The Carter Family: the nobility of American country music

On Books

July 21, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Musically, I was brought up on opera, chamber music, the grand symphonies. My father, among other afflictions, wrote a regular column in the late 1930s and early 1940s about serious recorded music for The New York Times. One of my earliest memories is sitting happily on a canvas stool in the stage wings of the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Walkure.

I don't know why I fell in love with American country music. But I do know how: I happened upon WWVA, the Wheeling, W.Va., clear-channel country music station that came through, crisp, late at night in New York and New Jersey.

Maybe my affection grew from country's affinity to the indomitable, fatal agonies that hang over the Italian operas I most love. Maybe country's umbrageous tone of doom resonates with Wagner's Ring Cycle.

So I am not an unbiased judge, but last week I found myself moved and fascinated by Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music, by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg (Simon & Schuster, 417 pages, $25). Zwonitzer wrote the book, and credits Hirshberg for devoted research and the original interest. It is a superb history and evocation of a purely American art form, practiced by three generations of a uniquely American family.

In 1927, the Carter Family made their first recordings. They were a trio -- Maybelle, Sara and her husband, Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, called A.P. when he wasn't Pleasant. Maybelle was Sara's cousin and married to Ezra (Eck) Carter, A.P.'s brother.

They came from Poor Valley, in the shade of Clinch Mountain in Scott County, Va., just near the Kentucky border. Theirs was a culture that had evolved unbroken from English and Protestant Scotch-Irish settlements dating back into the 1700s, toughened by generations of earth-scratching farming, lumbering and mining. Methodist faith and passed-down music traditions were as much a core of their lives as hard work for paltry income.

Zwonitzer writes: "To make a go of life in the Valley, a woman had to be able to make corn bread, worm tobacco, teach her children Christian prayers, plow a straight row, put up kraut and beans for winter, sew a proper school dress, tan hides, keep a house clean and a cornfield free of weeds. Above all they had to know how to stretch what life gave them; they wasted nothing."

Least of all did the Carters waste their talents -- making music and writing and finding songs.

Sara played the guitar, Maybelle guitar and autoharp. Both sang. A.P. sang bass and wrote or collected the songs. Maybelle showed musical genius from childhood, but all of them were destined naturals. Their songs are about life: yearning, love, mortality, endurance, loss, joy, deprivation, faith, redemption.

A scout for "hillbilly" musicians was impressed by the Carters. Maybelle was 18 years old and eight months pregnant when, on July 31, 1927, they loaded up the Essex car and set out for Bristol, Va., where a Victor Co. representative was running a recording machine for 10 days.

Their first record was released in December of 1927. Early in 1928, a new two-sided 78-rpm was marketed by Victor. In May, they went to Victor's Camden, N.J., studios and recorded 12 songs -- some that they wrote and others adapted traditionals. All 12 became popular and some classics.

By the early 1930s, a million records of theirs were selling annually. They made promoters and record companies rich, but not themselves. Soon they made it to the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville -- "hillbilly heaven" -- the summit of success. They became a favorite act there, driving record sales and performance attendance to new heights.

The family was torn -- Sara and A.P. Carter broke apart in 1933 and divorced in 1936 -- though they kept on performing together. That period included an immensely successful and influential regular but short radio career out of a pirate, high-powered Mexican station just over the Texas border -- an amazing story in itself.

They disbanded in 1943. Maybelle and her husband, Eck, and their three daughters --June, Anita and Helen -- formed a new group. Zwonitzer writes:

"The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle were a self-contained road show. Once they hit a town, they'd hook up their own public-address system, tune their instruments, take the tickets, and press their handmade clothes with a heated lightbulb. ... 'Mama ironed the fire out of everything,' June says. 'We never went on stage with a wrinkle or uncurled hair.' ...There were times when the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle would do five shows in a day, fix their own flat tires and rehearse on the road."

The most energetic of the daughters was June, who ultimately became the wife of Johnny Cash -- after the Carters saved him from killing himself with drugs. A third generation went on after Mama Maybelle's death -- Carters are still out there, singing and playing.

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