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New Carter Family Bio

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There is an evocative review of the new Carter family bio in the NY Times:

    Today’s popular musicians, morbidly alive to the anxiety of influence, labor to manufacture strangeness. (Except in Nashville, where they labor to manufacture normality.) But the Carters’ strangeness was just them being them. Like Dock Boggs and the Stanley Brothers, the Carters lived in the remote mountains of southwestern Virginia, where flowers blooming and withering, graves on green hillsides, foggy mountain tops and doombound railroad trains weren’t just conventional tropes for the cobbling-together of songs, but the life they saw every day out their back door. In this beautiful and hostile landscape, makeshift community and catch-as-catch-can family hardly mitigated the radical lonesomeness. This place bred both sociopaths and individuals who handmade their imaginative worlds. And it often trashed the distinction.

    It’s hard now to imagine how odd — how modern, in fact — the Carter Family, two female singers with a guitar as lead instrument, must have seemed to record-buyers in 1927. Commercial mountain music, then just a few years old, mostly meant men playing fiddles and banjos; guitars had only recently come to the Southern highlands, and women did their singing on the porch. Before RCA’s Ralph Peer discovered the aggressively-willing-to-be-discovered Carters at those historic recruiting and recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn., the group had auditioned for a sublimely wrongheaded Brunswick Records scout who thought they’d never sell with Sara Carter singing lead. Instead, Brunswick wanted to put her husband, the visionary but dubiously talented A.P. Carter, out front as ”Fiddlin’ Doc.”

    But forward-looking as the Carters were, their music still sounds ancient, mysterious, haunted. A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) reworked old hymns, murder ballads, parlor songs and blues for Sara’s contralto voice, which could be stern and penetrating or mournful and etherial. Maybelle, the wife of Pleasant’s non-performing brother Eck — who loved classical music — sang tangy harmonies and played strong, plain guitar leads, mostly on the muted-sounding low strings, while Sara played rhythm guitar or autoharp. On the choruses, Pleasant, who left his fiddle in the case and never could master the guitar, chimed in when he remembered to or felt like it, in a harsh, scary, quavering baritone. Even on such supposedly joyous, sedately uptempo songs as ”Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” or their theme, ”Keep on the Sunny Side,” the melancholy never lifted. Harry Smith, the archconnoisseur of what Greil Marcus calls ”the weird old America,” chose seven songs by the Carter Family — more than by any other performers — for his Anthology of American Folk Music. True, the Carters’ taste and tunefulness didn’t hurt them any, but it was their stark uncanniness that made them memorable and addictive, not just to self-conscious esthetes like Smith, but to hundreds of thousands of homefolks who kept buying their records and listening to their radio broadcasts. And the music still has a strangeness that’s in no danger of ever being assimilated.

Reviewer David Gates doesn’t much like the book, though:

    Such characters and stories — not to mention the music — deserve a better book than ”Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” and unfortunately no publisher will want one for another generation. The writing wobbles between workmanlike and cheesy (”Of course none of these future events were contemplated by A.P., Sara or Maybelle as they left Camden that May”), and Zwonitzer and Hirshberg betray their musical ignorance with such plausible-sounding fakery as Maybelle playing guitar in ”the fretted Hawaian style” (with the Hawaian-style slide, you don’t use the frets) or bogosities like ”the amplitude of that keening pitch.” For a line in the acknowledgements, any amateur picker would’ve been glad to de-howlerize the manuscript. The book loses soul and the reader loses heart around halfway through, when it comes time to deal with the second Carter Family, Maybelle and her daughters, who can never be neglected enough.

The Carters were discovered and recorded by the great Ralph Peer (1892-1960), the single most important figure in the establishment of roots music (“race” and “hillbilly,” aka “blues” and “country”) as commercially viable in the ’20s as a talent scout, producer and music publisher. Peer was born in Kansas City and helped his father sell sewing machines, phonographs and recordings as a teen. After high school he went to work for Columbia, followed by service in the U.S. Merchant Marine during WWI.

Peer was hired as recording director of the Okeh label in 1920. Success came almost immediately when he produced Mamie Smith’s aforementioned “Crazy Blues” in New York. More important than the urban blues sung by the likes of vaudeville entertainer Smith were Peer’s field recordings where his feet found the talent, his ear sorted out the best material and his personality brought out relaxed, confident performances by blues and country greats Sara Martin, Fiddlin’ John Carson (the first genuine country recording “The Little Old Cabin In the Lane” in ’23), Ernest “Pop” Stoneman (“The Titanic,” ’25, one of the biggest sellers of the ’20s), Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, and Sippie Wallace, all for Okeh.

Peer went to Victor in ’25, where in addition to founding the modern country music publishing business with Southern Music (his deal with Victor allowed him to solicit publishing rights for any song he recorded), he produced an incredible series of blues and country records on the road in Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Charlotte with Jimmie Davis, Sleepy John Estes, Alberta Hunter, Tommy Johnson, Furry Lewis, Blind Willie McTell, Frank Stokes, and countless others.

But his most famous discoveries took place in Bristol, Tennessee, in August of ’27, where he found Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) and the Carter Family.

Peer’s recordings with the great Rodgers included the various “Blue Yodels,” “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” “Waiting For a Train,” and the rest of the Singing Brakeman’s classic catalog before his death from tuberculosis in ’33.

Perhaps the single most important song to arise from the Bristol Sessions (as they have become known), though, was actually recorded in Camden, NJ. A.P. Carter (1893-1960) was a roving church singing instructor and fiddler/guitarist from western Virginia when he met singer/autoharpist Sara Dougherty (1899-1979); they were married in 1915, and in ’26 joined by Sara’s guitar playing cousin Maybelle (1909-78, she was also married to A.P.’s brother) to form a performing trio.

The trio recorded six songs at the Bristol session and were called up to Victor’s Camden studios (where Rodgers also recorded) for a second session, where they recorded one of the most influential records in country music history, a Civil War-era song adapted by A.P., “Wildwood Rose,” featuring Sara’s haunting vocal and Maybelle’s finger picking style – the “Carter lick” – which became the very foundation of country rhythm guitar playing.

The song reached No. 3 on the pop charts in ’28 (there was no country chart until ’44) and sold over one million copies (check out Mike Ness’ rocking but faithful rendition).

Peer increasingly turned his attention to his hugely successful publishing business after ’32, but left behind an amazing legacy of recorded roots music that transformed the industry and preserved authentic American culture for fun and profit.

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