The Winding Stream - The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music
Carter Family record labels

As I’ve worked on The Winding Stream, I’ve been struck by the passion people have for the Carters specifically and for “old-timey music” in general. It’s often an interest and commitment that transcends the music. I think it’s related to a focus on history itself, on the things of another time.

Some of the most involved Winding Stream Facebook “fans”, Twitter followers and email friends (oh yeah, and real life people I talk to in person!) have an amazing grasp of historical recording methods, or an understanding of rural social customs, or a love of vintage ‘30s clothing, or a knowledge of Depression-era politics. It’s great to engage with them on these topics. It certainly has opened up my own appreciation and comprehension of these aspects of the Carters’ world.

I guess what a lot of us share is a love of the past and a desire to preserve some piece of that. I know that’s what drives me to make historical documentary films. Being able to tell untold or little understood stories is a big motivator for me.

So it was nice to interview singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash about her extended family – particularly June Carter – and have her reinforce the importance of this passion that a lot of us share. Click this link to watch the video.

Rosanne Cash Saving the Past

Speaking of Rosanne Cash, for our Pacific Northwest Winding Stream supporters, we’ve got a really great Kickstarter reward  – a chance to meet her and her sister Tara at a cocktail party here in Portland. So visit our Kickstarter site for more details:

To those of you who’ve already pledged, we say thanks! And of course, we appreciate you spreading the word about our work. We hope we can meet our goal and get this entire story out there!

One of the most interesting parts of making The Winding Stream has been the growing realization that there is a groundswell of interest in the type of music it celebrates.  And by that I mean not just the Original Carter Family and Johnny Cash music but also that of any number of roots music progenitors.  And I’ve noted that this interest cuts across generations.  So as I meet people while I make the film, it has become less and less surprising for me to meet, say, a 20-something who loves the Stoneman Family.  Or to encounter a group from a big urban environment that includes a Carter tune in their repertoire.  Everyone from Beck to Charlie Haden to Those Darlins has been recording Carter music.  I feel like I’m catching a very big wave lately.

All this came up again recently when I met with my new friend David Lasky in his Seattle studio (he of the Carter Family graphic novel soon to be released “Don’t Forget This Song” – see my April 2, 2011 post “See You in the Funny Papers” for more info).  David was showing me some of the pages of this wonderful book that he and Frank Young are putting together.  He also showed me an album cover he’s working on for a recording called “America Salutes the Carter Family.”  Now this isn’t your slick “Bono and Sinatra duet on ‘The Foggy Mountain Top’” sorta deal.  This is by definition a lo-fi project. The person driving this bus is musician Markly Morrison. Markly let me ask a few questions and I think his answers underscore my point about a whole new world of interest in the Carters and old-timey American music.

The project also has a very nice goal of supporting a very worthy cause.  Read on.

Tell me a little about you, where you’re from and your band/music background?

I grew up in the Mojave Desert — Lancaster, CA and surrounding areas to be exact — and moved to Olympia about five years ago.  Some friends of mine moved up here from the Los Angeles area, and soon suggested to me that Olympia would be a more conducive environment to further my musical endeavors.  Since relocating to the Northwest, I have been blessed, doing musical projects about half of my overall year.  I play with a sort of soft rock group called LAKE, and a psych/americana ensemble called Lazer Zeppelin (pictured above).  LAKE has a song called “Sing 99 and 90” which is an interpretation by band member Ashley Eriksson of a very old folk tune called “The Devil’s Nine Questions.” It’s one of those mellow-band-does-hard-rock types of songs that really brings a cool contrast to what we’re doing.  There’s another number called “LMJ” where we kind of take that idea and reverse it — Ashley wrote some personal lyrics to the melody of an old Irish folk song.  Eli Moore based our song “Madagascar” on a traditional Malagasy folk song called “Botsi Boka.”  Lazer Zeppelin also does a lot of folk and country music.  We wrote a version of “Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women” having never heard the original, and it turns out they are strikingly similar.  We do a version of the spiritual “Moses,” “Jane Jane” which I believe is a Christmas carol, and too many others to list.  And when those bands aren’t active I do a solo project called Skrill Meadow, which in recent years has been straight-up honky tonk for the most part, some originals and a lot of classics from all the good singers.  I also have a handful of other projects and I’m getting really in to wedding entertainment.

