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The Legend Unbroken

Carter Family bio assures that influential trio is gone but not forgotten

By Sara Bir

The Carter Family influenced country music to the extent that Maybelle Carter is acknowledged as "the Queen Mother of Country Music," and Bob Dylan, upon meeting Johnny Cash for the first time, immediately asked him, "Did you ever meet A. P. Carter?" Their music may have been honest and simple, but, as Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg tell us in Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music (Simon & Schuster; $25), the Carters' lives were far from uncomplicated.

Sara Dougherty was just 16 when she married Alvin P. Carter, an agitated, enterprising man from southern Virginia. A. P. had gained a wife, but also a project; he saw great potential in Sara's rich, powerful voice. Eck Carter, A. P.'s brother, later married Sara's cousin Maybelle, whose virtuosity at playing the guitar was such that she developed her own style, the "Carter scratch," which allowed her to play lead notes and accompaniment at the same time.

Always a man with a plan, A. P. formed the three into a group: Maybelle on guitar, Sara playing autoharp and singing lead, and A. P. pitching in bass vocals now and then. More than anything else, though, A. P. was the Carter Family's visionary, booking shows and going on long trips through the Southeast to dig up gospel standards and long-forgotten Victorian parlor songs to add to the Carter's repertoire.

In the late 1920s, when "hillbilly music" was taking off with the public, the Carters recorded some songs in Bristol, Va., for roots-music impresario Ralph Peer. By the early '30s, they were the most successful country music group in America.

The Depression led to dwindling sales for the Carters, but their fortunes changed once they got a contract to perform "The Good Neighbor Get-Together" twice daily on the Mexican border radio station XERA, just south of Del Rio, Texas. XERA's broadcasting range was so mighty that it blanketed America, and the Carter's immensely popular show drew in thousands of listeners, many of whom grew up to be country music greats: Tom T. Hall, Waylon Jennings, and Chet Atkins.

Maybelle's daughters, Helen, June, and Anita, began appearing on the show every now and then, and when Sara left the group, Maybelle and her brood started a new and equally fruitful Carter Family. The tireless Maybelle continued performing until her arthritis made it impossible to do so.

Rather than spouting lofty ramblings that testify to how influential the Carters were, Zwonitzer and Hirshberg simply let their story tell itself. Culled from hundreds of interviews with neighbors, descendants, and colleagues, the result is an intimate account that's both immensely evocative and completely engrossing.

While there are some dishy details to cover, all is recounted with dignity and nonchalance, just as the Carters themselves dealt with the tribulations in their lives. (Still, it's fun to discover crazy tales, like the time Hank Williams almost shot June Carter.)

The one drawback to Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is its lack of auxiliary information. With multiple generations in tiny towns in southern Virginia and beyond, it gets difficult to keep ancestors straight without a family tree. Likewise, a discography, even if it only listed key recordings, might help guide those new to the Carter Family's catalogue.

The renewed interest in roots music spawned by the popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has brought on a second coming of hunger for "old-timey" bands, and the first half of Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? will doubtlessly draw in readers for this reason. But the Carter's legacy stretches on into the highly commercial glory days of Nashville in the '50s and the folk revival of the '60s--which just goes to show how timeless their appeal is.

Even though they made such an indelible imprint on the shape of country music, the Carter Family's songs transcend genres in the most enduring and groundbreaking way, taking folk, gospel, and blues to help create something totally new.

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From the September 19-25, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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