SXSW FILM 2014
By Linc Leifeste | March 20, 2014
Director: Beth Harrington
Everyone knows about Johnny Cash. And just about everyone knows about his wife, June Carter Cash. But sadly not as many people are aware of June Carter Cash’s rich country heritage, her having been a daughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter, one-third of the first family of country music, the legendary Carter Family. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are generally considered the two fountainheads from which country music flowed, both having been recorded for the first time in 1927 by record producer Ralph Peer on a scouting trip to Bristol, Tennessee. There were a lot of acts recorded during those Bristol Sessions but only those two went on to become the first superstars of country music.
More than a decade in the making, director Beth Harrington’s lovingly crafted documentary tells the story of the Carter Family through a combination of archival photos and footage, interview audio, songs, and interviews with figures such as Rosanne Cash, Joe Ely, Jeff Hanna, relatives and friends of the Carters and probably most strikingly, interview footage recorded with Johnny Cash just weeks before he passed. Cash, of course, looms large in the documentary, but Harrington makes the correct move to not make this the story of the Carter Family told through the lens of Johnny Cash, despite the Man in Black’s obvious drawing power and commercial appeal.
At times the film has the look and feel of a lower budget TV production but I’m sure the filmmakers were working on a limited budget. That said, the film is never less than engaging, as it should be, considering the fascinating career and lives of its subject. From the Bristol recordings on through the dissolution of the marriage of original members A.P. and Sara Carter to their time spent broadcasting on Mexican border radio to their retiring to Maybelle’s revival of the Carter Family name with her and her three daughters, the Carter Family’s story is truly fascinating. For those who are already knowledgeable of that history, there won’t be much new in the film but it’s still a joy to take in. And for those who aren’t already familiar with the Carter Family, the film should serve as a revelation.