Greetings from Maces Spring, Virginia
For the past couple of months, I’ve been obsessed.
And what could be the object of this utter fascination? The recorded catalog of the original Carter Family, which came into being on the first of August 1927 and concluded in the middle of October 1941. Now, an astrologer might tell you that those dates correspond, roughly, with the period that the planet Neptune, said to rule music, was transiting through the tropical sign of Virgo. But I’m not an astrologer; I’m just a music fan, and a rabid one at that. Still, that idea kind of intrigues me. Because I am, well, obsessed, and obsessed people will seize upon trivia and minor details and obscure little sidenotes the way that a dog bites into a new chew toy.
By now I think I have a reasonably vague idea of how I fell down this rabbit hole. Because I often can become reasonably interested in the mundane genesis of extraordinary things, I became enamored with the Bristol sessions, that last week of July and first week of August in 1927 when Ralph Peer, a freelance artist-and-repertoire man for the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, showed up in Bristol, a city straddling the Virginia and Tennessee border in the Appalachian region, with two engineers from Victor and a portable recording apparatus, hoping to record indigenous folk musicians. The newly developed Western Electric microphone they brought with them made these field recordings possible, and opened up a whole new possibility of capturing mountain music and rural blues recordings in their home settings, much closer to the environment where the music was birthed and its creators lived.
Peer had a pretty good idea that this musical panning for gold in Bristol might turn up some choice nuggets, and he had an ulterior motive – he grasped the then-novel idea that songs might become lucrative intellectual properties and copyrights, and he was looking for songs for his own company, Peer-Southern, to publish. So what happened over those two weeks of what’s come to be called “the big bang of country music,” specifically the first four days of August, was that Peer and Victor stumbled upon the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, essentially the two acts that, not long after, would lay the foundation upon which the edifice of country music is built.
I’d been somewhat up to speed on Rodgers, but the Carters never quite had gotten under my skin and into my heart. Sure, I knew that one of my big musical heroes, Johnny Cash, had married June, the middle daughter of Maybelle Addington Carter, who was the guitar-playing genius cousin of vocalist Sara Dougherty Carter; to complicate matters, Maybelle had married the younger brother of Sara’s husband, the mountain folksong collector Alvin Pleasant Carter, better known as A.P. (yes, this being Appalachia and all, family trees often looked more like a thicket sometimes). So, over the years I’d heard, again and again, that this original Carter Family – A.P., Sara and Maybelle – was really important, but that realization never quite took anchor with me.
Nevertheless, Johnny Cash always sang the praises of the Carters – that his mother-in-law Maybelle had invented the style of guitar that anyone listening to country music, not to mention rock ’n’ roll, would recognize instantly, a melody line played on the lower, bassy strings, mixed with chords strummed. It’s a sound you know when you hear it – a simple and straightforward melody line that rumbles into your waking consciousness like a freight train, with those delicious little hammer-on and pull-off notes that you instantly associate with country music. Indeed, until Maybelle came along, the guitar had been relegated to a minor role in string-band songs; the far brighter fiddle and banjo provided the ornamental embellishments, and the guitar was just there to provide added texture. Basically, according to some experts in the matter, if it wasn’t for Maybelle’s innovations, we might all be listening to banjo music. Or accordions, God forbid.
I never quite grasped that significance. My loss.
I also hadn’t fallen under the spell of Sara’s voice, an achingly plaintive but gorgeous instrument that still comes across, even over the distance imposed by pre-high fidelity recording, through a barrier of static and hiss, the kind of wall that can eliminate a lesser artist’s appeal for a modern listener. Seduction often is not immediate, and oftentimes we do not recognize we’ve been hooked until it’s too late. So it was with the voice of Sara, who accompanied her twang-inflected singing by playing the autoharp, a boxlike zither with string-dampening buttons that can be pressed to form chords that are then strummed, or plucked. Even when Peer convinced her to yodel, probably because fellow Bristol discovery and Victor artist Jimmie Rodgers yodeled, and he’d become the biggest seller in the genre, and even though Sara by account hated yodeling, there was magic in the way she let the notes tumble forth on her breath. (I should confess that I also kind of fell in love via old photographs of Sara, a beautiful woman in my humble opinion, but that’s another story and future blog post, and I was dumbfounded to realize that we’d both resided in the same county in interior California for many years, even though Johnny Cash once told me during an interview of “visiting family” there many times. And, I guess it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fall in love or cultivate a loving relationship with a real living person, so sort of falling for a twice-married singer who’s been dead almost 35 years can’t be the worst thing that could happen to a guy, no?)
Also, I hadn’t understood the particular genius of A.P., who quite accurately could be described as the father of the hit single. What A.P. did was adapt songs, which had been passed around from musician to musician and hearth to hearth across the mountains and hollows of Appalachia for generations, for the then-novel medium of the phonograph record. These songs carried stories, and being vehicles for information transmitted via oral tradition, they tended to go on and on, sometimes like interminable sea shanties. The temporal limitation of a 78-r.p.m. record was around three minutes, though, so some editing work had to be done to make them fit. A.P. figured out how to winnow each song down to its essentials, and how to frame it by inserting Maybelle’s guitar parts, typically playing the melody line, as a compositional element, often leading into the song and then coming back several times as an instrumental bridge. Then the group would alternate Maybelle’s instrumentals, Sara’s sung verses, and a harmony part with Maybelle singing over the top and A.P. “bassing in” underneath. This process and principle of compression would form the heart of most hit singles from pop music’s golden era of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond – and, as far as I can tell, this is where it started.
Then, there’s the music to reckon with: “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (later, better known as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Wildwood Flower,” “John Henry (Was a Desperate Little Man),” “Worried Man Blues,” and much, much more. Even when you think you haven’t heard, say, “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” you have heard songs that share its template, such as Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” or Kitty Wells’ signature song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” an answer record to Thompson’s hit. The Carter Family catalog spans hundreds of songs, most of them in major keys with simple three-chord constructions. And while many of them sound like rewrites of earlier material, there’s something to recommend each one – a unique vocal harmony here, a Maybelle guitar part there, a stunning little twist of lyric that catches you off guard.
I could go on and on, as I probably will in later posts. Not that you need to know how and why I fell head over heels in love with the Carter Family at this late date, but I feel like telling it. Until then, I give you my warmest regards. –Jackson Griffith