The Carter Family—The First Family of Country Music
by Drew Reid
(Editors note: The pictures below are from the PBS website which documents the making of the wonderful television special, PBS American Experience - The Carter Family - Will The Circle Be Unbroken)
Who is the father of Country Music? Who’s the mother? Who started this whole big snowball rolling?
At first, when contemplating this thought, I was tempted to say Captain John Smith. That’s right, the guy who helped found the colony of Virginia in 1607 and avoided having his head bashed in by the timely intervention of Pocahontas. Upon further reflection, I’d have to say it was those groups of nobles, royalty and investors in the late 16th and early 17th centuries who sponsored the explorations and colonization of the east coast of the North American continent, particularly the region from the lower Chesapeake Bay down to about present day Wilmington, NC.
The reasons these expeditions were funded and undertaken were many: profit, expansion of religious tenets, glory for the English Crown, search for possible trade routes to Asia and circumnavigation, and for many, just the thirst for adventure and to get away from crowded and corrupt ol’ Europe.
Regardless of impetus, what happened starting with the Lost Roanoke Colony in North Carolina in 1588 and continuing well into the 19th century and after the formation of the United States was a huge migration to the above-mentioned shores, the overwhelming majority originating in the British Isles and Ireland. Whether as indentured servants, landlords, tradesmen, or soldier these hardy souls ventured across the unknown ocean, settled and eventually filled up the bottom lands and tidewaters of coastal Virginia and the Carolinas, and trekked inland. Over the years, they came up against the formidable barrier of the Appalachian Mountains, and while many remained in its Piedmont region; many more trickled into the mountains. They brought their secular and sacred songs from the old country with them, and their harps and fiddles as well. In the 1770’s, bands of settlers were starting to make it through the mountains, and began populating what would become the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.
The region collectively known as Appalachia then as now, was a difficult place to get around in. Settlements and fledgling communities were isolated and self-sufficient. The people had to grow their own food, build their own dwellings, hunt their own meat and provide their own entertainment when a hard day’s work was done. Still, this pioneer stock was made of stern stuff, and, fueled by their religious faith and a strong work ethic, over the years, the area was settled and somewhat tamed, as it is today.
In time, those tunes from the old country and the church mutated and evolved, some traveling with traders and itinerant musicians, some becoming endemic to their own areas. By the latter part of the 19th century, just as you could tell where a person was from by their accent, if there had been an omnipresent music industry in those days, you would have been able to mark a region by the songs played therein.
The influence of the church and worship in these settlers and their descendant’s lives cannot be overstated. Equally important was the evolution of musical instruments such as the guitar in the 18th century and the banjo in the mid-19th century.
The Cumberland Gap, as the name implies, was a road through the mountains, immensely vital to the settlement and eventual commerce of the region that came to be known as the Old Southwest, before the United Sates expanded across the Mississippi River. In the Clinch Mountains of southwestern Virginia in the early 20th century near the Cumberland Gap, a man named Alvin Pleasant Delaney "A.P." Carter lived and was intensely involved in the indigenous music of the area. A.P. was a singer both in church and at other gatherings and as he roamed the mountains and valleys near his home, began collecting the old songs he heard. He also began writing songs of his own, and the result is an immense body of incredibly important work that is with us today.
By the early 1900s, Thomas Edison had invented not only the phonograph, but perfected (for the time) the means to record music and transfer it first to cylinders and then flat discs to play on his phonographs. The recording industry had been evolving since the turn of the century, and by the 1920s, Southern artists were making recordings of their Appalachian musical heritage, initially called "hillbilly" music. The first generally acknowledged commercial recordings of this sort were made by Fiddlin’ John Carson of Georgia in 1922. A scant five years later, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company had headed into the mountains and in the summer of 1927 was recording rural musicians on their home ground. In July and August of that year in Bristol, a town on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, he held protracted talent searches and recording sessions. A.P. had arranged an audition, and brought the Carter Family over the mountains from their Maces Springs, Virginia home to try their hand.
As Peer later said, "they looked like hillbillies, he was dressed in overalls and the women were country women from 'way back there...but as soon as I heard them sing, I knew it was going to be wonderful."
This historic group of recordings (including the first sessions on Jimmie Rodgers) is regarded as the beginnings of country music as we know it today.
