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Watch the Tunes: The Winding Stream

On August 5, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes And The Course Of Country Music, which is streaming over on Netflix.

“Hey mister! I don't mean to be tellin' tales out of school, but there's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can.” Fans of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? will recognize that as the fairly humble beginnings of that film’s motley musical group The Soggy Bottom Boys, but without someone tossing a similar line out to A.P. Carter, there’s no telling what modern popular music would be today. Like most folks, I knew that O Brother had snatched the loose flesh and bones of its plot from Homer’s Odyssey, but after watching The Winding Stream, a documentary on old-time musical paterfamilias The Carter Family, I have a whole new level of appreciation for not only O Brother, but country music, and honestly music in general.


When Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter (A.P. to everyone) formed the Carter Family band with his wife Sara, their three children, and Sara's cousin, Maybelle, they had a fairly simple goal of just earning a little money from recording songs from around the Appalachian Mountains, but in doing so they became early Ethnomusicologists. It’s easy to take it for granted that we have practically every song every recorded at our fingertips right now, but there was a time before even vinyl albums when the music you heard was whatever songs were literally being played near you. The Carter Family were one of the first groups to capture these songs that had been floating on the mountain breeze of “oral tradition” for years, and cemented arrangements of them into brittle ten inch discs of shellac for everyone to enjoy. The objective historical value of the Carter Family is immeasurable, but good lord they truly sounded incredible too.

Watching The Winding Stream takes you back to the days when family histories were recorded in the front pages of Bibles, and all the interviews with the surviving branches of the Carter family tree really hammers home that theme of that earthy familial connectivity. Maybe I’m just a terrible grandson, but it’s remarkable to me that so many living members of the Carters show up on camera here with these great stories about their grandparents. Director Beth Harrington brings in lots of other people for interviews, but she truly could’ve had an excellent feature length film based solely on footage from direct descendents of A.P. and Sara.

The film takes a truly entertaining and informative side road into explaining Border Radio, which helped turn the Carter Family into a minor musical institution, and its inventor Dr. John R. Brinkley. Apparently the government oversight organization back in the twenties that was in charge of applying some semblance of consistency to the power of radio stations wanted to limit the reach of Milford, Kansas’s KFKB to 5,000 watts, so Brinkley simply set up shop just across the Texas border and goosed his new radio station, XER, up to 75,000 watts, which resulted in people being able to suddenly hear the Carter Family (and others) not only on their radios but on their bedsprings and dental work too. Oh, and Brinkley was a real doctor who had the crazy idea that putting a sliver of goat testicle into a human male’s scrotum would cure erectile disfunction. You go into a documentary about the roots of country music and hey look at that you come out of it with a lesson in pre-dustbowl medical quackery.

The documentary might be subtitled “The Carters, The Cashes And The Course Of Country Music” but Johnny Cash doesn’t show up until relatively late in the film since it’s so front loaded with family lore (and all that weird talk about goat testicles). The last half of the film is divided between June Carter (Maybelle’s daughter) falling in love with Johnny Cash and ultimately saving him from his demons of addiction and forming the most important power couple in country music since, well, A.P. and Sara Carter. The film also covers the early ‘70s Carter Family renaissance with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s triple LP Will the Circle Be Unbroken introducing old-time music to the long hair bluegrass lovers nationwide.

As music documentaries go, The Winding Stream is truly excellent, and bakes in a lot of the folksiness of the mountains where the music it’s covering traces its roots back to. You can all but smell the biscuits cooking and watch the Blue Ridge Mountains change color in the fall. The effect that the Carter Family had on the arc of music history is somehow still underrated, and this is a great place to start getting your head right on them and their lasting legacy.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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