Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Johnny Cash and the Popemobile

Recently I (David) was in Portland for the Stumptown Comics Fest, and was lucky enough to meet and have lunch with documentary filmmaker and all-around nice person, Beth Harrington. You may be familiar with her excellent film about the women of rockabilly, Welcome to the Club. Beth is currently at work on a documentary about the Carter Family! As you might imagine, we had a lot to talk about, especially our love of the Carters' music.

She interviewed me for her Winding Stream blog, and in return allowed me to interview her...

What is the name of your project?

The film is called The Winding Stream and its subtitle is “The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music.”

How long have you been working on it?

I first had the idea for the film in early 2001. I’d just finished a film about women rockabilly singers and Rosanne Cash had narrated it. It went really well and Rosanne seemed very happy with the association. I’d been thinking of asking Rosanne if she’d introduce me to family members and participate in a film about the Carters and Cashes. And just as I was about to ask her, she emailed me and said she’d been down at the Carter Fold in Virginia with her father and June and the whole time she was there she was thinking, “Beth should be here making a film about this.” And I said, “Funny you should mention it…”

So I started doing development work, researching the subject, applying for grants and the like. But we didn’t actually start shooting until 2003. So this is either the 10th year of the film if you count pre-production or the 8th year if you go from when we started shooting. But either way it’s been a long time. Funding’s been the big hurdle. And remains so. But we’ve gotten an amazing amount of work done considering how little money we’ve had to work with. People have been very generous with their time and talent in this project. And we’re grateful for grants we’ve received from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Faerie Godmother Fund. And our recent Kickstarter campaign really put us back into action again. So that’s been great.

So, just what is it about the Carter Family?

For me, it’s about two things:

The incredible canon of music they preserved and developed and interpreted, a huge piece of our cultural heritage. Sara’s voice, Maybelle’s innovative guitar work, A.P.’s obsessive song collecting and arranging. Where would we be without these three and their contribution to American music?

2) The human drama of one family that threads itself through most of the last century of American music. The Carters (and their progeny) really are a winding stream flowing through all sorts of genres. I mean, you have Beck doing Carter music and you have Elvis doing Carter music and you have Flatt and Scruggs doing Carter music and you have Joan Baez doing Carter music and you have Those Darlins doing Carter music. Amazing appeal.

Frank and I have spent our time sitting in a little room for much of our production process. I’m envious that you get to go out and see places and meet people. Do you have an anecdote or two you can share from the making of your film?

To this day, the biggest thrill of the film was meeting and interviewing Johnny Cash. He was incredibly kind to us and happy to talk about June and her family. Of course, this was also a difficult time for him. June had died only a few months earlier and he was very ill himself. He died only a few weeks later in fact. But he was very engaged and funny and intense, too.

He came into the living room where we’d set up via an elevator that had been added to their home. So it was the size of a phone booth and it came down from the corner of the ceiling into the living room. John Carter Cash had warned me about this (our camera was set-up under it!) I guess there’d been mishaps before where things got crushed.

Anyway, at the appointed time, Johnny Cash comes down, seemingly from the heavens! And he’s in a phone booth that is opaque at the bottom and has a painted folk art picture of June on the side. And he’s waving at us as he comes down. And my crew and I are just gleeful! It’s Johnny Cash! It’s Johnny Cash! And he’s laughing and we’re laughing and it’s just great.

He gave us a tremendous interview and after he’s done he shakes hands with all of us and then says, “Well, gonna go back into the Popemobile now.” And he gets back in and ascends into heaven. Or at least the third story of their house. And as a former Catholic school girl I couldn’t resist. I made the sign of the cross in the manner of a pope as the Man in Black disappears above our heads. And the last thing I saw was him reacting, throwing back his head laughing and slapping his knee. It was a great moment.

Another great moment in the film was spending time with Ms. Janette Carter. What an amazing woman. Such strength of character and such vision. To hear her talk about her father, A.P. Carter and the love and admiration she had for him. When A.P. tells her “Janette, I want you to carry on the music” and she says “Daddy, I will try.” Well, she didn’t just try. She decided the fulfillment of that promise was to build a music venue and have live traditional music every Saturday night for decades! A.P. could never have imagined such dedication. I was blown away by this lady.

Do you have a favorite Carter Family song?

Well, I do love “The Winding Stream” and especially since we shot a really nice version of Rosanne Cash performing it for the film. But I’m also partial to “Diamond in the Rough.” Also “Anchored in Love.” And then there’s….ok, I’ll stop now.