Almost overnight, The Carter Family became national sensations. With strong material from A.P.'s treasure trove of songs, Maybelle’s distinctive drop-thumb guitar style and Sara's soaring vocals, their early discs and sheet music sold in the millions. When the Great Depression hit several years later, the Carters stuck to their mountains, but in the late Thirties and early 40s, sojourned in Texas where they appeared on the high powered "border radio" stations broadcasting from the Mexican side, unfettered by FCC regulations. This put them over the top, and the whole country was singing along to "Keep On The Sunny Side," "The Wildwood Flower," "Little Log Cabin By The Sea", "You Are My Flower," "Wabash Cannonball", "I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes" and a tune that has especially become associated with the Carters, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." The Carter Family had become superstars, long before anyone coined the term.
In the 20s and 30s, Ezra and Maybelle started a family with daughters Helen (born 1927) June (1929) and later Anita (1933) coming into the world. A.P. and Sara had daughters Gladys and Janette, and son Joe.
After many years of recording and playing on the radio, the Carter Family broke up the act for good in 1943. Their impact cannot be accurately measured. It's been said many times, the Carter Family took country music from the front porch to the radio, and laid the foundation for country as a genre and an industry. The songs written and collected by A.P. Carter have been recorded and performed countless times in countless forms in every type of music worldwide.
This history and influence alone would be legacy enough, but there’s more.
Maybelle and Her Girls
This was a formidable grouping of talent. June was a comedienne, and Anita was a singer's singer. Helen was to become an accomplished songwriter, and all three went on to individually successful recording careers. Between the four Carter ladies, you had musicians conversant on guitar, autoharp, banjo, bass, piano, accordion, mandolin and a powerhouse act of strong, talented female personalities, long before anyone else tested those waters.
While performing on the Opry in the 50s, the Carters met an up and coming artist who'd tried rockabilly on Sun Records in Memphis, but had had more success with his stripped down roots country sound, charting several big records. His name was Johnny Cash.
Today Johnny Cash is a part of the American landscape akin to Mt. Rushmore, but in those days he was considered a wild man and an unflinching innovator. There are music industry legends pertaining to the non-stop days of touring and partying, but the sharecropper's son from Arkansas always remained true to a high level (no pun intended) of musical integrity and performance. By the early 60s Johnny Cash was on top of the country music world, and to a degree, could call his own shots as few could in the regimented Nashville business structure of the times. In 1961 he added Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family to his road show, upping the ante for all other touring acts to match. By the mid-60s he and June Carter were a couple, and in 1968, the First Family of country music received a new member when Johnny and June were married.
June Carter had been a show business veteran since an early age, performing on the border radio shows with her mother, aunt and uncle. Through the years touring and playing with Mother Maybelle, she had built a reputation as a cut-up onstage with her comedy routines, an excellent singer and harmonizer, and instrumentalist. In the mid-50s she moved to New York City for several years to study acting at the legendary Lee Strasburg studio alongside future stars Robert Duvall, James Dean and Marlon Brando. She had a solid career on TV, appearing in episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Little House On The Prairie and later on in the movies as well. She was a stunning beauty and a multi-faceted talent, as demonstrated when a song she wrote with Merle Kilgore, "Ring Of Fire," went #1 for its subject, Johnny Cash, in 1963.
With the late 60s came more watershed events for the Carter/Cash family and country music. Johnny Cash had a wide-ranging network TV show, and he and June gave credence to the efforts of many then-revolutionary songwriters when most of Nashville would not. It’s hard to theorize what direction the careers of Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein or Bob Dylan might have taken without the support of the Cash camp.
In the politically charged atmosphere of 1968 and 69, Johnny made two live albums at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, the second yielding "A Boy Named Sue" which won numerous awards, including Grammys. In 1972, a group of California/Colorado hippie types invaded Nashville's Woodland recording studio to work on an unprecedented project, melding the "old guard" of country with the musical contemporaries of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and other country rockers, known as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
The resulting Will The Circle Be Unbroken album cut across all frontiers. It was a three-record set, it was recorded live in the studio, and it featured some of the greats of traditional country and bluegrass picking side by side with a newer breed of (now famous) musicians like Norman Blake, Randy Scruggs and Vassar Clements. The height of this monumental event was the singing of the title song, with about 50 incredibly gifted pickers gathered around the star of the whole project, Mother Maybelle Carter. This visionary concept opened new doors throughout the land and around the world to country, bluegrass and acoustic music, and its influences are felt today. A second volume was subsequently recorded, and the Nitty Grittys recently issued a third set in this series, thirty years later, with Mother Maybelle's picture on the cover.
