The Winding Stream - The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music

I was really struck by an article I read in the latest New Yorker about vocalist Mavis Staples of the venerable Staple Singers (who, in the 1970s, gave us such hits as the gospel-tinged “I’ll Take You There” and the funky soul of “Respect Yourself.”)  Ms. Staples is in the midst of what can be termed a comeback (Are you tired of that word, too? Did she ever go away? No.  So why is she “coming back?”).  Well, let’s just say our improved awareness of the stellar Mavis Staples has been largely due to a recent collaboration on a new album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy called “You Are Not Alone.”

The New Yorker piece pointed out that Mavis lives in Chicago close to her two sisters, one of whom – Cleotha – has Alzheimer’s.  Sadly, Cleotha does not recognize Mavis and her other sister, Yvonne.

But one thing does spark memory for Ms. Cleotha and I was moved to read what it was: “… she lights up when they come over and sing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ ‘That song puts a smile on her face every time,’ Mavis said.

‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ was the first song that their father, Roebuck (Pops) Staples, taught his four children (their older brother, Pervis, also used to sing with them), back in the forties.”

There’s much you could make of that.

Two things hit me about this story.  First, Why that song? I guess the answer is that there really is something enduring and powerful about it – one that the Carter Family popularized in their heyday.  It’s simple yet freighted with emotion. The “I” of the song is watching her mother’s funeral.  Doesn’t get much heavier than that when you’re talking about song content.  And the chorus falls into the pantheon of all-time catchiest choruses, oddly upbeat and ultimately reassuring in the face of tragedy:

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by.  There’s a better home awaitin’ in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

But I was also impressed by the way this story illustrates how music itself persists in our memories, how a song can take us back somewhere we’d thought we’d forgotten. Neurologists have known that music can unlock past memories even in those whose minds are failing, but a recent Boston University study demonstrated that music actually enhances the learning of new information.

I know most of you reading this don’t need further evidence of the value of music in our lives, but this struck me as particularly poignant.

When you consider the bonds at play in the lives of the Staple Singers and the Carter Family, the circle that is unbroken is clearly spiritual and musical.

To read the whole New Yorker article:

Elvis’ guitarist, the rockin’ Scotty Moore played one.  So did the inventive jazz great Wes Montgomery.  Hot Club de France legend Django Reinhardt was known to work his magic on one. More recently electric versions have been played by pop and rock icons like Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards, just to name a few.

Mother Maybelle's Gibson L-5

The instrument? The Gibson L-5.

And while we can probably all agree that not one of the aforementioned musicians is a slouch, there is one music great who made this particular guitar her own and influenced generations to come by pushing the boundaries of guitar playing on it.

Who is this important L-5 guitarist?

Well, Maybelle Carter, of course.

The woman I understand Maybelle to be was someone deeply committed to music.  Someone who approached playing the guitar with a sense of exploration and innovation – often driven by the necessity to “fill out” the Carter Family sound.  Maybelle used the L-5 on most of the Carter recordings, often picking the melody with her thumb on the lower strings and strumming chords on the higher strings.  This became known as the “Carter Scratch” and the technique was adopted by generations of guitarists, becoming a fundamental of folk guitar playing.  And in a more general sense, Maybelle’s playing served to popularize the guitar, moving it from its “supporting role” in roots music to a lead instrument.

Of course, Maybelle did not always own an L-5. This was a top shelf guitar even then and Maybelle hardly came from money.  But her husband Ezra splurged and purchased it for his young wife in 1928 for $275 (which was more than two weeks’ median salary in those days) when it became clear that the Carters’ first recordings were selling well.  A wise investment on Ezra’s part.

Of course, there are some people who believe that Maybelle’s original guitar, the one before the L-5 – a small-bodied “ladder-braced” Stella  – might have produced, if not a superior sound, then certainly an evocative one. Dan Margolies of the online music site, The Herald, wonders, “Were cheaply made guitars the key to that elusive sound of the golden era old-time string bands as recorded in the 1920s and 1930s?”  He goes on to note that, “From the 1890s into at least the 1930s, black and white Southern rural musicians all tended to play the same type of guitars—inexpensive, ladder-braced guitars by a variety of makers, many of which are now forgotten.”

Gibson L-5

Margolies continues: “Swing a cat and you will hit an old-time master playing a ladder-braced guitar. Swing a bit wider and very commonly you will find the masters who played these same cheap guitars until they could afford to trade up—giants like Jimmie Rodgers, Seven Foot Dilly, Zeke Morris, and Mother Maybelle Carter, to name a few.”

Yes, she did trade up from her Stella and pretty much never looked back.  But whether it was on the Stella or on the Gibson, it’s safe to say Maybelle Carter made both great music and history

And fortunately for music history buffs and Carter fans, in 2004 her Gibson L-5 guitar was purchased on behalf of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for $575,000. It is on display there to this day. A meteorite from the Big Bang of Country Music.

