Beth Harrington 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.
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 his death in 2003, a few months after his wife June Carter Cash also passed away. But the movie is about much more than the most famous member of the musical dynasty, a point Harrington lightly 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 by collecting “old-time music” throughout Appalachia for record companies.
Carter — who roamed the region in search of old songs that he would then rearrange — kept the group together even after he and Sara divorced. She later married his cousin, in but one example of the many drama-fueled backstories that give the film emotional resonance.
The group eventually split up, with Maybelle continuing to perform with her three young daughters under the name Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. One of those daughters was June, whose irrepressible humor and stage personality made her a star. She would later go on to marry Johnny Cash, who had grown up listening to the music of the Carter Family.
This jam-packed oral history of the Carter and Cash families weaves the voices of prominent musicians (Sheryl Crow, George Jones) with those of family members past and present. Leading us from Poor Valley, Va. — where the seventh generation of Carters still attends the church that its patriarch, A. P., built in 1906 — through decades of personal and professional landmarks, Ms. Harrington sweeps divorce, disappointment and the Great Depression into a single, upbeat package.
There is a stream that courses through American roots music. Its source is in the Appalachian foothills in a place called Maces Spring, Virginia. The soundtrack combines original tracks from the iconic Original Carter Family, along side performances by legends George Jones and Johnny Cash, and into the present with John Prine and Rosanne Cash. The Winding Stream sends listeners on an audio journey through the history of the music we now know as “country,” how it came to be, and how it endures today.