They were descended from a long line of dirt farmers in the appropriately named Poor Valley near Maces Spring, Virginia: three untrained musicians who created a music legacy that reverberates today. Lanky fiddler A.P. Carter hiked the valley for years collecting songs whose roots had crossed the Atlantic Ocean with his ancestors. (Sadly, the black guitarist from Western North Carolina’s Yancey County who accompanied Carter for years, Lesley “Esley” Riddle, received little recognition until recent times: for eight years now, “Riddle Fest” in Burnsville has celebrated his legacy.)
A.P.’s wife Sara sang like an angel and played a variety of mountain instruments. Her cousin Maybelle (who had married A.P.’s brother) was also a singer. She taught herself a style of guitar, known as the “Carter scratch,” where she played melody and rhythm at the same time — a technique that influenced guitarists everywhere.
America discovered The Carter Family in 1927, when their recordings in Tennessee — what are now called the “Bristol Sessions” — turned them (and friend Jimmie Rodgers) into overnight sensations. On phonographs and radio, especially the powerful “border” radio in Mexico, their songs were enjoyed everywhere. They recorded almost non-stop until the mid-’50s.
An Arkansas farm boy named Johnny Cash went to sleep every night listening to the Carters, dreaming of a time when he could sing and play like they did. Bluegrass, Southern gospel, country, even rock-and-roll owed homage to the Carters. In the 1960s, the rediscovery of their music led to the folk-music revival. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez literally sang their praises. In the words of musician Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s daughter), the Carter Family’s music touched people so deeply because it was “primal — so raw, so spare, so direct.”
That influence tracked again in the late ’90s with the “alternative country” (now more commonly called Americana) craze, chronicled by No Depression magazine. A beautifully printed touchstone of the genre that continues in online format, the magazine was named after the signature Carter tune “No Depression in Heaven,” recorded in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression.
Surprisingly, although they were country stars, no film was shot of the Carters, not even newsreel footage. How then did producer/director Beth Harrington (herself a musician with the pre-punk group Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers) turn unmoving subjects into a motion picture that dances and soars and sometimes looks as if it were shot out of a musket? “With tons of research, an enormously talented crew, a few financial ‘angels,’ and 12 years of labor,” Harrington says with a laugh. With wonderfully creative photo animation and clever visual design, along with a terrific sound track (whose rights cost as much as the film itself), The Winding Road convinces viewers that Appalachian music is one of the world’s great cultural achievements.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” was another signature Carter Family song — and they sure needed its uplifting message, because “the dark and troubled side of life” was all too real for them at times. “The Winding Stream” is about three streams that twisted and turned, crashed into rocks and were swallowed by eddies before they emerged into one strong river that stretched across the nation. It was the favorite song of one of Maybelle Carter’s three daughters, June Carter, who one day met a tall, dark stranger who stole her heart. That once-lonely Arkansas dreamer became the “Man in Black” — and Johnny and June’s love story became fodder for its own cinematic treatment, most popularly in the 2005 A-list movie Walk the Line.
In one of his last interviews, Johnny Cash revealed his debt to the Carter Family and his dedication to preserving their legacy. “You wanna know their story?” he asks director Harrington. “Well, I’m gonna tell you…”
With what she calls her “dogged perseverance and stubbornness,” Harrington was determined to do what hadn’t been done yet; that is, to “connect the dots,” which were many, from the years of The Carter Family through Johnny Cash and other music greats, to the legacy’s rebirth today with a new generation of Carters. The Winding Stream indeed does make those connections, and you’ll not leave the theater without feeling that you, too, are part of the great flow of American music.
The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music is a presentation of the Tryon Film Society. Monday, December 14 and Tuesday, December 15, at 7pm. Tryon Theatre, 45 S. Trade Street, Tryon. 828-859-6811. www.tryontheatre.com.