Friday, October 16, 2015

KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE: A Carter Family documentary, good in spite of itself.

The Winding Stream:  The Carters, the Cashes & the Course of Country Music
dir. Beth Harrington;  2014. One hour forty minutes

The hippie-country group Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was always mediocre, barely on par with some of today’s “Americana” kids, most of whose anemic output would make Alvin Pleasant Carter roll in his grassy Virginia grave. The only reason anyone remembers The Dirt Band at all was their uncommon good sense (and commercial acumen) to, in 1972 , make a triple LP with some of traditional country music’s finest, and I don’t mean that goofball Hee Haw crowd. Will The Circle Be Unbroken featured (among others) Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Brother Oswald Kirby, Vassar Clements and the overlooked Mother Maybelle Carter, showing the younger generation just what traditional music was all about by  showcasing their own signature songs (Circle being one of Maybelle’s).

When I say Mother Maybelle was “overlooked” I speak first hand. My age group was the follow up to the original hippies, a decade later. In “high” school, we listened intently to The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers as they ushered in what was then called folk-rock. We revered Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs (who we already knew, vaguely, from the Beverly Hillbillies theme song) and Ralph Stanley when he was a mere youth in his, uh, fifties. The Circle Album (as we called it) was in heavy rotation but we always thought Maybelle rather...quaint. We didn’t know how innovative her simultaneous picked-lead and strummed-rhythm style was (“the Carter Scratch”) nor understand her roots with the most influential country band ever recorded.

Or perhaps it’s better to call the Carter family a traditional rural band. “Country” conjures up either glittery images of classic artists like Tammy Wynette or “working man” poseurs like George Strait. Neither of these fit the definition of country music from those days. Well, there was in fact no such thing as “country” then. It was marketed as “traditional” but looked down upon (even by record company execs) as “hillbilly” music: backward, outmoded and fit only for the uneducated.

With cousin Sara and Sara’s husband A.P., Maybelle was the instrumental anchor of the now neglected Carter Family. They were the pop stars of their age for country folk. I mean real country folk who butchered their own hogs every fall and mail-ordered shoes from a Sears Roebuck catalog whose pages also served as outhouse tissue. Poor though they were, enough folks managed to have radios and hand-cranked Victrola phonographs (which were outmoded even then) to share the music and their admiration of the Carter Family as “one of our’n”. 

Director Beth Harrington (a behind-the-scenes PBS stalwart and former member of the latter Modern Lovers) does an admirable job despite a few missteps. For example, interspersed throughout, we’re told multiple times in vague terms by featured musicians how the Carters influenced them and the course of country music. Curiously, Harrington devotes more time to these people covering the original songs rather than letting us hear the, uh, originals play the originals. If that last phrase sounds redundant, it is and to some degree so are John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They all do a fine job (especially the last) but it’s almost as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the audience to appreciate eighty year old recordings except in snippets. I suppose she’s trying to emphasize their influence over their output but the Carter’s actual work is curiously often unnoticed in the race to canonize them.

Too, there’s the misguided use of colorized and animated vintage photographs of the Carters “playing” their songs. Such parlor tricks serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever: annoying at best and at worst, a visual that further serves to distract from the beautiful original recordings. Call me a Luddite (true) but it’s just one more example of how ubiquitous useless computer tricks have become. No one ever seems to ask, “What’s the point?” To me it’s just one more disservice to an audience, again not trusting we can be content with content sans bells and whistles. This ugly trick makes me out and out yearn for the now passé Ken Burns approach of slowly zooming in and out of old photographs. 

Complaints aside, there’s still some great stuff here. We’re shown just how the Carters played hundreds of live radio shows on powerful Mexican border stations that flaunted Federal transmitting rules. We see how they sold 1000s of 78 rpm shellac  records (the pre-vinyl format), quite a feat during the Great Depression when their audience was not the type that saw much hard cash, or if they did usually spent it on staples they couldn’t make or raise themselves, like nails and coffee.

It was a time of change. America was still mostly rural but the lure and power of the city was eclipsing the workaday countryside. Part of the Carters’ appeal was reaffirming traditional ideals, the value and values of country life, things which were being shunted aside in favor of steel, The Jazz Age and “progress”. This is just what the more well-known WoodyGuthrie did later when the urban takeover was real and irreversible but even he (an inveterate song collector like A.P.) gained much of his material from the Carters.

Obsessed from an early age, A.P. Carter relentlessly traveled thousands of miles to learn traditional songs before they were forgotten, all the while forgetting his own wife and children. He wanted it all: lovesick blues, jailhouse laments, hillbilly waltzes, pre-Bluegrass instrumentals and stern lesson-learned gospel. Age-old tunes sung in the fields, the hard rock coal mines or while rocking the cradle. Songs vocally passed through generations, some with obscured roots in the British Isles. These melodies and lyrics have been mixed, matched and reused countless times to form the basis of what we now call folk music and country music.  For this The Carter Family must be thanked but their performances must also be heard and appreciated.

But the story doesn’t stop here. As popular tastes changed and the troubled A.P. and Sara slowly withdrew from performing (going the very untraditional route of divorce, mostly unheard of among “good” church people in those days), Maybelle forged ahead recruiting daughters June, Helen, and Anita to form The Carter Sisters in 1943.  Radio dates and records followed as as well as the de rigueur and well-received Grand Old Opry appearances. By 1950, Johnny Cash entered the picture, intractably pursuing June to eventual marriage despite both of them being already wed. See: Ring Of Fire, Cash’s most overplayed song, followed closely by Folsom Prison Blues.  

In the ‘60s, Cash used his fame and ill-fated TV show to advantage. It was ill-fated because he was too controversial a figure in the Vietnam era, a true outlaw unlike drunken louts like Hank Williams Jr or Waylon Jennings. To his great credit, Cash used his brief media power to spotlight heroes like PeteSeeger who was widely thought to be a communist traitor.  Cash especially took pleasure in bringing the family act that he adored back to wider acclaim. Being part of that family now by marriage was just a bonus. In interviews recorded just weeks before his death, Cash’s humble awe and reverence is plain to see and a decided highlight of the film.

Despite the flaws, Harrigton’s admiration is also apparent as she brings The Carter Family story to a wide audience at just the right time when hundreds of indie rock kids are unplugging to clumsily pick up thrift store banjos and ukuleles.

This piece originally appeared in unaltered format in The Albuquerque Free Press.