'78 Project,' Cash and Carter Docs on the Road to Nashville Film Festival

June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash
 Courtesy of 'The Winding Stream'

June and Johnny

Two films that connect the roots of recorded music with contemporary performers are among the music documentaries playing the Nashville Film Festival in April.

"The 78 Project Movie" and "The Winding Stream," both of which had their world premieres at SXSW and include outstanding performances of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," will play in competition at the Nashville festival between April 17 and 26 along with three other SXSW favorites, "Take Me to the River," "Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory" and "Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty." Music documentaries "Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto" and "Glen Campbell…I'll Be Me" will make their world premieres at the festival.

Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright' "The 78 Project Movie" is an outgrowth of their 78 Project in which they traveled the country recording musicians performing public domain songs and recording them on vintage Presto direct-to-disk recorders. The process is the same as musicologist Alan Lomax used to record Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and others; like Lomax, they record in fields, churches, homes and bars.

"It wasn't so much a fascination with 78 RPM records or retro gear, but the equipment itself was sort of the focal point around which these performances would emerge," Steyermark says. "It is intimate and we approach it as a collaboration. We try to make it clear we're not making a music video; it's not a publicity piece. It's an exploration of music and what it means to them."

Beth Harrington's "The Winding Stream" begins in the 78 RPM era as she traces A.P. Carter and the birth of country music in 1927 in Bristol, Tenn., continuing through generations of Carters and Cashes until she gets to Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter. Created in stops and starts over the last 12 years, the film has played the Cleveland and Atlanta film festivals and will head out on the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. It is most likely destined for PBS broadcast in 2015.

"There was never anything that connected the dots between the original Carters and Johnny Cash and how the Carters were embedded in country, folk and country rock and had had these resurgences," says Harrington, who started with a Rosanne Cash interview and then her father in one of his last filmed appearances. "When I started the film there was a different perception of (Johnny Cash). 'Hurt' had just come out and people were embracing him for many different reasons. My intent was always to show the dynasty."

Like nearly every film that winds up on the film festival circuit, crowd funding played key roles in both films. Wright and Alex Steyermark raised nearly $61,000 through Kickstarter and received a grant of $18,750 from the New York Council of the Arts. Harrington raised $70,000 through two Kickstarter campaigns.

"The first one was me dipping a toe in the waters. Then I was sorry I didn't do more," says Harrington, a member of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers in the early 1980s. "I didn't think I could go back but a lot of people convinced me I could. Between that and social media, I realized people were as into this (subject) as much as I would hope they would be. I also realized it was OK to say 'here is what I am using the money for.' It made it all possible."

At SXSW, Steyermark and Wright were able to give a presentation that went beyond their film, recording a live performance that was recorded direct to 78 RPM disk and then immediately played back. The trip to Nashville means the filmmakers will be able to reconnect with some of musicians seen in the film and others who have contributed to the 30 or segments they have shot since beginning the project in 2011. They initially posted footage of the one-take sessions as webisodes and in February released a soundtrack that featured Richard Thompson, Marshall Crenshaw, their first subject Dawn Landes and others. The 1,000 copies pressed on vinyl immediately sold out.

The film started about a year after the project had taken off. Musicians in the film, among them John Doe of X, Victoria Williams and Ben Vaughn, were shot specifically for the full-length feature that also includes visits with archivists, collectors and other Presto enthusiasts.

"In the process of doing the recording, they're all surprised to find themselves as a part of a legacy that they didn't feel a part of," Wright says. "It's very vulnerable. They only get one take; it's an opportunity most musicians have not had. Artists who have the most emotional response tend to be veterans who have been performing for a long time. It's something they didn't expect to have again  - that intense immediate response to a recording."

Wright and Steyermark will tour festivals with the film through much of the year – they both view this as a full-time job – and intend to continue doing more recordings while attempting to sell the film for theatrical release. They have enough leftover material to do another set of webisodes and are looking into more record releases as well.

"It's very open ended," says Steyermark, a former music supervisor who segued to directing 11 years ago. "It's nice to know that it doesn't end with the film."