Don’t Forget This Song: Frank Young, David Lasky, and the Story of the Carter Family
The Carter Family is essential to understanding the roots of country music, not just its foundation in Appalachian balladry but also its great emphasis on the modest pleasure of faith, family, and home. Not quite as mythic as the lives of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, or blackface minstrel Emmett Miller, the story of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle is nevertheless wildly compelling, as the Virginia trio developed the songwriting, singing, and playing style that would all but define the genre for the duration of the twentieth century.
It’s a musical story, of course, but also a visual one, as it unfolds against an amazing set of American backdrops: not just the remote homes of Clinch Mountain, but also the overwhelming bustle of New York City and the empty flatness of borderland Texas. That quality makes The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams ComicArt), a graphic novel by Seattle artists Frank M. Young and David Lasky, a deeply intriguing and even moving celebration of their lives and the music they made together. Full of brightly colored panels and plainspoken ink drawings, the book includes a CD of rare radio performances from the 1930s, which is a boon to anyone with even a passing interest in the Carters.
Young and Lasky have been researching and writing Don’t Forget This Song for nearly a decade, first producing a few small strips and short stories before storyboarding the full arc of the Carters’ career. Drawing from original interviews with scholars and family members, they painstakingly devised the narrative, breaking it down into chapters as they went. Lasky, who has done smaller biographical comics on Dylan and Beethoven, did the ink drawings, while Young, a writer and music historian, wrote dialogue and did the coloring in PhotoShop. “It was a true collaboration,” says Young. “Nobody was just sitting back playing the harmonica napping while the other was toiling.”
Stephen M. Deusner: How did you two meet and start working together?
Frank M. Young: I moved to Seattle from North Florida in 1991, and then David moved to Seattle from the Washington, DC, area the next year. The comics community in Seattle is pretty close knit. Everybody knows and or has heard of everyone else. So we just bumped into each other at comics-related get-togethers, and it was clear that we had similar ideas about what we liked in comics and what we wanted to do with them. Over the years, every time we’d run into each other at a party, we’d have a conversation that nobody else on Earth could have, like who was Jack Kirby’s best inker. For the record, his pick is Joe Sinnott. Mine is Dick Ayers. There you go. Exclusive.
SMD: How did you start working on the Carter Family?
FMY: I wrote an essay about the Carter Family for a southeastern literary magazine called the Appalachy Journal in 1993 or ‘94. I had given David a copy of that essay and he’d really liked it. Flash forward to 2002 and he was talking with a mutual friend who suggested that David do a biographical comic about some country music pioneers. He thought of me because I had written that essay almost a decade before. Cut to today, where we have a book. He was really the catalyst in getting the inspiration to tell this story in a comics format. I immediately thought it was a great idea because I’ve always felt that comics are a great way to tell real-life stories. It’s a hybrid between biography and a movie. And it has that unbeatable of mixture of words and images that really induct people into the world you’re going to portray.
David Lasky: What got me into this book was the music itself. I come from Virginia, and when I lived in the DC suburbs, all I wanted to listen to was rock. I had no interest in country music. And most of the country I heard was Kenny Rogers—more pop-inflected country. It had no great appeal. Once I moved to Seattle and was in a different place, there were things I started to miss about Virginia, especially the fall and the smell of leaves. There’s not much of an autumn in Seattle. And then I happened to hear the Carters’ music in a TV documentary about country music, and something just hit me immediately. That’s the sound of country. And I’m not sure I meant country music as much as the actual country itself: the mountains and the streams and the leaves in the fall. I could hear it in those voices, and I just grew to love their music. Once I started to learn from Frank about where they came from and who they were, I realized why I was hearing that—because they were farmers and they lived close to the earth. Everything you hear in their voices, they really had lived it.
FMY: I guess I have loved the Carter Family’s music since I first heard it, and for a long time all I had was the music. But finding out that what happened to the people who made this music—what courageous and fragile and vulnerable human beings they were—only served to heighten my love of their music and my appreciation for what they did. It’s a classic example of a person or group of people who break new ground, but they really sacrificed something in order to do that. And in A.P.’s case, it was his marriage to Sara, whom he never stopped loving. That’s a big thing to give up, even for something that is your life’s work.
SMD: Did the fact that you’re both displaced Southerners guide the project in any way?
FMY: David grew up in the Virginia area, which is actually much closer to the locale of what happens in the book, and I grew up in the Florida/Georgia panhandle. I think we both had a lot of insights into the people, the attitudes, the language, the geography of the south. That had been our lives up to the point when we moved to Seattle, and we both had an appreciation of that sense of being a southerner but having a slightly outsider quality at the same time. And it really appealed to me to be able to tell a biographical story of people from the South. It leavens the Li’l Abner thing where Southerners, especially in comics, are always buck-toothed doofuses. The overalls that are missing one strap. It was a chance to reclaim the dignity of the southern character in comics.