A.P. Carter had passed away in 1960, but not before he and Sara had reunited to make more recordings in the 1950s. Their daughter Janette was a part of this work, and she had promised her father to keep the Carter legacy alive. In 1974, brother Joe Carter designed the Carter Family Memorial Music Center aka the Carter Fold, near A.P. and Sara's original home in Maces Springs. This wonderful venue presents traditional country music every week to this day, featuring Janette and Joe Carter, along with the very best musicians from that area and beyond. The Fold will play an important role in our story a bit later on.
June – Press On
Johnny Cash's daughter by a previous marriage, Roseanne Cash is a well-respected recording artist and author, currently residing in New York City. Country fans will fondly recall her many hits including Seven Year Ache and Tennessee Flat Top Box (penned by her Dad). Another wonderful talent was brought into the family through Roseanne's long marriage to Rodney Crowell, consummate singer/songwriter and producer. Many fans of the Americana genre are ready to confer deity status on brother Crowell, and it's interesting to further note that from the 1990s to date, Johnny Cash's series of American Recordings with producer Rick Rubin are also considered the height of Americana.
Although known worldwide for her long and sparkling career, June Carter Cash considered herself first and foremost a person of faith, and a wife and mother. As one who had walked and talked with paupers and kings, she was universally regarded at her untimely death this past May as one of the most gracious, warm and loving show business people ever. Although she had many opportunities to further her career, she made her first priority Johnny Cash, and it is safe to say his immensely essential work and effect on American music is due in great part to her influence and support. She was actively recording and touring with the Cash show and scoring hits in duets with Johnny like "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" through the 60s. In 1975 Johnny produced a solo album on June called Appalachian Pride, but nothing more was heard from her as a solo artist until Press On, a vital and important project that came out in 1999.
Press On, recorded in the cabin studio on the Cash land north of Nashville, is a look inside the heart of a uniquely American artist. With two exceptions, all the tunes are either from June's pen or Carter Family classics. The feel is relaxed and informal. Percussionist Rick Lonow said everyone was gathered in one room, playing live as the tapes rolled. Actual drums were too loud; he was using brushes on cigar boxes and the like. June and Johnny's longtime friend and accompanist Norman Blake called it, "an organic project...the control board was right in the room."
It was a family affair, with contributions from Rodney Crowell, Marty Stuart and of course, Johnny Cash. It was also a retrospective and celebration of June's life and career, with dedication to her past and that of her family's. With production help from son John Carter Cash, Press On (the title is taken from the Carter Family tune Diamonds In The Rough and was June's personal credo) was recorded in two days and won a Grammy award.
Alongside the music, June wrote copious notes about her mother, her songs, how this project came to be, and her philosophies in life. There are stories and little snatches of conversation in between some songs that lend to the rustic aura of the CD. It's not hard to imagine you're a fly on the wall during the sessions, and it’s a distinct and rewarding pleasure.
Originally released by Vicky Hamilton on her Small Hairy Dog label, Press On has recently been re-issued by Dualtone Records, the home of Wildwood Flower.
Wildwood Flowers Again
Subsequently, some of the same group from Press On, and an even healthier cadre of family members created Wildwood Flower, another wonderful gift from a treasured and much lamented talent.
I’ve always felt that certain artists were particularly American. Their careers and output seemed to speak with special eloquence and capture some of the essence of what it is to be of and from this country. I think they should have their own rooms in the Smithsonian Institution. Mark Twain and Stephen Foster exemplify this feeling from the mists of a previous century. In our own time, I would cite John Hartford, Bill Monroe and June Carter Cash, for starters. Then there are those thousands of literally unsung heroes who lived, played and died before the advent of recorded music, yet contributed just as much to the American musical landscape.
June Carter Cash was a bridge back to the beginnings of country music as an art form, and through her family, a path to our musical past. In listening to both Press On and Wildwood Flower it's easy to conjecture that this is what country music sounded like when the first musicians showed up in the mountains.
