Keeper of the Fold 

The son of Sara and A.P. Carter, Joe Carter had his own, unrecognized place in music history

The son of Sara and A.P. Carter, Joe Carter had his own, unrecognized place in music history

Joe Carter was literally present at the creation. As a 5-month old infant, Joe's mother Sara nursed him between songs during the epochal Bristol Sessions in August 1927. Almost everyone agrees that Sara, her husband A.P. and her sister-in-law Maybelle laid the groundwork for latter-day country music on those sessions. Maybelle was just weeks away from giving birth to her first child, and Sara and A.P.'s eldest child Gladys was in the studio, looking after Joe. Perhaps that's why the Victor Talking Machine Company recording director, Ralph Peer, named his new act the Carter Family. With no room in the Essex automobile they had borrowed, A.P. and Sara's middle child Janette had to stay behind, but 40 years later, Janette and Joe began the task of perpetuating their parents' legacy.

During his lifetime, Joe, who died earlier this month, never received much recognition for his place in Carter Family history, in part because his largely non-musical efforts were overshadowed by his far more visible aunt Maybelle and cousin June. But were it not for his skills as a builder and his willingness to labor behind the scenes, the Carter Family might not be remembered near as well as they are today.

It's hard to know what Elvis would make of today's Graceland and the ceaseless recycling and remixing of his music (maybe he would love it), and it's hard to know what Martin Luther King would think of the commodification of his speeches, but it's absolutely certain that A.P. Carter would have loved the Carter Family Fold. It was an almost inestimable act of faith to build the Fold on a barely traveled two-lane road near Hiltons, Va., but something seemed to tell Janette that if she built it, they would come. So Joe built it, and they came. They took the name from the Book of John, Chapter 10. "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd."

The Fold is a theater built on the side of Clinch Mountain, affording it a natural slant. When it rains, water runs off the mountain and down the aisles. Until recently, the seats were old bus and train seats, and the bleachers were railroad ties with carpet samples stapled onto them. The music policy is strictly traditional. Joe came to the Fold every Saturday afternoon, several hours before showtime. He'd stoke the wood stoves during the winter and sit off to the side in an airplane seat. Promptly at 7:30 p.m., Janette and Joe opened the show.

The crowd went for Joe's comedy routines and animal impersonations, but when he sang bass on a gospel song, it sounded for all the world as if A.P. Carter was back in the building. Janette, like her mother Sara, sings with strength and resilience, while Joe sang with more vulnerability and doubt. His last recordings (the last of not many) appeared on John Carter Cash's Carter Family tribute album, The Unbroken Circle, and on an album that Joe shared with Janette, The Last of Their Kind. Nashville's Dualtone Records released both in August last year, and the ambiance is autumnal if not wintry. A year or so earlier, Joe and Janette sung a spare and achingly beautiful version of a Carter Family sacred song, "Anchored in Love," on what became June Carter's last album, Wildwood Flower.

Joe knew that, if not for his name, he would never have been a recording artist, and if not for Janette's zeal he would be no more than a footnote in the Carter Family story. A.P. had known better than to ask Joe to carry the music on and asked Janette instead. "I wasn't that interested in music," Joe said. "Dad wanted somebody to carry his tradition on, and I reckon he knew I wouldn't. I had other fish to fry. I got into construction work."

The family's stock was pretty low at the time of A.P.'s death in 1960. The semi-annual checks from Ralph Peer were down to around $100, but the Kingston Trio had just recorded "Worried Man Blues" and Joan Baez would soon introduce the Carter Family's music to an entirely new audience. A.P. seemed to know that his time would come again. "He was very particular about the type of gravestone that he wanted," Janette said, "because he said that people would come from long distances to see his grave, and he said, 'I want it to be unique.' "

In 1974, Janette began holding shows in A.P.'s little general store, and Joe completed the Fold in 1976. Their mother Sara died two years later, and her funeral was conducted from the stage. In death, she was reunited with A.P. in Mount Vernon Cemetery a mile or so down the road from the Fold.

Those who saw the Carter Family's records as precious snapshots of America as Eden didn't realize that, with very postmodern independence, Sara had left A.P. and the children in 1932, when Joe was 5. On record and on radio, they projected the image of the family that prayed together and stayed together, but nothing could have been further from the truth. When Ralph Peer landed them a gig on border radio in Del Rio, Texas, A.P. and the children drove from Virginia with Maybelle and her children, while Sara drove in from California with her new husband.

"We knew it was bad," Joe said, "but there wasn't nothin' we could do to make it any better." The tension spilled over at home. A.P. was given to dark rages and would vent them upon Joe more often than upon his sisters. Sara's absence meant that A.P. could no longer do the one thing in which he could excel. The loss of the music and the loss of Sara was almost more than he could bear. Joe, though, knew only that he had a father unlike other fathers.

In 1941, Life magazine came to Virginia to do a photo essay on the Carter Family, and Sara returned as she usually did for such things. In the family shots, A.P. stood apart, while Joe, aged 14, looked diffident and ill-at-ease. The photo spread was preempted by Pearl Harbor, and the original Carter Family had already made their last recordings. Joe left home as soon as he could and joined the Navy during the last years of the war. He lived in California and East Tennessee before returning to Hiltons. Married three times, he had a son who predeceased him and three daughters. Like most of his kin, he was fiercely protective of his family. Last year, he took part in a documentary on the Carter Family that I helped research for WNPT (scheduled to air this May on The American Experience); when we pre-interviewed him, he talked so candidly that we wondered why no one had interviewed him in depth, but when the cameras rolled, Joe was engaging but guarded.

Music didn't tempt Joe as it tempted nearly every other Carter sibling; only his older sister, Gladys, kept a lower profile. "I couldn't make it thumping on a guitar," he said. "I wasn't interested that much, but gimme a handsaw and a clawhammer, and I can get right in there with the best of 'em." And it was with the clawhammer and handsaw that he made Janette's (and, by implication, his father's) dream come true. He eventually came to enjoy his moments onstage and appeared regularly at the Fold until Feb. 19 this year. Pancreatic cancer took his life on Wednesday, March 2. Among those attending the funeral were Maybelle's grandson, John Carter Cash; her granddaughter, Carlene Carter; and Joe's neighbor, Tom T. Hall.

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