Longtime readers of the blog know how much I love music–and Americana music, in particular, has really grown on me in recent years. So when I found out about Beth Harrington‘s musical/historical documentary in progress, The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music, I immediately sought Harrington out for an interview. As noted at Harrington’s website: “The Winding Stream is the tale of the dynasty at the very heart of country music. Starting with the seminal Original Carter Family, A.P., Sara and Maybelle; this film-in-progress traces the ebb and flow of their influence, the transformation of that act into the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, the marital alliance between June Carter and music legend Johnny Cash, and the efforts of the present-day family to keep this legacy alive.” Below is a Kickstarter video about the project. While the initial fundraising goal was recently met, as we discuss in the email interview, there’s additional work that needs to be funded. My thanks to Harrington for her time, as well as her willingness to discuss her own musical career.
Tim O’Shea: How far along are you in the production of this documentary? While you have met your Kickstarter goal, can you estimate how much more you hope to raise to help cover “Editing, sound design, music and footage rights, animation, graphics and titles” expenses?
Beth Harrington: The Kickstarter funds will allow us to film our last several days of interviews and performances if we’re careful. Beyond that we need to raise several hundred thousand more to do all the other things I mentioned. But that sounds daunting and has been counterproductive until now, so we’re trying to deal with the film in chunks. 1) Finish shooting. 2) Refine the edit. 3) Complete the graphics, animation and titles. 4) Deal with the rights issues. 5) Finish sound design and other post production. We’re waiting to hear on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We’re also looking for one or more corporate underwriters (sponsors) who would want to be associated with the film. And then there are a couple of possible distribution deals we could access when we get close to being finished. But meanwhile we’re mostly relying on crowdfunding – individual donations – to get us to the next steps.
O’Shea: With the Kickstarter preview video, I was wondering how did you happen upon the shot of the kitten along the railroad tracks?
Harrington: It was as you say, we just happened upon a cat on the railroad tracks. And a minute later the train came by. Tom Shrider, the cameraman got it on tape.
O’Shea: You already knew Rosanne Cash from her narration of your previous music documentary, Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly. How early in the development of this new documentary did you enlist her input?
Harrington: Rosanne was the first person I spoke to about the project, though to be more accurate I’d been thinking about doing this film and simultaneously she mentioned to me that she had been to the Carter Fold in Virginia with her father and June and it struck her that I should make a documentary about the Carters. Just a happy coincidence that we were thinking along the same lines! But hers was the first interview I did for the film. She’s been a real supporter of the project and I’m so grateful to her for that.
O’Shea: I love Rosanne’s likening the Carter family to the Beatles–in terms of their lasting influence on music. Had you heard her make that comparison before or was that a comparison you heard first when taping her?
Harrington: She made that comparison for the first time to me on camera. But I know she (like me) is a huge Beatles fan so it didn’t surprise me that she used that analogy. And I think for a certain generation of popular music lovers, that analogy is the most accessible one. Of course the Carters are influential in the same way that many of us feel the Beatles are influential. It just makes sense to look at it that way!
O’Shea: How did you track down the archival black and white footage (shown while John Prine sings Bear Creek Blues)?
Harrington: Archival research is just one of those things documentarians do. There are many sources for this sort of thing — the Library of Congress, the National Archives and many libraries and private footage houses – and over time you just sorta know who to go to. And it’s easier than ever now to find new sources of footage because of the internet. This particular footage our editor Greg Snider uncovered.
O’Shea: Joe Ely strikes me as a great interview, particularly judging by his “People should know who they [the Carter family] are, just like they should know who the first president of the United States is?” When you interview musicians (who are typically great storytellers), how hard is it to decide what to leave out for time, given the number of great stories they provide?
Harrington: It varies but in the case of these opening quotes from musicians I went into the interviews knowing that I wanted to develop a montage where musicians make the case for the importance of the Carters. So I knew we wanted great one-liners or short thoughts about them. Joe’s is particularly good because it really places the Carters in the pantheon of important Americans – not just important musicians! But essentially a filmmaker goes into an interview having a sense of what she might need. Then she goes for that with her line of questioning and awaits the happy accident of other bites that inform the story.
O’Shea: Your Johnny Cash interview was three weeks before his death. How challenging was it to interview him, while being sensitive to not tax him too much given his fragility in his final months?
Harrington: We’d arrived in Nashville on a Wednesday and planned to stay until Friday and one of those days was going to be when we’d do the interview with Johnny Cash. I was all too aware of the state of his health even before I left Portland, Oregon where I live now. When we arrived in Nashville, Rosanne – who was there at the time – informed me he was in the hospital. I knew this was a possibility and was prepared to walk away from the trip without having spoken to him. There was no question in my mind that his health was the most important thing. But on Friday morning, his son John Carter Cash called me to tell me his father was home and very much wanted to do the interview. So going in, I knew that I needed to be extremely careful of his needs. I asked John Carter to stand off to one side and signal me when he thought his father was getting tired, which he did. As soon as I got the sign I wrapped up the interview. But the 40 minutes we had with him were wonderful and I was very grateful for the time he devoted to this. And I felt we did right by him. He was also just very gracious and funny and warm.
O’Shea: Who are some of the most essential interviews (other than Rosanne and Johnny) that you were able to gain in getting the story of the Carter family?
Harrington: Most of the essential ones we have now – Johnny Cash, Janette and Joe Carter (A.P and Sara’s children), Dale Jett and Rita Forrester (A.P and Sara’s grandchildren), Rosanne Cash, Lorrie Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter), John Carter Cash and other relatives. We also interviewed Charles Wolfe who was one of the foremost Carter experts around. I still need to interview Carlene Carter and there are some other interviews with family friends that would be nice. But mostly we have the nuts and bolts of the story.
O’Shea: What aspects of The Winding Stream proved most challenging to research?
Harrington: The research never seems hard to me because it’s so much fun. But I guess it’s always a challenge trying to figure out who knows what piece of the story. Especially in a family story, finding the right person to illuminate a certain part of the film is tricky. And there isn’t all that much written about the Carters relative to their importance. But that’s changing.
O’Shea: I know you are still in the midst of The Winding Stream, but have you ever considered doing a documentary on Jonathan Richman, or does that not interest you?
Harrington: People have asked me this before. I have considered this but it’s not just up to me. One issue is would Jonathan be willing to do it and how would that unfold for him and for me. Since I am a former member of the Modern Lovers, I feel like my take on the band would need to be part of the film and I’m not exactly sure how that would work. And there is the issue of how I would fund such a film. These sorts of documentaries are very expensive and I’m very weary of fundraising quite honestly. I’d love to do a creative project where I didn’t have to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if Jonathan wanted to do the film and I could frame it in an interesting way and I could pay everyone involved to work on it, then I’d be very happy to make a film about the Modern Lovers.
O’Shea: In the struggle to garner funding for the project, when you apply for a grant that you do not get, how do you keep a positive attitude? I imagine it can be quite depressing at time, trying to gain the funds needed to tell the story you want.
Harrington: Not finishing a film to me is not an option. If you lose heart during filmmaking you’re doomed. I have never not finished a film and I will get this one done somehow, too. I have been very depressed about this film at times but it’s been a long time since I felt that way. in recent years, social media has actually helped a lot in that regard because people through Facebook, Twitter and our Winding Stream website have urged me on, giving lots of encouragement. I also must say that the people I’ve been working with on the film have been great in that regard. So I don’t feel alone on it.
“Must not let big rock roll over me! Must keep pushing up hill!”
O’Shea: Where can folks find the project on the web?