Even an unbroken circle has to start somewhere, and Beth Harrington's The Winding Stream -- an earnest, engaging doc history of the Carter Family -- picks up at the precise moment when commercial music flowered on the wildwood of tradition. In 1927, A.P. Carter, the songwriter and mastermind, talked his wife Sara and her sister Maybelle into motoring down to Bristol, Virginia from their mountain home in Maces Spring. In Bristol, the family sang for a man in town to audition local musicians; a couple months later, the Carters were earning royalties.
Their lives changed: A.P. endeavored to track down every old mountain song he could, and they recorded hundreds, even after A.P. and Sara divorced. American music changed, too: Sara and Maybelle's high-mountain belting is now our very idea of an "authentic" past, and Maybelle's self-taught guitar heroics – she could switch from rhythm to lead all throughout a song -- are still known as the "Carter scratch."
The film breezes through this history with the usual doc assortment of interviews, archival clips and celebrity testimonials. The treatment's never as deep as the stream of the title, but it's certainly diverting, and it's likely to thrill devotees as it hips new audiences. Family of the Family speaks of the old days and the new in footage that feels charmingly close to informal, personal interviews; there are also priceless, late-life scenes of June Carter Cash, who was Maybelle's daughter, and her oak of a husband Johnny Cash, both of whom died in 2003. The dead haunt this film something like the way the ghosts of a long-gone America haunt the Carters' songs.