I don’t much care for country music – particularly what’s passed for it since ‘The Nashville Sound’ developed during the anti-rock ‘n’ roll backlash of the 1950s. Slick and overproduced (and now barely distinguishable from mainstream pop rock), country has long since lost its ability to reflect the hopes and fears of the dirt-poor white working-class that gave it life.
Of course, prior to the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll (itself a misbegotten but marvelous stew of country, western swing, blues, and gospel music), country music was more than just a marketing niche — which brings me to The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, a documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 22.
Maces Springs, Virginia may be a tiny dot on the map, but its impact on the development of American popular music is immeasurable. It was here that the young A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter was born in 1891, and where he worked the land during the 1910s and ’20s.
Alas, A.P. was not, at least according to family lore, a very good farmer, and eventually he gave it up for a career as a door-to-door tree salesman. While engaged in a sales pitch in nearby Copper Creek one day he overheard the dulcet tones of Sara Dougherty, a teenager who was also a dab hand at the autoharp. She, in turn, tried to sell him some dishes. Though their respective sales remained unconsummated, love and marriage soon followed.
A.P. and Sara may have been terrible salespeople, but they were preternaturally talented musicians. They began performing in churches and community centers across Appalachia, ultimately joining forces with A.P.’s sister-in-law Maybelle Carter in 1927. The Carter Family was born, and American music hasn’t been the same since.
The Winding Stream brings the story of the extended musical family into the 21st century, but its examination of the group’s earliest days is of particular interest. Defying convention (and probably putting himself and his travelling companion in a certain amount of danger), A.P. began criss-crossing the region with African-American musician Leslie Riddle, collecting songs on behalf of the Victor Company.
Most fascinating, however, is the story of the Family’s involvement with a huckster known as ‘Dr.’ John R. Brinkley. Brinkley had made his fortune in quack surgery (I’ll spare you the gory details) and patent medicines, and his Texas-based ‘border radio’ station XER-AM – which could literally be heard throughout the world via radios, bedsprings, and dental fillings – became the Carter Family’s home for several years.
Many of the talking heads featured in The Winding Stream have long since died, including New City Rambler Mike Seeger (deceased 2009) and, of course, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, here interviewed shortly after June Carter Cash’s passing in early 2003. Surely a long-term labor of love for director Beth Harrington (who will be in attendance at the 7 p.m. showing on Saturday, April 23), the film will be on interest to anyone with even a passing interest in country music – or indeed its bastard children, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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