The story of the Carter Family is not so much about an influential musical act but a dynasty that spans the history of country music for almost 90 years. The original members — A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle — were one of country music’s earliest superstars during the 1920s and 1930s and became known for such legendary songs as “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” After the original group disbanded in the early 1940s, Maybelle and her daughters continued the family’s musical legacy, which was even furthered by the union of June Carter and Johnny Cash.
Now a new documentary, The Winding Stream (watch the trailer below) directed by Beth Harrington, traces the history of the family, from the early musical roots in Maces Spring, Virginia, to the present day. The film — which premiered this week at New York City’s Walter Reade Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series — features interviews with past and living members of the Carter and Cash families. Mingled with the history are musical performances of Carter Family songs by Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Kris Kristofferson, the late George Jones, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Here are nine of countless fascinating facts we learned from The Winding Stream‘s New York premiere.
A.P. met Sara through door-to-door sales.
According to A.P. and Sara Carter’s granddaughter Rita Forrester, A.P. was selling fruit trees door to door in southwest Virginia when he stumbled upon a yard where he heard a woman named Sara Dougherty sing and play the autoharp. Impressed, A.P. introduced himself, and Sara told him she was selling dishes. “He told her that if she came with him, he would take the entire set,” said Forrester. They married in 1915.
The original group’s first record sales were a surprise even to them.
In the summer of 1927, the trio made the arduous trip from Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee, to record for Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, who was looking for new talent to record in his temporary studio above a hat company. A.P. wasn’t always active when it came to singing (“We just let him sing when he got ready,” Maybelle once recalled); he wasn’t even present when Maybelle and Sara performed “Single Girl, Married Girl.” After the sessions, they received a check and returned home to resume their normal lives. A few months later, a record store started to sell the recordings by the “Carter Family” — A.P. didn’t even know the records were out.
The Carter Family was Fleetwood Mac before Fleetwood Mac.
Despite their success and harmonious image, there was drama behind the scenes within the original group, particularly the relationship between A.P. and Sara. This was due to A.P.’s travels in search of new material, leaving Sara neglected at home. She later fell in love with A.P.’s cousin, Coy Bayes, and they eventually married. Despite the divorce, A.P. and Sara continued with the group.
The Carter Family’s driving force was a songcatcher.
A.P. would travel to find new songs — he collaborated with an African-American guitarist named Lesley Riddle and the two collected whatever tunes came their way. A.P. would later jot down the tunes on paper and then present them to Sara and Maybelle.
A Mexican radio station introduced Johnny Cash to the music of his future wife, June Carter.
John Brinkley — who was famously known for transplanting goat testicles into human males to cure impotence — started border radio station XER in Mexico. This high-wattage station broadcasted the performances by the Carter Family — which at that point included the Carter Sisters — and gave their music even greater exposure. One of the listeners was a boy from Arkansas named Johnny Cash, who ironically heard one of the youngest members of the act who would later become his wife — June Carter.
America’s day of infamy squashed the family’s chance at even greater recognition.
A cover story about the family was scheduled to appear in an issue of LIFE magazine, which would have brought them larger publicity and attention. Unfortunately, it was around the time that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and the LIFE story never ran.
Guitar pioneer Maybelle Carter found fame twice.
After the breakup of the first Carter Family in the early 1940s, “Mother” Maybelle Carter continued to perform music with daughters June, Anita and Helen — the Carter Sisters — who together backed Johnny Cash. Her innovative guitar technique became known as the “Carter Scratch,” in which she played the lead and rhythm parts simultaneously. As a solo artist, Maybelle became popular on the college circuit during the counterculture 1960s. At one point, she was interested in covering the 1970 hit “One Toke Over the Line” by Brewer and Shipley when her relatives told her what the song was really about. Maybelle was later featured on the 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, singing the Carter Family classic “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
It was love at first sight for Johnny and June.
One of the most poignant moments from the film is undoubtedly an interview with the Man in Black shortly before his death in 2003. He recalled first meeting Maybelle and his daughters and being especially smitten by the spunky and vivacious June. “I’m gonna marry you someday,” he told her. They did several years later in 1968.
The Carter Family dynasty lives on.
The original Carter Family members have long passed away (A.P. in 1960, followed by Maybelle in 1978, and Sara in 1979), but the music lives on, especially through their descendants. The late Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara, honored the original trio’s memory by establishing the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, which is known for its Saturday night concerts of traditional country music.