By Mark Kemp
Among the most famous musical families in U.S. history – from the Guthries to the Jacksons to the Wainwrights and Roches – none has made a more profound and lasting impact on American popular culture than the Carters. And no Carter Family documentary has captured that impact better than director Beth Harrington’s 2015 film The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, which began streaming Tuesday, June 14, on Netflix.
“People should know who [the Carters] are just like they know who the first president of the United States was,” Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely says in the documentary, and he’s right.
Family patriarch A.P. Carter began performing in the late 1920s along with wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle, and in 1927 the trio made their first set of recordings, including the risqué (for the times) “Single Girl, Married Girl.” After the family’s initial success with that recording, A.P. Carter and an African-American friend named Lesley “Esley” Riddle traveled the rural South collecting additional old-time country, gospel, and folk tunes, many of which have become some of the more timeless and indelible songs in the American canon: “Wildwood Flower,” “Wabash Cannon Ball,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” The Carters’ remarkable recordings made a deep impact on other essential American folk artists including Woody Guthrie, and the group’s sound and style influenced virtually every Grand Ole Opry star and other country artists who followed them, not to mention early rock ‘n’ rollers and later roots-rock acts. The alternative-country trio Uncle Tupelo named their 1990 debut album after the Carter Family song “No Depression in Heaven,” and the name No Depression became synonymous with the 1990s alternative-country movement that helped kick-start the enduring Americana format.
As important as the Carter Family’s songs were, though, it was Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing that made perhaps the biggest impact on later music. Maybelle practically invented the concept of the lead guitar with her “scratch” technique, in which she played the melody with her thumb on the lower strings and used her index finger for the rhythm. When the original Carter Family splintered following the breakup of Sara and A.P.’s marriage, Maybelle continued the group with daughters Anita, Helen, and June, who became known as the Carter Sisters and played on college campuses and at ’60s folk festivals. In 1972, Maybelle appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark cross-generational classic, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Country legend Johnny Cash came into the Carter fold when he married June, and their children – John Carter Cash, as well as June’s daughter Carlene and Cash’s daughter Rosanne – have continued the family’s musical legacy, as have other descendants.
‘People should know who [the Carters] are just like they know who the first president of the United States was.’ — Joe Ely
The Winding Stream traces the family saga from their Depression-era beginnings in the Virginia Appalachians, through divorce and other hardships, and straight up to A.P. Carter’s appearance on a U.S. stamp in 1993 and the Carters’ continuing legacy. To bring life to dusty vintage photographs, director Harrington uses the voices of those who knew the original characters (descendants such as Rosanne Cash, as well as friends and family members including the late country titans Johnny Cash and George Jones) along with whimsical photo animation and performances by contemporary artists. The music on the Winding Stream soundtrack ranges from scratchy old Carter recordings to new interpretations from John Prine (“Bear Creek Blues”), the Carolina Chocolate Drops (“Hello Stranger”), and Rosanne Cash performing the title song.
For a little extra video fun, go to the film’s website and take a look at the director’s montage of artists — from punk veterans John Doe of X and John Langford of the Mekons to such country and Americana artists as Carlene Carter, Jim Lauderdale, Joe Ely, and the Be Good Tanyas — singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” a cappella. And don’t miss the Chocolate Drops’ full a cappella performance of “When the World’s on Fire,” the Carter Family song whose melody Woody Guthrie borrowed for his own American classic “This Land is Your Land.”