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

Obviously, A.P. Carter was fascinated with song form. He would listen, collect and re-craft snippets of song over the course of his lifetime. He was quite catholic in his tastes – origin, genre, subject matter. He was open. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t selective. He knew a good song from a bad one, clearly. And he knew how to take the great bits of an otherwise just OK number and turn it into something enduring.

His song collecting partner for many years was the bluesman Lesley Riddle. Lesley loved music as A.P. did – open-heartedly. He and A.P. traveled the South in A.P.’s Chevrolet looking for songs. And Lesley personally identified many songs from his own African-American tradition that the Carter Family went on to record.

One of those songs was “When the World’s on Fire” which later would form the basis for another song that Woody Guthrie recorded. You might have heard of it. We call it “This Land is Your Land.”

In Bristol, Tennessee at the Paramount Theatre, we were fortunate to catch up with our friends, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom Flemons of the group granted us a wonderful interview in which he talked about his understanding of Lesley Riddle’s invaluable contribution to the Carter catalogue. And the Chocolate Drops also sang “When the World’s on Fire” for us. Enjoy.

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.

Just a few days ago I got to see the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops playing at the Oregon Zoo outdoor summer concert series. This is a trio that honors and performs in the African-American string band tradition. With their very presence they underscore the idea that before record companies started inventing “categories” in which to pigeonhole artists, country music encompassed a lot of different kinds of people bringing together a lot of different musical influences (something that A.P. Carter recognized when he collected songs all over the region in both black and white communities with bluesman Lesley Riddle).

Rhiannon Giddens, Don Flemons and Justin Robinson are young musicians who learned from some of the masters of the string band form and yet are putting their own special stamp on it. So at a typical gig, they might perform a rural classics like “Cornbread and Butterbeans” followed by a country version of the hip hop number, “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” capped by a performance of a Johnny Cash-June Carter staple, “Jackson.” It’s eclectic and yet oddly cohesive. And a real treat to experience as they’re accessible and dynamic stage performers.

We’ve been lucky enough to get them to agree to appear in The Winding Stream. I’ve proposed some possible songs for them to consider and they’re mulling ‘em over and I trust they’ll toss some ideas back my way. I think the process of picking the song will be a lot of fun. We hope to be able to film them sometime this fall. We’ll tell you when we do and post a clip from the session right here.

Meanwhile check out their website, buy their music and make a point to see them next time they’re in your area.