Saw it in the news last week.  After submitting a request to raise postal rates, it turns out that the United States Postal Service was turned down by its regulator, begging the question how this beleaguered government office  – which had a $6 billion loss last fiscal year – will be able to foot the bill for national six day a week mail delivery in the future.  I guess the answer is they won’t and we will just be communicating here in cyberspace more and more.

I suppose that’s inevitable.  But if/when it goes, it will be sad to lose one of the great things about snailmail — stamp art.  Stamp art like the swell series we had in 1993.

Seventeen years ago last week the U.S. Postal Service issued a special stamp, one that gladdened the hearts of country music fans and might have tickled at least one of the people it depicted.

According to the All Experts site on philately (which is a pastime more commonly called stamp collecting), the Postal Service issued a Legends of American Music series in 1993. There were 18 stamps issued in three categories:

Rock & Roll.

Rhythm & Blues.

Country & Western.

(Side note: How come popular musical categories come in pairs like that? As in, “I like both kinds of music  – Country AND Western.”)

Anyway, earlier that year greats like Elvis Presley, followed later by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Bill Haley, Dinah Washington, Otis Redding and Clyde McPhatter, were depicted on the USPS stamps.

Finally on September 25, a block of stamps featuring Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and the Original Carter Family were issued.

There they are – Maybelle and Sara in matching blue polka-dot dresses flanking A.P. in the center who’s sporting a grey suit and vest.  All are staring solemnly from their perforated window, a streamlined USA gracing the right corner and the price a mere 29 cents on the left.  In tiny print at the left hand border we are delicately reminded that they are “country singers.”

Why should we care if someone’s face is on a postage stamp?  Maybe it’s not that important.  But all you have to do is listen to A.P. Carter’s granddaughter Rita Forrester (in one of our Winding Stream interviews) talk about it to know that it has meaning for someone:

“I worshiped my granddad.  Ever step he took, I’d try to take one behind him.  And, Lord, I miss him.  But I do feel like he probably never realized what he had done, or his contributions to music.  He would have been bowled over by the fact that his face was on a postage stamp.  He would have got a kick out of that.”


And if you want to know how a stamp gets approved, visit this USPS link about the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee:

A lot of people ask me why I am so bent on making this film – The Winding Stream.  After all, it’s taken quite a while to even get to this point and we still have a ways to go.

But in truth it stems from a love of popular music and music history that goes back to my childhood. Dad singing all the time – from British music hall chestnuts to American showtunes to Bing Crosby to Fats Domino.  The nuns with their folks songs and their Gregorian chant and their hymns.  My first Beatles albums, watching Hullaballoo and Where the Action Is. (I so wanted to grow up to be a go-go dancer on one of those shows. Alas, it was not to be.)  Then came the slowly unfolding exploration– down the many tributaries of the music  –  rockabilly, jump tunes, New Orleans jazz, doowop, Merseybeat, Muscle Shoals, the collision of country greats and California folk rockers.  I was on fire with all the sounds and all the connections between sounds.  How did Little Richard and Howling Wolf and Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry beget so many musical “children”?   How was it that all these Brits – the Rolling Stones and Cream and Yardbirds and Who and Kinks and, yes, the Beatles – kept pointing me back to music that was really American.  How was it possible that on any given day I could love Johnny Cash and the Byrds and Dion and the Belmonts and Otis Redding and Hendrix and Tommy James and the Shondells.

How the heck did all this fit together?

Somehow it did.

And pursuing it became a near-religious journey for me.

My most willing companion in this pursuit of music was my brother Lee, five years younger and eager to hear things I’d discovered.   We’d pour over album covers and discuss our favorite groups in a relationship more than vaguely reminiscent of Cameron Crowe and his sister in “Almost Famous.”

As a 14-year old, a school friend and I knocked on the door of a progressive radio station in downtown Boston – WBCN – and volunteered to help out (doing exactly what we really weren’t sure).  We spent the next few years after school answering phones, snooping about the record library, getting sandwiches for DJs and watching the occasional rock star traipse through the lobby en route to an interview. Often concert tickets got thrown our way or promo copies of new records.  It was heaven.

In college, inspired by my ‘BCN experience I strove to become a DJ at the Syracuse University campus radio station, WAER.  I studied diligently for my third class radio license and tried even harder to lose my Boston accent in a bid for a regular airshift.  I eventually got a show that demonstrated very little musical cohesion – I clearly liked too many different kinds of sounds.  So I called it the Saturday Night Meatgrinder.

After college I frequented the Rat in Boston’s Kenmore Square and followed bands like the Nervous Eaters, the Real Kids, Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, Thrills, the Peytons (my brother’s first band), the Vinny Band, the Neighborhoods (my brother’s last band – still going strong, I might add!) and the Cars, among many, many acts that rocked that place.

Ellie and Beth in the Modern Lovers

Around that time I got invited to actually join a band —  and by one of my idols, no less, Jonathan Richman. I’d followed him since high school and through a series of happy accidents my friend Ellie Marshall and I became the first women in The Modern Lovers.  We were like a Greek chorus in Jonathan’s musical tableaux.  We toured for three years and made an album on Sire Records.

