The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #54071   Message #835188
Posted By: Brian Hoskin
26-Nov-02 - 06:03 AM
Thread Name: Article on Carter Family
Subject: Article on Carter Family
Here's an article from the UK newspaper The Independent on the Carter Family. (I had a quick check through the forum and don't think anyone else has posted this, apologies if they have). A lot of this will be old news for many Mudcatters, but hopefully of interest to others.

Back to the old country

It was the day America found its musical heritage. The songs The Carter Family recorded in 1927 created the American roots sound we can still hear today, says Fiona Sturges

22 November 2002

It was a hot July day in 1927 when AP Carter, a 36-year-old fruit farmer, bundled his wife Sara, their two children – eight-year-old Gladys and seven-month-old Joe – and Sara's cousin Maybelle into a borrowed car and made the 26-mile journey from Poor Valley to Bristol, an Appalachian town straddling the border of Tennessee and Virginia.

Lured by an advert in the Bristol Herald Courier calling for local singers and musicians, and the promise of $100, the Carters went to an audition set up in a disused hat shop by Ralph Peer, a talent scout from the Victor Talking Machine Company of New York. The resulting recording was, in the words of Maybelle's son-in-law Johnny Cash, "the single most important event in the history of country music". It has been called country music's "big bang".

There had been country records before, among them Fiddlin' John Carson's 1923 song "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and Vernon Dalhart's "Wreck Of The Old '97". The music, known then as "old-time" or "mountain music" had been around for ages, of course. The significance of Peer's recordings lay in his recognition that this music was marketable. It was the day America recognised its own musical heritage.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Bristol sessions. It's only in the past 40 years, however, that the cultural impact of The Carter Family has been fully understood. A folk revival in the Sixties brought them closer to public consciousness, while many well-known artists, from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams to Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, helped to keep the songs alive. Now a new generation of musicians, including Nashville's Lambchop, The Handsome Family and Gillian Welch, are harking back to the roots of American folk and country music and citing The Carter Family as a primary influence.

In the past two years there has been further interest in American roots music after the unexpected success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album, featuring Depression-era music including a version of The Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side", alongside the modern artists Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. Fans of the genre aren't confined to the States: the second series of Beyond Nashville concerts begins this weekend at the Barbican in London.

Stephanie Arlene, half of the duo The Arlenes, remembers listening to Carter Family records as a child in Virginia. "My mother used to play their records. I remember being mesmerised by their melodies and beautiful harmonies. Later I got a job as the country-music buyer at a record store, so I got a lifetime's education in a couple of years. I guess you could say that all country music goes back to them."

Jimmie Rodgers, the yodelling brakeman who became the first true country star (he died of tuberculosis just six years later), also went to Bristol that day. Ernest Stoneman, who had met Peer earlier when he recorded "The Sinking of the Titanic", was there. So were a street singer named Blind Alfred Reed and 20 or so other hopefuls, such as The West Virginia Coon Hunters and The Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers.

Over the next four months, Peer started releasing the Bristol recordings under the banner New Orthophonic Victor Southern Series, though it wasn't until November that the first Carter Family disc saw the light of day. Sales were good; so good, in fact, that the Carters were offered an all-expenses-paid trip to New Jersey for further recordings. Over the next two years sales of their records exploded; each recording shifted about 100,000 copies, exceeding even the sales of Jimmie Rodgers.

The Carters sang about God, marriage, infidelity and the hardships of rural life in music derived from old gospel songs, fragments of poems and the hill music with which they had grown up. But as the demand for new material increased, AP was forced to go foraging for new songs.

"He travelled far and wide in search of songs, often being gone for weeks at a time," says Rita Forrester, the granddaughter of AP and Sara. "Many would consist of maybe just a verse, a chorus, or even a story he had found. He would add whatever was needed; perhaps other verses, and the music if there wasn't a tune. Many of the songs he wrote himself."

In 1928 AP enlisted a one-legged black blues player, Lesley Riddle, to help him hunt for songs. It was a fruitful arrangement that lasted six years, during which Riddle was rewarded with, among other things, a wooden leg. Income from their records allowed the Carters to survive the Depression, though by the early Thirties sales started to dwindle. AP went north to work at the car factories in Detroit, while Maybelle went with her husband (AP's brother Eck) to Washington after he got a job as a mail clerk. In 1933, Sara left AP, but Peer and his wife Anita persuaded her to continue recording with the group.

Sales picked up after they signed with the American Record Company, but a real change in their fortunes came in 1938 when Peer did a deal with a border radio company. For six months the Carters went to Del Rio, Texas, where they performed twice daily on the radio station XERA, broadcasting a strong signal from Coahuila, Mexico, that could be heard all the way across America. But radio transmissions were cut in the early 1940s and AP, Sara and Maybelle went their separate ways. Maybelle and her daughters Helen, June and Anita continued to perform, appearing in 1951 on the first televised country music show and in the 1960s working with June's third husband, Johnny Cash.

"I know for sure that my grandfather never fully realised the impact he had made on music," Forrester says. "When he died in 1960, folk music was just beginning to be appreciated by new audiences. Unlike Maybelle and Sara, he did not live to see The Carter Family inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Most of his honours were awarded after his death."

Today a museum devoted to The Carter Family stands a mile from the cabin where AP was born. There's a road named after him. There's also the Carter Family Fold, a wooden barn where the family host weekly hoedowns and, every August, a festival to commemorate the Bristol sessions.

It's almost impossible to overstate The Carter Family's contribution to music. There's barely a country record in existence that doesn't owe a debt their solemn reflections on love, religion and rural life.

"I heard Johnny Cash say that when he travelled overseas and performed a Carter Family song, the audience always knew the words," Forrester says. "The content of their songs touches on themes in all our lives. I think the sound of The Carter Family laid the foundation for country music as we know it today."

Further Beyond Nashville, featuring Gillian Welch, Lambchop, The Arlenes and others, from tomorrow to 11 Dec, Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891). A CD of the same name is on Manteca