Roots Watch: The Carter Family’s Show Business Home

Barry Mazor | April 30th, 2014

Events and releases have conspired to put the Carter Family front and center for me through this past month. It’s not the iconic, commonly sentimentalized version of them that’s been brought into fresh focus, though—the domesticated diamonds in the rough, forever simple, down home in their Clinch Mountain  “fold”— but the sometimes complicated, breathing, talented family members who have been working show business professionals for a total of close to ninety years now, and who’ve so often seemed truly most at home when they’re standing behind microphones.

The release of Carlene Carter’s lively new family-saluting CD Carter Girl, her engaging live show at Nashville’s Station Inn on April 8th, the Nashville Film Festival screening of Beth Harrington’s long-gestating, frank and masterful new documentary The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music —and, for that matter, work on the final copyediting touches on my biography of Ralph Peer, the man who discovered, managed, produced and published them— have all served to remind me how fundamentally ripe to perform the Carters have tended to be, right across the generations.

It’s true that A.P. was a very secondary singer and instrumentalist in the original family trio, but as The Winding Stream reminds us, from the very first recording session at Bristol in 1927, he was relentless in working to provide the sort of songs Peer wanted, original or adapted, and working closely with Sara and Maybelle to prep the material to fit the act’s recording and live performing needs. And yes; it’s also true that Sara showed no taste for touring and all of the show business rigmarole that goes with that, but there’s hardly a moment in her recorded vocalizing, over 250 sides, when her pure relish for singing itself does not come through. As the Original Carters’ music evolved, she was entirely game to take on harder blues, outlaw songs, topical songs,  duets with Jimmie Rodgers, and new hits like “You Are My Sunshine.”  Her “OK; let’s try that!” spirit marked her as a natural performer—if one who certainly avoided overexposure.

Maybelle Carter’s gusto for performing was never in question, over her entire professional career of more than 50 years. The rhythm-plus-melody “Carter scratch” guitar attack that was arguably her key contribution to American music was first and above all a means to enable more effective, self-contained live performing. She never seems to have considered quitting when A.P. and Sara did, after World War II, and so she gathered up her three daughters (who along with cousin Janette had been appearing on Border Radio since they were tots) and went right on, on to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and hundreds more. Maybelle remains the only answer to that not-so trivial question: “Who appeared on record or stage with Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan?”

The second generation Carters essentially never experienced life that didn’t include performing—and whether they were more shy by all appearances (Anita) or dramatically less so (June, who was, before she took the “Mrs. Johnny Cash” role, as much or more an engaging physical comedienne as a singer). They were good to go—as back-up and studio musicians, members of varied duos and trios besides the “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters” act, and in Janette’s case, ready to keep the whole thing going for years with shows at the Carter Fold home place. Beth Harrington’s film includes footage of the third generation already at work nearly 40 years ago—with the very young Carlene Carter, Lorrie Bennett, and Rosanne Cash already on the road with the Johnny Cash show barely in their teens.

As Carlene points out in the notes to her new CD, she was already performing on stage by age four. It seems to me that she resembled her father, the most excellent Carl Smith, when younger (and I hope that she’ll pursue the CD musical salute to him she’s talked about), but by the time she played her mother June in the stage show Wildwood Flowers in 2005, she had down the posture, the way June would hold herself; for comedy and in general, her ability to channel mother June when she wanted to was uncanny. She sang June parts in that show and cousin Lorrie represented her own mother, Anita; they always sound great together—and did at the Station Inn this month, too. On stage there, I seemed to detect some Maybelle in Carlene’s eyes for the first time.

Carlene Carter & Elizabeth Cook at the Station Inn. Photo by Barry Mazor.

Carlene Carter & Elizabeth Cook. Photo: Barry Mazor.

She was wonderful—funny, utterly at home on that stage, so comfortable there that she wasn’t fazed for even a moment, (nor was the audience), if she fell out of a planned guitar pick or lost a line of a song while celebrating the many talents who have been her relations. Reprising her rocking hit “Every Little Thing” for a show ending, she couldn’t help tossing in some comic leg action any more than her mother could have.  She’s been through a lot, but the singing was on target and affecting throughout, as it is on the record, and while offering her more potent and pertinent than ever song “Change” at the keyboards, reminded us that she can be a powerful songwriter when she focuses on that as well. She was every inch a Carter—and every inch right at home behind that mic.

And by the way: Three recommendations to check out on the bluesier side of things—Mississippi-raised Eden Brent, a subtle, controlled vocalist and often powerful boogie and blues piano player, has another fine CD in her new Jigsaw Heart (out May 6), with some cuts charging, others slow and soulful, and the results consistently strong. The late, great Sid Selvidge’s previously hard to come by early album The Cold of the Morning, which includes his turn on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi,” some seminal “Mud Boy and the Neutrons” Memphis rock, and lots of his patented, exquisite singing, has been reissued by Omnivore Records.  And the surprising DVD A Celebration of Blues and Soul (due out May 6), recorded during inaugural festivities for the first President George Bush in January 1989, documents a remarkable show that features Percy Sledge, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Eddie Floyd and Carla Thomas, as well as Delbert McClinton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all in excellent form, even if the politics involved are confusing.  (Willie Dixon sports a Jesse Jackson button throughout his performances!)

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