In this #FilmmakerFridays piece, we introduce director Beth Harrington. Beth directed the music documentary The Winding Stream, the story of the legendary Carter and Cash family. The film premiered at various film festivals and recently became available on Digital HD and DVD this week. Beth spoke with us about her experience and why she decided to film this unique interesting topic.
What inspired you to develop the idea of documenting the history of the Carter and Cash Family?
My last independent film before The Winding Stream was a film called Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly. It told the story of the pioneering women of early rock & roll and featured musicians who’d been peers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. These women – largely Southern – had also grown up with Carter Family music and had all toured or at least crossed paths with Johnny Cash and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. I began to form the idea that there should be a film that “connected the dots” from the Original Carter Family who were in the vanguard of country music in the late 1920s (then it was called “old-timey” music) and show how they influenced generations of musicians – including people like Johnny Cash. Since members of this large and dedicated extended family are still playing roots music today (examples include Rosanne Cash, her brother John Carter Cash, her sister Carlene Carter and cousins like Lorrie Carter Bennett and Dale Jett) I thought it could be an epic film showing the sweep of their story across time.
Being that there is so much history involved in this film, how did you narrow down the featured subjects for the film?
Because there are not many people still alive who knew and could speak about the Original Carter Family (A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter) my first plan of action was to identify and interview as quickly as possible anyone who fell into that category. Sadly, we missed being able to interview June Carter Cash who died the same day I first met with her cousins in Southwest Virginia. This loss made it very apparent to me that time was of the essence. And this urgency extended to people like our music historian Charles Wolfe and the great folk artist Mike Seeger, both of whom knew some of the Carters personally and were great storytellers. So, we cast a very wide net and tried to get as much information as quickly as possible from these witnesses to the history. The film is narrator-less so it was important to get as much of the story in the words of family, musicians and historians as possible. But ultimately, my editor Greg Snider and I decided that the film did better resting most often on the shoulders of the family, giving a deeply personal quality to the content. At the end of the day, the family saga was best told by family.
Could you tell us your experience filming and interviewing Johnny Cash? Were there any new and/or interesting facts that you learned just by his interview?
One of the great privileges of documentary filmmaking is being in worlds into which you would not ordinarily be invited. Meeting Johnny Cash was one of those privileges. I got to interview him just three weeks before he passed away. He had only recently come home from being in the hospital. His wife June Carter Cash, as I mentioned, had passed away as we were starting the project and only a few months before we got to interview The Man in Black himself. Honestly, if I’d been in his shoes I would have said forget it. And yet, he honored the interview request and seemed eager to do it. And I realized why almost immediately once we got to his home – It was not an interview about him. It was about June and her family whom he really loved and admired. He was kind and gracious and forthcoming and also very funny at times. It was just thrilling to be sitting knee-to-knee with him, listening to his stories. I guess the thing I learned about him that made the biggest impression was how much he revered his mother-in-law Maybelle Carter. He called her the “VIP of the VIPs” and went on to emphasize “and I’ve seen ‘em all.” (And he has, too!) Maybelle’s talent and focus and skill as a musician and her warmth and kindness as a human being were of paramount importance to Johnny Cash. The depth of his feeling for her was really striking.
Besides country music, which other genres are you passionate about?
I love all kinds of music and have really eclectic musical tastes. But I’m a rock & roll kid by birth (born at the beginning of the genre, grew up with the British Invasion and 60s and 70s rock and roll) and played in rock bands from the 1980s starting with the cult-y band Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (alumni of the Modern Lovers include Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads and David Robinson of the Cars and am still in a rock band today (the band’s called Spiricles out of Portland, Oregon). I play rhythm guitar and sing. I never stop being passionate about music.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
The Winding Stream took so long to fund and make (over a decade) that frankly, it’s taken me a long time to look ahead to new work. I’d very much like to stay working in the realm of music documentaries and have several music documentary ideas. But these are expensive films to produce because of archival photo and footage costs as well as the expense of licensing music so I need to have a better sense of how to fund any new projects in this vein. Meanwhile, I am also developing a fiction-driven web series (based on the research we did for The Winding Stream) that is set partly in the present and partly in the 1920s. It will feature original music by contemporary musicians written in the style of people like the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers. I’m anxious to push myself in a new creative direction and I’m very excited about some of the people I’ll be working with. So, stay tuned for that.
See The Winding Stream on iTunes.