Four recent and upcoming films brilliantly document the depth and reach of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Each of these films deserves a space on your media shelves, and each of the filmmakers displays a love of the music and history running through these visual tributes.
The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, 2014
Released in 2014 and the oldest film on this list, the acclaimed 90–minute documentary The Winding Stream traces the careers of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, heralded as three of the earliest stars of country music. The film documents how The Carter Family, from their earliest days as Victor recording artists to their international success via the phenomenon of Border Radio, made their mark on the history of American recorded music.
The Winding Stream illuminates the foundation-forming history of this multi-generational musical family. It achieves this through careful research and well-crafted storytelling and with filmmaking techniques that help the viewer feel connected to The Carter Family and to those telling their stories.
Beth Harrington, award-winning producer, director, and writer, tells these stories and others through narrator-less interviews and performances by celebrated roots music practitioners like Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and others. Harrington’s work often explores American history, music, and culture, and the decade she spent working on this film is evident in the depth of the history she documents. To read more about the film, check out this review from Variety magazine.
The Winding Stream reminds us that The Carter Family story is one that captured America’s attention starting with the family’s first recordings, and one that continues to capture imaginations in country music history and scholarship to this day.
American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself, 2017
Writer and director Bernard MacMahon calls American Epic his love letter to America. With this PBS documentary series, he explores the history of recording technology and American innovation of the 1920s and also celebrates it through contemporary performances. This work – which painstakingly recreates the recording technology of the 1920s and then creates new recordings using this technology – is visually stunning, carefully documented, and a beautifully creative way of honoring early recordings. This is a series to enjoy (the visuals are stunning!) and to study.
With executive producers T Bone Burnette, Jack White, and Robert Redford, the film has some major brains and talent behind it. The film was produced and directed by Lo-Max Films, led by Allison McGourty, Duke Erikson, and MacMahon, who bring their filmmaking skills and knowledge of music history to a project that was over 10 years in the making. You can watch the trailer to American Epic here, and learn more about the research and recreation of the technology that went into the film here.
Born in Bristol: The Untold Story of the Birth of Country Music, 2017
Born in Bristol is a 53-minute documentary and drama profiling the 1927 Bristol Sessions; it also highlights the 2015 production of Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited, an album where contemporary country artists put their own spin on the songs of the Bristol Sessions. The film was produced by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, with support from the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and it features performances by and interviews with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and many more. Hearing the musicians speak about the impact these recordings have had on them, and the reverence they feel for the music of this region, underlines the legacy of the Bristol Sessions and the ways in which they still resonate today.
Filming began in 2014 by Plan A Films, and several locations in and around Historic Downtown Bristol were chosen to recreate the story of the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. A number of local musicians, actors, and extras were cast in the film. The film earned shortlist honors at the 63rd Annual Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity in Cannes, France in the category of Film Craft – Use of Licensed or Adapted Music. You can read more about the film here.
Country Music, to be released in 2019
This much anticipated new documentary series by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is scheduled to be released in 2019. The film’s team is stellar: Country Music will be directed and produced by Ken Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey – Emmy Award-winning creators of several of PBS’s most-acclaimed and most-watched documentaries.
The filmmakers state that Country Music will “chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music. Country Music will be a sweeping, multi-episode series, exploring the questions “What is country music?” “Where did it come from?” while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created it – from The Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills, to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more – as well as the times in which they lived.”
In the search for valuable memories and experiences that make up this story, gathering firsthand interviews for the Country Music series has often been a race against time – you can read more about this work here.
Each of these films takes a reverent approach to visualizing country music history and exploring the early history of this genre and its many influences and (winding) paths. With considerable research and respect for the musicians and their craft, each takes a different approach to telling the complex story of country music.
So watch these films, and savor their stories and the history that made them – we guarantee you’ll want to listen to the music and learn more.
Kim Davis is Director of Marketing and Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.