Filmmaker Beth Harrington discusses the making of her Carter Family documentary

Posted by | June 6, 2014

Beth HarringtonPlease welcome guest author Beth Harrington. Harrington is a film producer, director and writer whose independent production ‘Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly, a music documentary about the pioneering women of rock and roll, was honored with a 2003 Grammy nomination. She has just completed ‘The Winding Stream’, the tale of the dynasty at the very heart of country music: The Carters. We caught up with Harrington this week and asked her to share with our readers some of her journey in creating this movie.

 

I’m an independent documentary filmmaker and I’ve recently completed a labor of love that has consumed me for a fifth of my life. It’s a music film called The Winding Stream – The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music. The story of how I came to make a film about this foundational Appalachian music family and how it evolved as a complex saga of kinship, music, tradition and longing is one that goes back to 2001.

A.P., Janette, Bill Rinehart, Sara and Maybelle in back, Helen, Anita and June in front, at XERA Radio Station in 1939. The Carter Family spent four seasons from 1938-1943 performing on 'border radio'. Courtesy Carter Family Museum.

A.P., Janette, Bill Rinehart, Sara and Maybelle in back, Helen, Anita and June in front, at XERA Radio Station in 1939. The Carter Family spent four seasons from 1938-1943 performing on ‘border radio’. Courtesy Carter Family Museum.

My last film, Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, told the story of the pioneering women of early rock and roll. I looked at various artists, all Southern, mostly from rural upbringings, and examined how they came from these circumstances to join the vanguard of 1950s popular music.

While I was making that film, many of the performers I interviewed spoke of the Carter Family, the Carters Sisters, Mother Maybelle and Johnny Cash. The Carters were a huge part of these women’s lives because they listened to, toured with, and/or knew some of the family personally. Their love of the Carters was a deep bond.

I noted these influences and tucked them away in the back of my mind.

I started to think that there was another story emerging from this. The saga of the Carters, and their influence on music and musicians, would be a great story to tell someday, I thought. No one had really made a big film that connected the dots between the foundational family at the genesis of what we now call country music and the people who came after. There were so many people – not just my rockabilly women – who used the Carters’ music as a springboard for further musical exploration. Artists in folk, country and rock had a debt to this seminal family. And chief among them was Johnny Cash.

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I thought the film could also look at the generations of family members who upheld the legacy of the Original Carter Family through their own musical efforts.

But this idea was premature. I still had Welcome to the Club to finish and I needed a narrator.

Rosanne Cash came to mind. I thought she represented an authoritative, knowledgeable voice with a profound connection to the rockabilly genre through her father Johnny Cash’s work but also as a contemporary performer herself who grew up with rock and roll and country music in her life.

I was lucky. Within fifteen minutes of trying to track her down through a music writer friend, I received a call back from Rosanne. She said she would be happy to narrate the film. Eventually she did and it was a magnificent job.

Rosanne and I became somewhat friendly during this period. Meanwhile, I was seriously entertaining the idea of making the film that would “connect those dots” in American music.

I hoped that if Rosanne liked how Welcome to the Club turned out, she would consider making introductions to family who might agree to be interviewed for a Carter and Cash documentary.

After I finished Welcome to the Club, Rosanne emailed me one day with the feedback I’d hoped for. She told me she loved the film, was pleased to be a part of it, and congratulated me for having completed it successfully.

She also went on to say that she had just returned from a trip to Virginia with her father, June and the rest of the family. She’d been at the family-run music venue, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, VA. She visited the graves of A.P. and Sara Carter. She’d spent time at Maybelle and Ezra Carter’s home. She’d floated the Holston River with family in row boats – a scene out of a Carter song. And then she said that while she was there she was thinking, “Beth should be here making a film about the family.”

The door was open. I said, “Funny you should mention it….”

In the summer of 2003, after doing our research homework, yet still struggling to raise money (the latter condition one that dogged the project throughout), we began the production process. Rosanne granted us an interview during which she talked about her relationship to Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters. It was very moving not only because the love Rosanne felt for her stepmother was profound and palpable (“My mother gave me structure and June gave me wings”) but because June Carter Cash had passed away only a few months earlier. There was an increasing sense of urgency to the filmmaking proceedings – how to document the eyewitnesses, the keepers of the family’s collective memory quickly before we lost them all to frailty and death.

Rosanne turned to me as we completed the interview and in another prescient moment said, “You know what you should do next?”

I knew what I needed to do next but I was hesitant to ask. I needed to interview Johnny Cash. But I was concerned. I knew he was grieving the loss of his wife and that his health was poor as well. I felt it might be asking too much.

But Rosanne knew something I didn’t. That Johnny Cash would welcome the opportunity to talk about two of the most important women in his life – wife June and mother-in-law Maybelle.

When we finally interviewed Johnny Cash for our film he made a spectacular entrance. Weakened some by illness, he descended into his living room in a telephone booth-sized home elevator. The lower half of the booth sported a folkart painting of his late wife June. The top half was transparent and as we watched, the unmistakable black-clothed barrel chest, then neck, then eyes of Johnny Cash became visible. He waved to us as he slowly touched down and, awestruck, my crew and I waved back.

June Carter and Johnny Cash. Courtesy The Winding Stream.

June Carter and Johnny Cash. Courtesy The Winding Stream.

He gave a hearty “Hello, everybody” as he settled into his chair. He still had it – the vibrancy, humor, gravitas. It clearly made him happy to speak of June. Yet, at one point he paused, lost in memories. “But that was another life,” he said wistfully, acknowledging his special marriage.

But then he laughed.

“You can’t chalk it up to righteous living, because I was anything but righteous. I don’t know–God richly blessed me for some reason. For some unknown reason, he richly blessed me with everything I ever wanted.”

When we wrapped, he grinned and said, “I gotta get back in the Popemobile now!”

And with that he pressed a button and the elevator started.

I was raised Catholic and his remark just tickled me. As he looked down, I raised my hand and made a rather grand papal Sign of the Cross in the air. And the last thing I saw was Johnny Cash slapping his knee and throwing back his head in laughter as he ascended into heaven.

He died just a few weeks later.

His reminiscences of the family are, of course, key to the film’s narrative. He’d been listening to the Carters on the radio since his boyhood in Arkansas. To marry into this clan was a pivotal moment for him, for them. He would lean on them as he struggled with fame and addiction and then they would come to reap the benefits of his appreciation as he upheld their legacy on record, TV and tour. He would literally and figuratively sing their praises throughout his life, underscoring their premiere status as the first family of country music.

It’s not well understood that the Carters were great collectors and arrangers of music. A.P. Carter traveled throughout the Appalachians and other parts of the South mining for tunes, poems and scraps of ideas that later – with Maybelle and Sara’s input – would become the great body of work we now know as the Carter repertoire. These songs were pulled out of the past, reshaped and presented anew – sometimes in a radically new form. The genius of the Carter Family was knowing how to take the lumber of these pieces and build something lasting out of it all.

To my great joy and relief, The Winding Stream is beginning to have a life of its own. It is just now starting to play in film festivals here and abroad to enthusiastic audiences. It’s winning awards and accolades and that’s very gratifying after the long trajectory my team and I have been riding. The fact that it took over 12 years to make this film was on more than one occasion maddening. But at the same time, it allowed me to tell a more nuanced story than one I might have knocked off in a year or two. It gave me time to really know and understand more of the family then and now and the important contribution they made to our cultural heritage.

 

The Winding Stream has a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Sign up for their emails on their website to keep on top of info about screenings, releases, etc. The film will have it’s NYC premiere at Lincoln Center at the Sound+Vision Festival, August 4, at 6:30 PM.

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