Carlene Carter, “Carter Girl”
(for HVBA) I have an unerring fascination with the Carter Family—or more precisely the Original Carter Family—because everything about their professional lives as musicians (or “musicianers” as AP would say) is as exotic as it is unfathomable. We all know at least the outline of the story: AP hears Sara’s voice and falls in love, convinces Sara and Maybelle to drive with him to Bristol to record, despite the fact that there were no paved roads and Maybelle was nine months pregnant. Late, tired, hungry, they sit in front of a recording horn and, on the first day, record “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and, among other things, “The Storms are on the Ocean.” The next day they record “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “The Wandering Boy.” In all they recorded just six songs at those sessions, and four of them became part of the very fabric of Americana music.
The three took pains to present themselves as anything but the yokels they worried they may appear, but all the details of their lives suggests that yokels, frankly, was what they were. Everything that you read about their lives prior to Bristol is from another age entirely. They didn’t own a Victrola, and some of the first recordings they ever heard were their own. There was no music industry to speak of, so they also had no idea where the venture may take them. They were just tickled that someone gave them some money to sing songs into a metal horn. They weren’t after fame, and to their minds at the time, they weren’t aware that there was any to be had. The whole thing was just one of AP’s schemes—like his failed crops, the failed fruit tree venture, the portable sawmill—and there was no indication that it would have any more success than any of the others before it. Sara and Maybelle were humouring him, and it’s easy to suspect that Maybelle didn’t want to go to Bristol but that Sara begged her to come along, if only for the company. On the way out the door that day, Maybelle even asked if she should bring her guitar along.
Nevertheless, within a few years the three would deliver a songbook that we all know and play even today, and through their recordings Maybelle revolutionized country guitar playing. If you doubt it, think of all the times you’ve sat down with complete strangers and played “Wildwood Flower.”
Of course, that’s just the beginning. It’s a messy story, with sidetracks and tangents. They went on to snake oil salesmen and border radio; to illicit relationships, and families, and quiet divorces. They were photographed for the cover of Life magazine, though the attack on Pearl Harbor bumped them from the spot. In time Sara left AP to live with her true love in a trailer park in California, virtually never to appear in public again, on stage or otherwise. For much of her later life only her hairdresser knew who she really was. AP went and ran a small grocery store in rural Virginia, not far from where he was born, though most who thought of him, if they thought at all, believed him to be dead. Maybelle, of course, went on to fame with her girls, countless television appearances and recording dates, and looking uncomfortable with all of it from beginning to end.
The story—and I know I’m not alone in thinking this—is endlessly fascinating. More than a creation myth, it’s a whole collection of creation myths: the birth of the recording industry, the birth of country music, the birth of mass communication, the culture of the Great Depression, the introduction of copyright, and the benefits and pitfalls of fame. All of that is in there.
It’s also a myth that really happened, and one that Carlene Carter engages beautifully with on her latest recording, Carter Girl. Carlene is June Carter’s daughter, and Maybelle was her grandmother. Carl Smith was her father, and her stepfather was Johnny Cash. Carlene has had a career of her own as country singer, one that we would typically think of as new country. She’s dabbled in the Carter songbook from time to time, including a record of “Dixie Darling,” though for the most part I suspect that her listenership is not one that comes to her from the Original Carter Family or from the world of acoustic Americana and bluegrass. They, and perhaps others, won’t notice that seven of the songs on this disc are Carter Family songs, nor do they need to.
But for those of us who know these songs, such as “Give me the Roses,” “Gold Watch and Chain,” and “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” what Carlene is doing here is fascinating. They are old songs, though here they aren’t distinguished that way at all. Here they are just songs, with a message and a delivery so modern that they could have been written yesterday. It’s a reminder that the reason these songs have been with us so long is because the sentiments within them are so honest. AP wasn’t writing/arranging (or plagiarizing) for an audience of millions, but rather for his neighbors. He was finding the stories within the songs that was comforting to those who have experienced the loss of love, have braved the minor injustices of life, and who were struggling with conflicted feelings of one sort of another. “I’ll be all smiles tonight” is a feeling I think we’ve all had, and that’s exactly how Carlene delivers it here: it’s not a piece of our musical history, it’s a presentation of an idea. Same with “Give me the Roses While I Live.” Hearing it in this recording I’m wondering why I’ve never thought to learn to play it myself. The new context that Carlene gives these song can also act to remind us of how deftly they have been assembled; “Roses” manages to keep the message from becoming maudlin simply through some skilled word choice. Have a listen with this in mind and you can see how AP was carefully avoiding some pretty obvious thematic potholes.
Also here is Carlene’s own story, particularly in “Me and the Wildwood Flower” and “Lonesome Valley.” The first of these is a song she has recorded before, beautifully recalling the life of the Carter family at home when Maybelle was still alive. In the second, Carlene begins with a song that is indelibly AP, “Lonesome Valley,” though with new verses that she wrote. The juxtaposition of these two things—AP’s alienation and Carlene’s reminiscences of moments in her family life—works brilliantly and beautifully. If you are familiar with the names she mentions—Rosie, June, Mama, Helen, Daddy—there is a dimension that comes from the awareness that they are real people who all, in one way or another, walked alone. Then again, if you have no idea who they are, I’m not sure the song lacks any of its power. It’s a chilling rumination on something we all struggle with.
So, no, this isn’t a bluegrass album and, to be frank, I felt my interest in it would be as a novelty, a knickknack in the long history of the Carter family. In fact, it’s a delight on all sorts of levels, not the least of which being that the album achieves so beautifully, entertainingly, the thing that it set out to do: revisit the fold.