Tell me about this project you’re doing now.

About two years ago, Lazer Zeppelin played a concert in somebody’s house with a terrific Olympia rock group called Rainbow Bridge. Coincidentally, both of our bands had re-workings of Carter Family songs, and I just sort of thought that something was going on there. Before giving it much thought at all, I instinctively got my hand-held cassette recorder and decided to start scouring the diverse Olympia musical community for more.  At first I thought of it as a short-term project, you know, just to see what I could gather in a couple of weeks from around the neighborhood.   But it was summer, which is a busy season if you’re a musician, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to record some of the other groups I would be seeing.  I took the time limit off, dubbed the project “America Salutes the Carter Family,” and have since taken the project on the road for a cumulative year all over the country while touring, visiting friends and family, catching a travelling group coming through Olympia, or going on dental-themed adventures to Tijuana.  In a way I feel a sort of kinship to A.P. Carter, the way he would travel the country as a salesman and collect songs from people in his free time.  I’ve had the opportunity to record nearly 40 different artists in that time – Jeffery Lewis, the Curious Mystery, Peter Stampfel, R. Stevie Moore, Golden Boots, Calvin Johnson… on and on. Sometimes completely on the spot- Seattle-based comic artist/musician Dennis Driscoll is a perfect example. I ran into him in Olympia and asked him if he wanted to sing anything from the Carter catalog, and he just sang into the tape recorder, then and there, on the side of the road. That’s why I always try and have a tape recorder on me. Cassette has always been my medium of choice ever since I was a kid, and I still love the way it sounds.  It really captures the room, the whole situation, and makes the recording feel so real and raw, the way old folk groups would sound when they gathered around a microphone and pressed some 78’s.  A lot of the old tape recorders and boomboxes you find at the thrift store tend to have really nice condenser microphones built in that capture the most intricate sounds, and I think it’s nice to have that continuity throughout the document, despite the stylistically diverse array of songs.  That’s why I haven’t accepted any outside submissions for the project; I want to physically be there, so my notes can tell the story of that particular moment.  And when I found out about Rita Forester’s tragedy, and her connection to the Carters, I thought that this album could potentially raise some financial relief for the Carter Family Fold and those that were affected by the fire back in 2009.

I learned about your project through David Lasky. Tell me about how he’s participating in your project.

I found out about David’s project about a month after mine began, while I was in Chicago with LAKE.   My bandmate Adam saw Lasky’s blog and showed it to me.  I was familiar with David’s work and was pretty excited to hear about “Don’t Forget This Song!”  I looked at the sample pages and within a minute I introduced myself via email and asked if he would be interested in drawing the cover to my pending project.  We’ve met a couple of times since and he agreed to execute the artwork for the record, which we hopefully will see coming out sometime around the end of this year on cassette, vinyl and digital download.  I can’t wait to read the graphic novel, I already think it’s going to be my favorite and I read tons of them.  And to have David’s beautiful drawing on a nice, big LP? Priceless!  I feel lucky to be collaborating with David.

So David, you and I are all doing Carter-related projects – music, comics and film.  And we all live in the Pacific Northwest.  What is it about this place and the Carters?  We’re thousands of miles from Maces Springs, Virginia!

Isn’t that the wildest thing? And all at the same time.  Maybe it’s in the environment, the mountain air and wide country that makes the Carter Family’s music so relevant.   I’ve never been to Maces Springs, but I have grown up familiar with the Carters’ music since before I was conscious of who they were, and living up here has really brought a glow to those old recordings. I have no idea how we all came to be working on similar projects in different mediums.  Is it cosmic?


Here are a couple of links to learn more about Markly’s bands:



June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003.  That makes it just a little over eight years now since this bright light left our world.  One of my big regrets is that, though we had made contact with June about doing an interview, circumstances kept us from meeting.  She passed away before we could meet.

I know everyone who did know her talks about how funny, warm and radiant she was.  One need only pay a visit to YouTube to get a sense of this.  Go now and check out a clip or two.   It’ll gladden your heart.

