Grammy-nominated filmmaker Beth Harrington has done it again. The former rock ‘n’ roll singer-turned-documentarian who put female rockabilly artists in the spotlight in 2003 with Welcome To The Club now brings us an in-depth exploration of the legendary Carter family, at the core of which stands matron saint, backup singer, guitar, banjo, and autoharp player Maybelle Carter. Ms. Carter’s revolutionary guitar style of playing lead and rhythm at the same time—for the first time in popular music—changed the way guitar was viewed as an instrument. She took the guitar from the back of the band to the forefront, inspiring well-known guitar players Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash.
Now screening across the United States, the film features interviews not just with the legendary Ms. Carter, but with multiple members of the Carter/Cash family, including Johnny Cash himself. Not only a fascinating historical excavation of a family’s enormous contribution to American music, The Winding Stream is also visually stunning.
She Shreds: What got you interested in the Carter family? What inspired you to make a film about them?
Beth Harrington: About 14 years ago, I’d made a film about women rockabilly artists called Welcome to the Club, and many of the women featured in that film spoke of the Carter family as an influence, as the makers of music they’d been raised on. I realized that a lot of people knew about Johnny Cash and knew something about his wife June Carter Cash, but many didn’t know June’s musical heritage and how important that was to music history. I saw that there were dots that could be connected in a film. So I decided to make The Winding Stream.
What does Maybelle Carter’s contribution to guitar playing (i.e the famous “Carter scratch” fingerstyle) mean for female guitar players today?
I think it means that we have “permission” to be as inventive as we want to be! Maybelle invented a style of guitar playing—playing rhythm and lead at the same time—out of necessity. The original Carter family—A.P., Sara, and Maybelle—needed to be a band. Sara’s husband A.P. was a kind of musical arranger for the group, but he didn’t play or sing very much. So, largely, it was just Maybelle and Sara playing instruments. Sara mostly played autoharp and did the lead singing. Maybelle took some things she learned on banjo and adapted them to the guitar. Voila! The “Carter scratch” was born!
Of all the interviews you conducted, which was the most interesting?
Johnny Cash, because I believe he consented to [be interviewed] so he could talk about the two most influential women in his life: his wife June Carter Cash and his mother-in-law Maybelle Carter. He loved June fiercely, and he revered Maybelle. His purpose in granting us the interview was to talk about them and help secure their place in music history. I thought that was so great that this big music star would turn the focus on his wife and mother-in-law in such a loving and respectful way. He told me that Maybelle Carter was the “biggest star I’ve ever known.”
Would you agree that Maybelle Carter invented and/or popularized lead guitar playing?
I would say that’s pretty close to it. She invented a style of playing (the aforementioned “Carter scratch”) that most American guitarists learn now, and until Maybelle, the guitar had been thought of almost as a percussion instrument, just background rhythm. Banjo and fiddle were the lead instruments back then. She made guitar a focal point for old time/hillbilly/country music (whatever you wanted to call it back then), and that paved the way for it in rockabilly. When you combine that with what the blues guitarists were doing, you have the makings of rock and roll guitar!
It seems like the history of female guitar, bass, and string instrument players in music history is incredibly rich but has mostly been forgotten or maybe even erased.
I think those of us who can tell these stories––you women at She Shreds, me and other colleagues in filmmaking, the various music writers and critics I know and anyone else who cares to join us––are responsible for uncovering and telling them. They won’t get told if we don’t do it. Most people are receptive when the tales are told. But it’s up to us to do it!
As a female musician, what do you feel this family’s story gave you?
I know for a fact that it reminded me that back when the Carters started, music was not a spectator sport! It was about playing! And partway through the making of this film, I dusted off my Telecaster and started to take guitar lessons and play again, after many years of not playing. And that led to me being in the band I’m in now, Spiricles, which is a Portland-based alternative rock band. That’s a gift I couldn’t have foreseen.