The Carter Family: 1927-1934
Carter Family, The Original
American Studies 101
This should be required listening for anyone who wants to understand the American experience. In some ways it is the American experience—the songs of the Carter Family tell about the hardships of rural Appalachian life, the tragic deaths of young children, the vastness of the Virginia mountains, the scramble to feed a large and hard-working brood. There's faith and determination, too, and inspirational songs full of a mystic reverence. But perhaps the Carter Family's most impressive contribution is this: They sang all kinds of songs, blues and gospel, murder ballads, hymns and old British folk songs. They were the living embodiment of the American idea of the "mixing bowl."
The group was first heard outside of its southern Virginia home in 1927, when Alvin Pleasant Carter took his then wife Sara and Maybelle Addington, her cousin, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for the talent scout and early music-business impresario Ralph Peer. (Johnny Cash once called the 1927 session "the single most important event in country music history.") The legendary Peer was impressed—at the time, much rural music was instrumental, made by string bands—and the Carter Family's recording career began immediately. Sara had a transfixing voice, Addington strummed the guitar with a schoolmarm's precision, and A.P. found songs by traveling the countryside, taking notes as strangers shared their favorites. He taught his family these pieces that had often been handed down for generations, making slight adjustments that, in the early record business, were enough to earn him composer credit. (He did write several key songs, including "My Clinch Mountain Home" on this compilation.) But he was mainly an aggregator: By the time the family band fizzled, in the early 1940s, he'd preserved a treasury of American song, black and white, sacred and secular, like no other.
The five-disc 1927–1934 contains impressively cleaned-up versions of the important early recordings, and these show the family's extraordinary range: The Carters were incandescent singing chirpy two-steps ("Keep on the Sunny Side") and sweet love odes ("I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes") and yet completely believable telling about treachery and callousness ("Forsaken Love"). The legacy has been maintained by subsequent generations of country music's First Family. Addington, who'd married A.P. Carter's brother, became known as "Mother Maybelle," and her daughters, Helen, Anita, and June, rose to prominence as the Carter Sisters. Solo success followed for June Carter Cash, her husband, Johnny Cash, and his daugher, Rosanne Cash. Together they didn't merely keep the circle unbroken, they expanded it.
Released: 2000, Columbia Legacy
Key Tracks: "River of Jordan," "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," "Cannon Ball Blues."
Catalog Choice: Keep on the Sunny Side.
Next Stop: Ralph Stanley: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
After That: Rosanne Cash: The Wheel.
Book Pages: 145–146