Here are a few lines about June.  The first three are from interviews we did for The Winding Stream. The last lines are written by June’s son, John Carter Cash in his book Anchored in Love.  Read it.

FERN SALYER, cousin: She and I did everything together. We used to wrestle and climb trees and go up in the mountain and stay all day. We were both tomboys. And we’d look in the trees and find some crow’s nest.  We’d climb up there and try to get to that crow’s nest. I know one time we got way up there in this tree and that crow was in the nest and it came after us and we almost fell out of the tree. But we were always doin’ things like that.

JOHNNY CASH, husband: I fell in love with that June, that red-headed one, that dancer, the one that told the jokes, the funny one.  She stole my heart right away, right away. And I kept telling her beginning in 1962 that “We’re gonna get married, we’ve got to, you’re meant to be mine. I know you are. “ I just knew it. We got married March 1, 1968 and we were together until she died. And we were two peas in a pod. We were never apart. June and I were never apart.

ROSANNE CASH, step-daughter:  My mother gave me roots, but June gave me wings.

JOHN CARTER CASH, son: Mom’s spirit still sparkles within all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whether related through blood or heart. It’s also evident in the hearts of her fans, old and new, the world over. In so many ways, the Wildwood Flower lives on.




The house in the Dyess Colony

Seventy-nine years ago on February 26, a baby boy was born in Kingsland, Arkansas to Ray and Carrie Cash. Because they couldn’t agree upon a name, the couple named the infant J.R.  He was one of seven siblings, the others being Margaret Louise, Jack, Joanne, Reba, Roy and Tommy. Times were tough in Depression-era Arkansas and people were looking to the government for some relief. The Cashes were among them.  In March of 1935, the family was selected to be part of an FDR-initiated agriculture project; they re-settled to a place called the Dyess Colony.  There the entire family worked the cotton fields, often singing gospel music while they toiled. Though the move promised change, life in Dyess was still fraught with hardship and loss. On two different occasions the Cash farm was flooded by the rising Tyronza River.  Far worse, the Cashes lost their oldest son Jack in a tragic sawmill accident, an event that would haunt J.R. for the rest of his life.

But music served as balm for the boy. Hymns at the local Church of God played a significant part in young J.R.’s life, as did the sounds of the Original Carter Family on Border Radio.  J.R.’s mother and another friend taught him guitar and he began writing songs. In his teens he played on the nearby Blytheville, Arkansas radio station KLCN. In 1950, he graduated from Dyess High School (he was the class vice president) and enlisted in the Air Force. It wasn’t long after his stint in the military that he made his way to Memphis’ Sun Studios and began recording under the name Johnny Cash.

During the course of his adult life, Johnny Cash sometimes returned to Dyess. Many of his songs reflected the life lived in the colony, most notably “Five Feet High and Rising” about the floods they endured. As a result, tourists have also come to Dyess over the years to see that place that Cash called home in his formative years.

* * * * *

In recognition of the importance of this site, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are working with the City of Dyess and local stakeholders to preserve and promote the rich and unique heritage of Dyess Colony. Work is currently underway to restore the exterior of the 1934 Dyess Colony Administration Building, stabilize the facade of the 1940 Dyess Theater, and display a replica of Cash’s boyhood home.

This August 4, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, in conjunction with the family of Johnny Cash, will launch a Johnny Cash Music Festival. Proceeds from the festival will go to developing Dyess as a major historical site. The event will take place at the 7500-seat ASU Convocation Center.

John Carter Cash will be hosting the benefit. Entertainers making an early commitment to perform are Rosanne Cash, George Jones, Gary Morris and Dailey and Vincent.

Nashville television producer Bill Carter will produce the Johnny Cash Musical Festival. “This event is just the beginning of a long term commitment to honor and preserve the incredible legacy of Rock and Roll, Country and Gospel Music, of Hall of Famer Johnny Cash,” Carter said. “His home and the museum in Dyess will establish a gathering place for his fans from all over the world to meet and honor Johnny for his great contribution to the world of music.”

