how they managed to come together years later.

North Shore News: In some ways Cash is the next level of what the Carter family needed to sustain their success. He became a member of the family and just relished that whole environment.

Beth Harrington: He adored Maybelle and apparently really loved Maybelle's husband Ezra or Eck as they called him. Ezra was a very huge figure for Cash partly because he was a self-taught erudite man. He read a lot and he had a library of books and that impressed Cash. They both had voracious appetite where reading was concerned and they formed a bond around that. Obviously he must have been a challenging son-in-law on some level because of his drug problems. They never stopped caring about him and trying to help him and that didn't seem to get in the way of their feelings for him at all. I think he understood and appreciated that. Not only did Cash revere the Carters just as any fan would at that time but then he wanted to promote their legacy. That's when I first became aware of the Carters because he used to have Maybelle and the sisters on his TV show and talk about the history of the Carter family and then I was like 'Oh that's who that elderly lady was with the guitar.' That was his way of thanking them and upholding their legend.



The Winding Stream trailer

Carter Family performing on Border Radio XET, XERA’s sister in Monterrey

The Carter Family on the Air

Johnny Cash and The Carter Family - "Were You There" (1960)

The Story of June Carter/Cash and Johnny Cash by Sarah Vowell

Johnny Cash and June Carter (1994 New Zealand TV interview)

June Carter Cash “Hello Stranger” / interview / “San Antonio Rose” (Merv Griffin Show 1980)

Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show - Johnny Cash and June Carter

"I Can’t Help It If I'm Still in Love With You" - Hank Williams and Anita Carter ( introduced by June Carter) on NBC's Kate Smith Evening Hour TV Show

Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters - "Wildwood Flower"

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