Beth Harrington didn’t grow up listening to country. As a kid in Boston, she was reared on progressive rock and punk, and she herself sang backup in Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers in the early ’80s. But her new documentary, The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, which has its Portland premiere May 3, centers on the seminal role the Carter-Cash family played in American music. More than a decade ago, the Vancouver, Wash., filmmaker struck up a friendship with Roseanne Cash—the singer narrated Harrington’s Grammy-nominated Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly—and she offered to introduce Harrington to her family. Harrington went on to conduct one of the last interviews with Johnny Cash before his death in 2003.

In addition to that conversation with Cash, The Winding Stream features family interviews, archival footage and musical cameos from John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow and Kris Kristofferson. Harrington spoke with WW about talking to Cash, what questions she’d ask the Carter Family, and the need to deep-six the phrase “country music.”  

WW: When did you first hear a Carter Family song?

Beth Harrington: It's funny, but I didn't really remember when I'd first heard a Carter Family song until I was watching The Winding Stream and the section that deals with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and their record Will the Circle Be Unbroken [which includes covers of Carter Family songs]. I was an urban kid, so country music wasn't my thing. I was working at a radio station that played progressive rock, but we kept playing that album. I realized country music was cool, and I started listening to the Byrds and Gram Parsons, hippie bands who played country. It really opened my eyes.

What was it like talking to Johnny Cash?

He wasn't in good health at that time, and when we arrived in Nashville, he was in the hospital. We were totally prepared to have to return home without getting the interview. Then, on what was supposed to be our last night in town, Roseanne called and said, "He's home and he wants to talk to you." We were all a little freaked out, a little starstruck, but he was incredibly gracious and really animated, despite being so frail. I'm convinced he wanted to do the interview to talk about two women who were most important to him in this life—Maybelle and June. It was hard for him; June had only been gone a few months. You could sense that you were talking to a man who was facing his own mortality. He died three weeks later.

Your main subjects—founding members A.P., his wife, Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle—had all died by the time you began filming. What would you ask them if you could?

I would ask A.P. and Maybelle about their passion, what made them tick. They were devoted to music, and that never changed, despite all the ups and downs. They were the country music stars of their day, but that didn't mean they were rich. Not even close. They weren't in it for the money. Their passion was pure. Sara, on the other hand, wasn't passionate about music. She had an amazing voice, but her heart was elsewhere. I'd ask her what she would have done with her life if A.P. hadn't come along and roped her into the band.

Can you talk more about the film's subtitle, "the course of country music"?

I actually wish we could do away with the "country" label. It doesn't really tell us anything—it's a lot like "rock 'n' roll." When the Carters were making their music in the '20s and '30s, it didn't even have a name. Some people called it "old-timey." Some called it "hillbilly." And now the Carter Family music is showing up in the oddest places. I heard the Decemberists used to warm up with Carter songs, and Beck has an album of Carter covers. The Carters' work courses through all of American music. I don't want to get too kumbaya here, but my hope is that this film appeals to young people and old people, rural people and hipsters, "country" music fans and rock fans. I hope it puts them in the same room. Ideally, music shouldn't divide people. It should bring them together.

SEE IT: The Winding Stream plays at the Hollywood Theatre at 6:30 pm Saturday, May 3. A Q&A with Harrington will follow. $10.