Unbroken Circle 

Carter Family's recordings reaffirm their monumental stature

Carter Family's recordings reaffirm their monumental stature

The Carter Family

In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain (Bear Family)

Writing about the complete recorded works of The Carter Family is a task akin to writing a review of The Bible. Sure, you can talk about the package it comes in or highlight your favorite parts, but ultimately, what can you say that hasn’t been said before? The Carter Family were so seminal, so influential, it seems almost pointless to weigh in with more commentary on their work.

Actually, there’s quite a bit to say. Despite the acclaim The Carter Family have received over the years, many of their recordings are so obscure that they have never been reissued since their original release on rare, fragile 78s more than 60 years ago. Now, thanks to über-label Bear Family Records, the Carters’ recordings can be appreciated in their entirety with the release of the 12-CD box set In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain.

Although a later generation of revisionist folkies would paint the music of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle as pure, unadulterated folk art, the truth is that The Carter Family were a “commercial” act from the very beginning. By 1927, the 36-year-old A.P. Carter had tried many vocations, but his fascination with songs and with the burgeoning recording industry kept leading him back to a musical career. While not an accomplished singer or musician himself, he had an unfailing ear for picking out old mountain tunes or pop songs from the 19th century that still connected with a modern, homespun audience. Carter also learned quickly how to write or rewrite songs that would appeal to large numbers of people, while sounding as solid and as timeless as the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

If A.P. Carter had shrewd business acumen and a good ear for songs, Sara possessed a strong and solid voice that perfectly fit the material he chose. Whether singing songs of tragedy or lighthearted, sardonic ditties, her voice seemed to embody the hopes, sorrows, and humor of generations of women. While Maybelle’s voice paled compared to the overwhelming majesty of her cousin’s, it served as the perfect harmonic complement; her innovative and fluid guitar playing completed the sound of the trio and influenced almost every country guitar picker to follow.

As is usual for Bear Family releases, the Carter Family set is overwhelming in its completeness and attention to detail. All of the Carters’ 287 sides recorded between 1927 and 1941 for Victor, ARC, Decca, APS, Columbia, and Bluebird are included, and the sound quality is amazing, especially considering the condition and age of some of the source material. The accompanying hardcover book contains a history of the group by country music historian Charles Wolfe, a comprehensive sessionography and discography, complete lyrics, illustrations of record labels and album covers, and every known photograph of The Carter Family, including many personal family pictures that have never been previously published.

While the sound quality and package design are praiseworthy, it all still comes down to the music. And after listening to more than 12 hours of a single artist, you’d think that a person would have his fill. But these recordings leave you with a sadness and longing for even more. Although The Carter Family can sound stiff and crude by modern standards, once you’ve been lured into their world, the lilting harmonies, the fluidity of Maybelle’s guitar playing, the dry country wit of A.P.’s lyrics, his occasionally rich and rumbly vocals, and above all the majestic and timeless sound of Sarah’s voice create an enchantment that’s hard to escape. The music invokes a world far away from our own and yet connects with something timeless and hidden in the soul of America—a blend of hard times, faith, humor, dreams, and stoic acceptance.

And that’s the key to the glory of The Carter Family’s music. Thanks in part to A.P. Carter’s keen understanding of popular song, their legacy has so infused 20th-century American culture that almost every musician in America has felt their influence—even those who’ve never heard a single recording by this trio. It’s a claim that can be attributed to few artists. The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of Louis Armstrong are perhaps the only other body of work that stands as such a significant cornerstone of modern popular music.

In the book that accompanies the box set, Charles Wolfe sums up the influence of The Carter Family in a manner the dry-witted A.P. probably would have appreciated. “Simply put, had they not existed, country music would not sound the way it does today,” he writes. “If A.P. had decided, for some bizarre reason, to bark his songs like dogs, country music today would be full of barking dogs.” Some might argue that modern country music is in fact full of barking dogs, but for anyone wanting to hear the original blending of country and pop sensibilities—and the perfect mixture of art and commerce in American music—there is no better guidebook than In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain.

Style, no substance

During the golden age of hillbilly music, a period that stretched from the close of World War II to the late ’60s, you could always identify a country singer with one glance. Sure, pop singers, jazzmen, blues shouters, and early rockers all had style when it came to attire, but hillbilly singers overstepped all boundaries of subtlety, taste, and color coordination. Hillbilly Hollywood: The Origins of Country & Western Style, by Debby Bull (Rizzoli International Publications), is a celebration of this golden era of rhinestones and fringe. But while the book is a glory to look at, there’s something missing beneath the flash and color.

From its rhinestone-studded cover to the beautifully reproduced color and black-and-white photographs, Hillbilly Hollywood chronicles the glory days of Hollywood cowboys and brighter-than-life country singers. In particular, the book focuses on the architects of the style, rodeo tailors Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohen. A variety of quotes from the stars who wore the clothes accompany the eye-popping photos. Author Debby Bull also seeks to give a history of the time and to comment on the lives and music of the artists, but this is where a flaw becomes evident in the rhinestone.

You know the book is off to a bad start when the text begins, “This is a book about famous people you’ve never heard of.” Perhaps they are famous people Bull has never heard of, but to fans of classic country music, they’re a collection of old friends. The author’s “alt-country carpetbagger” attitude infuses the text throughout. In addition to factual errors and quotes obviously placed out of context, the reader has to contend with statements that serve no purpose other than to reveal the author’s own ignorance about her chosen subject matter. Under a classic photo of Faron Young, Elvis Presley, and a female fan, Bull writes, “[Young’s] many hits like ‘Live Fast, Love Hard, and Die Young’ reveal him to be a pretty mainstream country act for such a dark and handsome Elvis type.” What exactly is this statement supposed to mean? That a “dark and handsome” type couldn’t be a “mainstream country” artist? What exactly is a “mainstream country act” supposed to look like? And has Bull ever even heard “Live Fast, Love Hard, and Die Young”? While it’s certainly a country song, not even 40 years of rock music has produced a more joyous celebration of reckless hedonism.

While Bull means well, she can’t quite overcome the apparent attitude that country music is cool only because it’s been discovered by a generation of former punks. Like so many alt-country fans and artists, admitting that the crackers and yahoos knew what true cool was all along is a leap she can’t quite take. Classic hillbilly artists were flashy and eye-catching, but unlike the book Hillbilly Hollywood, there was real substance underneath the rhinestones and embroidery.

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