Other bands followed. I helped form a band with Ellie and my then boyfriend Barry (who was also Ellie’s brother) – a massive 10-piece soul spectacular.  Prohibitively expensive to play out but a thrilling sound nonetheless.

Later I had the pleasure of playing with my pals Rick Berlin, Chris Mehl, Scott Mitchell and the magnificent (gone way too soon from our lives) Chet Cahill in a band called the Awful Truth.

I’m pretty sure life offers few greater pleasures than playing music with dear friends.

Anyway, that brings me to now.  I play guitar for fun and take lessons from a talented working musician named Nick O’Donnell in the hopes I may improve.  But even if I never get much better than where I am now, it’s still a joy.

Meanwhile, I also pursue music through filmmaking.

The Winding Stream is my second music documentary and I hope it won’t be my last.  My last independent work, Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly got nominated for a Grammy award (in the Best Long Form Music Video category – Who knew?)  And that meant that my husband Andy and I got to go to this spangly event in NYC.  An absurdly great time, made all the better because — though I’ve loved music all my life and have made music for a large part of that time — I never, ever envisioned myself in that place, among so many great music people.  It was a truly delicious surprise.

Anyway, even without this nice honor, my lifelong connections to music have completely enriched my life and make me think of what my friend Dale Jett says:

“Love music and it will love you back.”


The crowd settles in before the AMA Wards and Honors show at the Ryman Auditorium

Last week I went to Nashville, Tennessee for the Americana Music Festival and Conference.  I’ve been to my share of film and music conferences over the years and I have to admit I approached this one with some trepidation.  Would it be informative and enlightening? Would it present networking opportunities?  Above all, would it be fun?

Dang straight.

I had two reasons for attending: 1) to start to let people who care about Americana music (which is to say, the core audience for The Winding Stream) know about the film; and 2) to make and reinforce connections I have in the roots music community to help get the film done.

Both things happened.  It was a wildly successful trip.

But those goals aside, there truly was just a wonderful social element that really pervades the conference and it’s enhanced by great music in any number of Nashville venues nightly.  The only bad thing is that there’s so much good stuff going on it’s hard to know what to choose.

I did get to some great shows though. I saw Raul Malo at the Cannery. He’s someone you must check out if you love great singers. He’s the obvious successor to Roy Orbison – soaring, emotive vocals. I also saw my friend rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson at the Mercy Lounge where she rocked the house. This is not new. What is new and is very exciting is that Wanda’s new producer Jack White was there (very nice guy). The album, “The Party Ain’t Over”, which will be out next year, promises to be as cool as Jack’s collaboration with Loretta Lynn.  (If not cooler, sez I.) Meanwhile, there’s a single out that’ll give you a little sample of what’s ahead. It’s on Jack White’s Third Man Records label.  The A side is Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and the B side is “Shakin’ All Over”.  Killer stuff.  Wanda says, “Jack pushed me and pushed me…right into the 21st Century.” Go Jack.

Earlier that night Wanda had been honored with the AMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (The AMA Honors and Awards show was broadcast on NPR from the venerable old Ryman Auditorium – the original Grand Ole Opry.)  This has been quite a time for Wanda. She’s not only received this honor, but also the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and last year’s biggie – her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  All well-deserved, needless to say.

Also honored at the show was Rosanne Cash for her fantastic album, “The List”, which I’ve talked about in this blog.  Later in the show, Rosanne performed an absolutely stunning version of Bobby Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billie Joe”.  Now to me, the mark of a great interpretation of a song is when you can hear it as if it were the very first time.  That is exactly what her version of this song was like.  Chilling, unsettling and as profound as the muddy waters off the Talahatchie Bridge.  Made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Host for the AMA show was the amiable and talented Jim Lauderdale, an ambassador for roots music if there ever was one.  Periodically, someone would wrap up a song and Jim would enthuse, “Now that’s Americana!” It was a funny schtick but it also underscored the diversity of styles united by a commitment to authenticity in interpretation that’s at the heart of all this roots music.

And that’s what the night continually offered up – the best of Americana. Besides Wanda and Rosanne, the show featured Emmy Lou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Bingham, The Avett Brothers, Hayes Carll, Joe Pug, Will Kimbrough, Sam Bush, Corb Lund, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Sarah Jarocz and a surprise post-broadcast set of music by Robert Plant ably assisted by Buddy Miller, Don Was, and Patti Griffin.  Whole lotta love at the Ryman.

But I must say that the one performance that brought the greatest crowd reaction was by my new pals, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. They defied expectation, I believe, by not doing a traditional Americana piece, but rather performing their incredibly wry and energetic version of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘em Up Style” in their rootsy style with Rhiannon on fiddle, Dom on banjo and Justin as human beat box.   When they finished, the crowd leapt to its feet cheering and the Ryman house lights came on so they could see what they’d wrought.

They’d knocked it out of the park.

It was a moment I won’t forget.