DL: Before we worked on our initial short story, I happened to be going to the East Coast, so I did a road trip with my father down to the Carter Fold from the Washington, DC, area. It’s about a nine-hour drive. And we had a couple of days to visit Bristol and see State Street and then went to the Carter Fold for a performance. I briefly met Janette Carter and Joe Turner. That was important to me before drawing the area where they lived—just to see it and hear the way people talked and their kind of humor they have. They made jokes on stage and just in talking conversation, they would make little jokes and that really helped get the personality of the place and the people across to me. I tried to get that across in the book. It was a really one of the better trips of my life to make that musical pilgrimage.
SMD: What led to the decision to write the story using dialect?
FMY: When I moved out to Seattle in 1991, I had a Southern accent. Two decades of living here have just completely wiped out the traces of it in my voice. And it’s made me really aware of how the environment you’re in has an effect even on how you speak. I wanted it to be comfortably evident to the reader that A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter came from this little region of the country that had its own cadence of speech and its own way of saying things, if only to make sure that characters from different parts of the country were represented by how they talked. One book that was really a huge influence was a book that Robert Crumb recommended to me called Our Southern Highlanders, which was written by this British academic named Horace Kephart, who in the very early, pre–World War I twentieth century went to the Appalachians and lived among its people. You get this image of Stan Laurel among these very, very isolated rural people, and he’s taking down all their sayings and the way they say things. As I was reading the book, I had this flash: Al Capp must have read this book when he was developing Li’l Abner. At that point I decided I wanted to have dialect, but I wanted to dial it back a little bit. Dialect with dignity was always my goal.
SMD: What about the Carter Family’s story lends itself to visual treatment?
FMY: Every once in a while you come across a real-life story that is just dramatically perfect. If every life’s story is like a three-act play, most life stories have a great first act, a really great second act, and then it fizzles out in the third act. But the Carter story: great first act, better second act, dynamite third act. And it’s the original music business success story. The Carter Family went out and got their own material, they arranged it their way, they played things in a very unique way. It’s a kind of a template for what would happen in the rock ‘n’roll era, from Elvis on.
DL: They came out of a world that’s totally foreign to me. They were in the mountains and came from a really pre-industrial time and place, and the story unfolds as their area is industrialized and the railroad comes through. Their music is really rooted in the time and place they came from and also rooted in the changes that happen not just with industry but with recording technology. I think showing all that visually gives the reader more of an idea of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Appalachia that produced them.
FMY: Comics are just ideally suited to tell biographical stories because it opens it up beyond mere words. As David said, it is a story of change—the almost overwhelming changes that hit that area of the world in the twentieth century. Plus, the three major members of the story are quite distinctive visually and I think that adds something to the way we told it.
DL: Tell them about your dream about a Carter Family comic strip.
FMY: I’m famous for my bizarre comics-related dreams, and I had this dream way back when we were doing our first trial sequence—the thing we did for the magazine Kramer’s Ergot to see if this would work in comics form. I had this dream where I had found this bound volume of newspapers from the 1920s, and one of the comic strips in it was a Carter Family comic strip drawn kind of like Little Orphan Annie. And in the dream I thought, this is such a great idea, I wonder why we don’t know about it now. It’s one of those dreams where you wake up still in the belief that that stuff is real, and then you go, “Darn!”
DL: When Frank told me about this dream, I thought, “We gotta make this real.” Because that sounds like the perfect way to translate the time and place they came from by doing it in the style of the comics of the era.
FMY: The visual transformation that comics went through in that period is also felt in the book. The look of the book is unmistakable from David’s hand, but there are subtle flavorings of some of the major cartoonists that go through that 40-year period that the book covers.
DL: In that first short story we did about nine years ago, I was in the service of Frank’s dream, and I was trying to copy exactly the style of Harold Gray, who drew Little Orphan Annie. I even made the Carter Family logo in the same lettering as the Little Orphan Annie logo. When we got around to doing a full book, I realized that trying to copy a specific artist for almost 200 pages is just going to be a big headache, so I made it more in my own style informed by various classic comic strip artists that we were looking at. The first page of the book begins in the style of Hogan’s Alley, which was the first continuing newspaper comic. That’s where A.P. is a small child in the 1890s. From there we look at the early comics of the twentieth century and then focus really on Frank King’s Gasoline Alley and Little Orphan Annie, and by the end we’re looking a little more at Wash Tubbs by Roy Crane. And it was more than just the drawing style; it really informed how the panels are staged. There’s not a whole lot of close-ups early in the book, because comics just didn’t do that in the 1920s.