Here we are, squarely in the throes of the holiday season.  The older I get, the more I understand that the essence of this time of year is just spending as much quality time as possible with friends and family.  Hanging, cooking, eating.  Repeat.

With the holidays in mind, I recently turned to my copy of Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook, written by June Carter (introduction by Johnny Cash!). This find – it’s out of print – was given to me by a great supporter of The Winding Stream film project, Vikki Mee of the Faerie Godmother Fund (Vikki is a women’s film advocate and philanthropist).  This cookbook’s extra special because it’s autographed by the Carter Sisters – June, Helen and Anita.  And it’s not only full of Mother Maybelle’s recipes, but also great stories of the lives of these extraordinary women.  A real treasure no matter how you look at it.

So, since it’s that time of year, I’m going to share one of Mother Maybelle’s recipes from the book, Christmas Hermit Cake.

If you make it, get back to me with how it came out!   Happy holidays, everyone.


2 cups (4 sticks) butter

1-1/2 pounds brown sugar

6 eggs

5 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

4 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Juice of one lemon

2 pounds dates

All-purpose flour (to coat dates and nuts)

1 pound English walnuts, shelled

3 pounds pecans, shelled

Preheat over to 250 degrees. Grease and flour one 9-inch Bundt pan. Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs. Add flour and baking powder; combine thoroughly. Stir in vanilla, cinnamon, and lemon juice.

Cut dates into small pieces (about 3 pieces to each date). Coat date pieces with flour to separate them and to prevent then from sticking together. Break walnuts and pecans into quarters and coat with flour. Add nuts and dates to cake batter; mix well.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). The cake does not rise much, so pan(s) maybe be filled rather full. Bake 3 hours.

When we started work on The Winding Stream, I was given an incredible gift – a chance to interview Johnny Cash. Here’s an account of this meeting I wrote for the Portland alternative paper, Willamette Week (9/17/2003).

*   *   *   *

In mid-July, I’d just finished interviewing singer Rosanne Cash for a music documentary-in-progress on the Original Carter Family. As we were packing up, she turned to me: “You know what you should do next? You should interview my father.”

While I struggled to put aside the obvious stirrings of my inner Johnny Cash fan, the fact remained that an interview with him was something I felt was crucial to the film. Not only had he been married to one of the Carter Sisters, June Carter Cash, for 35 years, but he was arguably the major proponent of the Carters’ music in the world.

At the same time, it was not lost on me that this was also a man who’d had more than his share of hardship as of late. In fact, he weathered some potentially spirit-crushing challenges–the death of his beloved life partner June and his own physical decline. I was concerned about the timing of the interview. But with Rosanne’s assurances, I arranged to meet with Johnny Cash a few weeks later.

In the days leading up to the interview, not one person I’d talked to had anything but an immediate, positive reaction at the mention of his name. It seemed that Johnny Cash’s popularity cut across all the assumed dividing lines. It wasn’t that people felt he was a role model, or that the causes he championed were necessarily theirs, nor even, at root, that all his music was universally adored (though I have to think there’s no one out there who doesn’t like some Johnny Cash song). But it struck me that his real power resided in his utterly authentic approach to life and music. People recognized that in him and admired him deeply for it. And, after the singer’s death last week, it will assuredly be missed as much as his contributions to the world of music.

Though somewhat frail, Cash gave a hearty “Hello, everybody” as he entered the room for the interview. When he talked, he demonstrated a vibrancy and humor that belied his physical condition. He still had the gravitas in his voice and the intensity in his eyes. It clearly made him happy to speak of June, and he became thoroughly engaged with the memory of her. Yet, at one point in the reverie, he paused, as if he thought he’d gotten off track. “But that was another life,” he said wistfully.

Later, when he paused again during his recollections, I wasn’t sure where to go. Eventually I said, “That’s the stuff that people wish they had.”

And the Man in Black said, “Mmmm. I know. I wish everybody could have it, because it’s a wonderful thing.”

Then he cracked a huge smile that broke into a laugh.

“And you can’t chalk it up to righteous living, because I was anything but righteous,” he said. “I don’t know–God richly blessed me for some reason. For some unknown reason, he richly blessed me with everything I ever wanted.”