Rocker-turned-documentarian Beth Harrington (“Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly”) 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 (especially public television) and regional fest screenings. The marquee value of performances by such diverse notables as Sheryl Crow, George Jones and the Carolina Chocolate Drops might help the doc also attract ticketbuyers in limited theatrical and nontheatrical playdates.
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 the Man in Black’s death in 2003. But the movie is about much more than the most famous member of the musical dynasty, a point Harrington cheekily 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 (and earned a tidy sum in the bargain) by collecting “old-time music” throughout Appalachia for record companies.
Together with Sara, his wife, and Maybelle, Sara’s cousin, he founded the Carter Family, one of the first commercially successful country groups. The origins of this ensemble — and their definitive recordings of such standards as “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (a song later revised and better known as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) — are vividly detailed through Harrington’s artful employment of archival material and newly filmed accounts by historians and surviving family members. (Here and elsewhere, however, Harrington gets decidedly mixed results from using “animated” still photos, some of which come off as inadvertently comical.)
“The Winding Stream” recounts a colorful tale of personal and professional triumphs, breakups and reconstitutions while following the Carter Family over decades of touring and recording. Arguably the strangest twist in this saga: the group’s extended gig as regular performers on XERA, a multi-watt, Mexican-based border radio station operated by John R. Brinkley, a notorious quack who performed dozens of dubiously effective goat-gland transplants for gullible men desperate to revitalize their fading virility. Harrington provides just enough info about Brinkley, his grandiose claims and his multiple brushes with the law to whet appetites for some future documentary devoted solely to his outrageous exploits.
It was during the Carter Family’s run at XERA that an impressionable young listener in Dyes, Ark. — Johnny Cash — became aware of June Carter, one of Maybelle’s three performing daughters. “The Winding Stream” affectionately portrays June as a natural-born, well-nigh irresistible talent who likely wasn’t as technically accomplished a singer as her sisters Anita and Helen, but who far surpassed them in pure showmanship with her flair for comedy.
According to the film, Carter kinfolk reacted with a fair amount of dread when June and Johnny became an item. Harrington gives us some idea why the clan had just cause for concern by showing how Johnny could be at once amusingly engaging and ineffably unsettling in a vintage clip from a TV show hosted by folk singer Pete Seeger. Both Seeger and June Carter appear increasingly apprehensive, even while straining to smile, as Cash rambles on and on and on, obviously under the influence of something or other.
Cash inevitably looms large in “The Winding Stream,” but Maybelle Carter — or Mother Maybelle, as she was known to intimates and the general public — lays equal claim to being a star in the documentary’s cast of characters. She also figures into the movie’s funniest anecdote, when it’s recalled how she innocently misinterpreted the ’70s stoner tune “One Toke Over the Line” as a spiritual tune — and briefly considered recording it.
“The Winding Stream” is cogent and compelling as a pop-culture history lesson, and genuinely uplifting while it shows how contemporary artists — along with descendants like Rosanne and John Carter Cash — keep the legacy of A.P., Mother Maybelle, June and Johnny alive and thriving. There are several fine performances of Carter Family standards scattered throughout the film, but Murry Hammond’s haunting rendition of “In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain” is the uncontestable standout.