As before, guitar master Norman Blake is on the sessions, and also touring partner and wife Nancy Blake, contributing exceptional mandolin, cello and mandola. Marty Stuart is back on vocals and mandolin. Where longtime Johnny Cash bassist Dave Roe played on Press On, here we have Dennis Crouch, and also Barbara Poole, both wonderful. The ever steady and ever imaginative Rick Lonow returns on percussion, and Laura Cash, wife of John Carter Cash plays fiddle, guitar and sings. Family members Carlene Carter, Tiffany Anastasia Lowe, Johnny Cash, Lorrie Carter Bennett, Joe Carter, Dale Jett and Janette Carter all provide background vocals, and the sound could not be warmer or more authentic.
It's hard to know where to start, but suffice to say the project leads off with the Carter Family theme song Keep On The Sunny Side and never looks back. Produced entirely by John Carter Cash, the majority of Wildwood Flower was again recorded in two days. He says, "Wildwood Flower was a full summation of my mother's life and heritage...a full circle." I asked him whether June meant this as a final statement, and he said no, not intentionally, though "I think she felt it was her duty, anchored in love, to make this record…it was her nature, it had to be done."
With sister Helen, (co-writer with June on several of the songs here) passing away in 1998, and Anita in 1999, June was the last of the Carter Sisters and I’m sure very aware of her place in history. Yet as Norman Blake, who has known her since the 1950s said, "June was a humble person, she came from humble folk." It is the simplicity of faith and dedication to your life's work, be it in the home or on the stage that shines through the songs here, even after a globetrotting career that spanned over 60 years.
After the opening cut comes my personal favorite, a co-write with Helen from the 60s called "Road To Kaintuck." Grafted to a Cripple Creek-like theme is a delightful song about the westward movement of the pioneers through Big Moccasin Gap, which is even closer to the Carter home grounds than the Cumberland. Johnny Cash gives a classic recitation before June and her girls follow with an exhortation to "...turn them wagons back as soon as you can." It's a mini-movie pulled off flawlessly in less than three minutes, and it knocked me over the first time I heard it, and continues to do so. This is more than entertainment; this is history.
The next cut, "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," is the only collaboration I have ever seen attributed to Mother Maybelle and all three Carter Sisters, and does A.P. and Sara proud.
"There is Temptation," the last recorded duet of June and Johnny that harkens to June's comedic side. There are "Big Yellow Peaches," June's account of fending off Lee Marvin, and "Alcatraz," another co-write with Helen that bespeaks world-weariness and wisdom.
A great deal of the CD is Carter Family material re-done with the subsequent generations. Most of these were recorded on the front porch of A.P. and Sara's house. Of particular significance is "Anchored In Love" with Joe and Janette Carter on vocals. Not only is this the last time members of the second generation of the Carter Family would record together, but Joe’s vocals are close enough to A.P.'s to be positively eerie. If you’d like a similar experience, go dig out your copy of Will The Circle Be Unbroken and compare June's vocals to Mother Maybelle's on the title cut there and the title and closing cut on this CD. It will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Like Press On, the notes accompanying the music alone are worth the price of the CD. In this case, it is a heartfelt recollection of the life of June Carter Cash coupled with the eulogy given at her funeral, both by Roseanne Cash. No one could have said it better, and it will abide through the ages.
Wildwood Flower is an important work, a notable signpost in the history of country music, and a sheer unadulterated joy. Even the moving performance of "Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone," given the later events, makes you cry not only tears of regret for June's passing, but tears of happiness for experiencing this exceptional album.
While the death of June Carter Cash was unexpected and earth shaking in the Nashville community, I think all of her fans and admirers are joined by the feeling of gratitude that we got to know and love the work and celebrate the life of such a unique, valuable and very American artist. It is not the end of an era, for the millions June inspired, including her immediate kin, carry on, or "press on," as June would say.
Being Americans, we don’t go for the notion of royalty. We fought the scions of the very noblemen who sent those settlers and explorers across the Atlantic in the first place, to prove that point. But as far as country music goes, we have our own First Family, and it is the Carter Family, now and forever.
Editors Note: More about The Carter Family can be found at the The Carter Family Memorial Music Center.
Below: Traditional Country Music from the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virgina, the formative region for the Carters and their musical influence.