FMY: Those artists had huge playing fields. The page is poster-size and each panel is four or five inches square. These guys had a huge canvas, and I think they understood that. I think that counts for the proscenium-like staging you see in so many early comics. They had all this space to fill, and it must have seemed like a cheat to show close-ups of faces. It really wasn’t until the 1930s that the close-up becomes a true part of the language of comics. And now I’m so ingrained in that. When we were doing the thumbnails, I would unconsciously do a lot of close-ups, and when David do the next stage, he would always pull the shot way, way back.
DL: I think a lot of why cartoonists staged their panels this way was because they were in a world where silent movies were also pulled back because they were an imitation of theater and vaudeville. Comics were reproducing what was already in the media and primitive photography, so there was not a lot of camera movement or close-ups.
SMD: It’s fascinating to see the parallels between this musical history, comics history, and technological and industrial history. Were you aware of those parallels as you were writing and drawing the story?
FMY: It was what was happening that time in the world. It just engulfed itself into the story. You cannot tell the story of these three people and the contributions they made to music without telling the story of the technological and social changes that were going on—all the different layers of the world that they walked through.
DL: We did interviews and consulted with various scholars and family members, and one adviser, a guy named John Maeder, was an enthusiast for early recording technology and for the Carters as well. I met him on a trip to the Carter Fold. And he emphasized to me that we had to show the recording technology used at the Bristol sessions, because that switch from the acoustic horn to the microphone was key to getting the Carter sound captured on record. So much of the timing and logistics of the Bristol sessions combined with the new technology and resulted in a sudden new industry in American recording—what would be called country music. But they didn’t have a name for it at this time.
FMY: Some companies just called it Old Familiar Tunes or Songs of the Hills. They all had these romanticized notions of the rural South. We obviously had to do an enormous amount of visual research for all the physical items in the book. One of the toughest things to find a photo of was the recording contraption. The Western Electric recording turntable became a big industry secret because they didn’t take pictures of it. It was very closely and fiercely guarded. I finally found a little image of part of the recording equipment in a record catalog from the end of the 1930s. I guess by that time they thought it was okay to reveal some of this ten- to fifteen-year old technology.
DL: So much of the research I couldn’t have done without the Internet. I did hours of Google image searching, and we still did plenty of hours of sifting in the library but the Internet just helped us not get things wrong.
FMY: That was a big concern obviously of both of us. When you’re asking the reader to take themselves out of right now and put themselves in a bygone period, you just want to get the details right. You want it to be a convincing replica of what that world was.
DL: I did have an adviser on how to draw horses properly just because I usually don’t draw horses in my comics.
DL: Part of that came out of us not being able to use copyrighted lyrics. Believing that the Carters’ catalog was in the public domain and then finding out that it wasn’t, we had all these scripted pages for breaks of musical interludes with full lyrics in some cases. So we had to edit those down and find ways to express that they’re singing a certain song without using anything more than the title of the song. And I just started getting visually creative with it. The whole reason I got into this project was out of a great love for the Carters’ music, so there was a lot of affection whenever I had to depict a song visually.
FMY: It really shows. I’ve really greatly admired the visual depictions that David came up with throughout the book. Every time I would see a new one, it would just floor me. And it really captures the essence of what hearing music is like. If we had had the rights to use the lyrics, instead of these very visually impactful sequences we would have just had people singing the lyrics.
DL: If we were to do that, the reader would really have to know what the song is in their head, unless it was included on the CD. I think we did something a little extra for people who hadn’t already heard the Carters’ music.
FMY: The company that we partnered with to do the CD, Arhoolie Records, has three full CDs of the late ‘30s radio performances of the Carter Family, and they’re just nowhere near as well known as the studio recordings. So it was great to give the reader some Carter Family music that they probably weren’t innately familiar with.
DL: I got an email from a lifelong Carter Family fan who used to play music with Maybelle Carter at the end of her life, and he told me there were two tracks on the disc that he had never heard, so I felt like they did a pretty good job of finding pretty obscure material.
FMY: We did have a say of what tracks to include on the CD, so we were able to include songs that relate to significant moments in the book. My favorite piece of music on the CD is A.P. Carter’s rendition of the song “One Little Word.” It just expresses so much about the emotional pain that he was going through at that time. It’s an almost nakedly self-revealing performance. And I had been able to establish provenance that the song was clearly based on an existing work, in this case a popular song written in 1899 by a man named Gussie L. Davis.
DL: I think that “One Little Word” is one of the best vocal performances in American music, up there with Louis Armstrong or Willie Nelson or any male vocalist.
FMY: I heartily agree.
All images © 2012 Frank M. Young and David Lasky
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