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News / Life / Clark County Life

Bits ‘n’ Pieces: A winding tale of country music royalty

Vancouver documentarian connects the complicated dots between Carters, Cashes

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 14, 2015, 6:03am
5 Photos
Vancouver filmmaker Beth Harrington.
Vancouver filmmaker Beth Harrington. Photo Gallery

Maybe this film needs more Cash, Beth Harrington kept hearing.

It definitely needed more dollars, the Vancouver documentarian already knew. When you’re making a movie about the original royalty of country music, the requisite songs, film clips, photos and other copyrighted materials cost a lot to license. And when you explain that your real focus will be some of the crucial but lesser-known figures in the tale, potential investors start suggesting: “Can you put more Cash in it?”

Johnny Cash, that is.

And there’s some unparalleled Cash in Harrington’s latest movie, “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music,” since she conducted one of the last interviews with the “Man in Black,” recorded weeks before he died in 2003.

He’s a towering and beloved figure in American music, no doubt, and a great hook for moviegoers. But Harrington wanted to tell a richer, longer, stranger story that included Johnny Cash’s rise to fame within a bigger picture whose real heroes are an astonishingly talented and eccentric Virginia family, the Carters, who never enjoyed an equivalent rise.

“Who cares about that?” is what Harrington said she heard too often. Raising money to make the film took years, and raising the money for the licensing took more years. She even convened a local “Carter-Cash Council” to brainstorm possibilities, and held fundraisers at spots such as Ridgefield’s Old Liberty Theater.

If You Go

• What: “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music,” a documentary film. The event features a Q&A with filmmaker Beth Harrington and live music by Vancouver band The Pearls.

• When: Music at 7 p.m., film at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21.

• Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

• Cost: $10. Soundtrack CDs and an oral history book will be on sale.

• Information: thewindingstream.com, bethharrington.com

“If it weren’t for the people in this community, it wouldn’t have happened,” Harrington said.

Long after the film was finished, Harrington could still legally show it only at festivals; only early this year did the licensing money come together for theatrical, for-profit release. The final budget was $400,000, she said, and fully half of that went to fees, not filmmaking. Making this kind of movie is “almost prohibitively expensive,” is what she said she has learned.

But plenty of people do seem to care about this undertold tale. Harrington said she expected her film to show in a handful of cities and then head to home video or streaming — but rave reviews and ticket sales have propelled it much further. It’s now booked to play in 40 cities through April, she said. It’s already been to Portland’s Hollywood Theatre.

Now comes Vancouver’s turn. The Kiggins Theatre will show “The Winding Stream” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21. Harrington will be on hand after the showing for a question-and-answer session and informal conversation; before the showing, Vancouver’s The Pearls will supply Carter- and Cash-related live music. The movie itself features interviews and performances by talents such as John Prine, George Jones, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Sheryl Crow. Tickets are $10.

‘Border blasters’

In the 1920s, the United States and Canada divvied between themselves most of the bandwidth available to a relatively new communication technology called radio. Mexico responded by looking the other way while “border blasters” — pirate radio stations putting out ridiculously strong signals — sprang up along its northern boundary.

Enter a notorious quack surgeon and broadcaster named John Brinkley who, banned from the air in the U.S., sponsored one of these border stations. At 1 million watts, it was known as the most powerful broadcaster on Earth — it could literally be heard all around the globe, Harrington said — and in 1938, it started cranking out the unique sound of the Carter Family.

Its members were A.P. Carter, a song collector, arranger and singer; his wife, Sara, whose unforgettably haunted voice seemed made for Southern Gothic tales of tragedy; and Sara’s cousin Maybelle, a brilliant instrumentalist on guitar and banjo. They had already been propelled to fame via recordings made in 1927 by a talent scout for Victor Records (who discovered Jimmie Rodgers during the same sessions, now considered the birth of modern country music); but megawattage such as what was pouring from station XERA in Mexico made the Carters among the most-heard musicians in history.

One of their entranced listeners was an Arkansas farm boy named Johnny Cash. Cash was racking up hits including “Cry Cry Cry” and “Folsom Prison Blues” by the late 1950s, and he started sharing concert stages with the Carter Sisters, the latest version of the original Carter Family group, which had fallen apart after Sara divorced A.P. This generation of Carters featured Maybelle’s daughter June, and it’s now infamous how June and Johnny were passionately drawn to one another for well over a decade — even while Johnny was married and eventually the father of four. He was also a relentless womanizer, alcoholic and drug abuser.

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Cash’s first wife divorced him in the mid-1960s, and he married June. The two of them lived and worked together for the rest of their lives — with Carter helping Cash get sober, and Cash reviving the Carter Family sound and legacy — until she died in 2003 and he followed a few months later.

Harrington reached him with her camera just in time.

Connecting the dots

Harrington’s biography is a winding stream, too. A native of Boston, she studied history and film in college, and then went to work for a documentary film company. She was honing her journalism and storytelling skills, she said, when a chance personal connection resulted in her dropping everything to head on tour as a singer and guitarist for the Boston band Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. That lasted three years, she said. Then she got back to making documentaries.

Harrington met a Vancouver volcanologist while working for “Nova,” the public-TV science series, on a film about what she calls “a huge scientific victory,” when geologists in 1991 accurately predicted the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines and convinced the population to evacuate, saving thousands of lives. She moved to Vancouver and married him in 1999; he still works for the U.S. Geological Survey here, she said.

Harrington’s lens was drawn to popular culture and music. The precursor to “The Winding Stream” was a film called “Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly,” and Harrington was fortunate to get Roseanne Cash, Johnny’s first daughter and a star in her own right, to narrate it.

“Welcome to the Club” was nominated for a Grammy Award, and Roseanne was obviously happy with the end result, so Harrington started screwing up her courage to suggest an even more tightly focused film — “connecting all the dots” between the Carters and Cashes, she said — when Roseanne surprised her with a friendly email: an extended Cash-Carter family gathering had just wrapped up in Virginia, and Roseanne regretted that Harrington hadn’t been there to document it.

Harrington said she realized she was being welcomed to the club.

“It was ambitious, but it sounded so cool, and I had the total cooperation of the family,” she said. “We were off to the races.”

That was in 2001. Fourteen years later, “The Winding Stream” is finally coming to the Kiggins.

Bits ‘n’ Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you’d like to share, email bits@columbian.com