The Carter Family: Into The Valley

FIRST KILL YOUR HOG. SKIN IT, singe off the hairs and leave the hide to soften. Tug it over a round frame, whittle out a neck, "and there's your banjo", says Roni Stoneman.

"The five-string banjo is the only American instrument. The black people brought the four-string banjo, but the five-stringer and the clawhammer style came from the mountains." Roni, elderly Southern belle and professional banjo player, is one of the 15 of Ernest 'Pops' Stoneman's 23 children who made it to adulthood. "A lot of people made their own instruments. There wasn't much money around, but there was plenty of music in these here mountains, way before 1927. You just played for each other, for the frolics when the chores were done on Saturday night."

The Appalachians, they say, are the world's oldest mountains, and Clinch Mountain the oldest peak. On one side of the river running along the bottom lies Poor Valley – its land, presumably, less fertile than Rich Valley on the other side. Right now, in the sweltering, humid Virginia summer, it's lush and verdant, its hills perfectly green and rolling like a Teletubbies set, with the odd wooden shack decomposing here and there. The tiny, rickety log cabin in Poor Valley where A.P. Carter and his seven siblings were born and raised is still standing – just. Soon it will be moved and restored alongside the Carter museum a mile up the road they've renamed the A.P. Carter Highway. It was a dirt road back in 1927 when A.P. packed his wife Sara – together with his brother's 18-year-old, eight-months-pregnant wife Maybelle, Sara's baby, an eight-year-old daughter to babysit, Sara's autoharp and Maybelle's Stella guitar – into a borrowed car and made the day-long, 26-mile drive to Bristol for what Maybelle's future son-in-law Johnny Cash would describe as "the single most important event in the history of country music".

In the summer of '27, Ralph Peer, a 35-year-old record executive and 'race' music specialist from New York spent 12 days in a disused hat warehouse on State Street in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border. There he recorded 76 sides by 19 different acts, including minister Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet and Blind Alfred Reed, and bands with names like the West Virginia Coon Hunters and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Plus Ernest Stoneman, who had recorded 'The Sinking Of The Titanic' for Peer three years earlier, and "which was selling like hot-cakes", says Roni's big sister Patsy. It was Stoneman's idea to come to the mountains on a talent search, since the mountains sure weren't going to come to New York. But it was two acts recorded during the second week that made the Bristol Sessions legendary. A yodelling, tuberculoid railwayman from Meridian, Mississippi named Jimmie Rodgers, and a trio from the mountains, The Carter Family.

There had been country records by many other names – "mountain music", "old-time music", "rural monologue with violin specialty"; Peer was the first to use the "hillbilly" tag – before Bristol's 'big band'. In 1923 Peer had recorded what's accepted as the first country record, Fiddlin' John Carson's 'Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane'. He thought it "pluperfect awful", hating the shoddy sound of the primitive acoustic recording. And there had been others since – Stoneman; Dock Boggs; Uncle Dave Macon; Vernon Dalhart's million-selling 'Wreck Of The Old '97'. But by advertising for musicians locally and taking the "recording laboratory" to them – something made possible by the very recent invention of electric recording – Peer had not only given the country music business a kick-start, he'd also snared 'The Father Of Country Music' (Rodgers) and 'Country's First Family' (Carters) – the country equivalent of Father, Mother, Son and Holy Ghost.

All country music since can be traced back to the Carters' sober, stoic songs about church, family and hardship or Rodgers' insouciant numbers about rambling, law-breaking and women; the Carters' vision of the simple, rural home or Rodgers' America of wide-open spaces and glittering rails; Rodgers' yodel and his appropriation/adaptation of the blues and the Carters' harmonies and appropriation/adaptation of traditional ballads and hymns (andblack spirituals and blues; it would take a team of musicologists working around the clock to untangle the complex black-and-white, church-and-secular roots. Both took these borrowed and invented musical elements and shaped them into a sound distinctly their own, creating songs ('Will The Circle Be Unbroken', 'Wildwood Flower', 'Lovesick Blues') that became country standards.

Bob Dylan is a huge Rodgers fan, but the day he met Johnny Cash the first thing he asked was, "Have you met A.P. Carter?" Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was born in 1891 on the Methodist side of the mountain. The Methodists didn't hold too much with singing, "except in the church", says his daughter Janette, and certainly not with "frolicking" (still don't; an old banjo player performing at the Carter Fold's 75th anniversary show ordered dancers to sit down during a lively spiritual). "They called the fiddle the 'devil's box'," says Roni Stoneman. A.P. could play fiddle but refused to do it on record. He was taciturn, imaginative, taken to wandering, and his hands and voice shook since childhood with the palsy – his mother blamed a lightning storm when she was pregnant. It was a fine voice, though; he sang bass in the church and at his uncle's singing school. Always restless (his jobs included carpenter, farmer, foundryman, sawmill operator and storekeeper) he'd come back home from working the railroad to be a fruit-tree salesman. Heading over Clinch Mountain, on foot, with his catalogue, to Copper Creek – a day's walk – he heard a 16-year-old girl singing in a bold, distinctive voice a ballad called 'Engine 143', about a local engine driver who burned to death. He fell in love.

Sara Dougherty's nickname was Jake; she carried herself with the self-possession of a man. Musician/musicologist Mike Seeger, who met her, talks of her "regal" bearing. "She was a proud lady," says her son Joe, now in his seventies, "and carried herself like one, but she could shoot a gun and smoked these old Wings cigarettes." Sara's mother died when Sara was three, and she was sent to an aunt and uncle in Rich Valley, on the Baptist side of the mountain – the dancing side. "She danced real good," says Joe's elder sister Janette Carter. Sara also played banjo, autoharp and guitar, and liked the way A.P sang. Nevertheless, she made him make the day-long walk over the mountain – two ridges, a river, six creeks – for a year before agreeing to marry him in 1915. They moved to a two-room cabin with an earth floor, and worked together cutting timber for the paper mills, sometimes performing together at 'conventions', where people from the county got together and sang, usually spirituals. Sara's voice was said to have moved people so much they'd press money into her hands.

Sara's young cousin Maybelle would come by and play – she too played autoharp and banjo, until at 13 her brothers bought her a guitar from a mail-order catalogue. She developed the rhythmic style they call the "Carter scratch", picking out the melody on the bass string with the thumb and brushing the chords on the high strings. In 1926, aged 16, she eloped to Bristol with A.P.'s younger brother. Eck had well-paid work as a mail clerk on the railroad, and was the first person in the valley to own a car. When A.P pleaded to borrow it – and Eck's wife – to try out as recording artists, he was less than enthusiastic. Joe: "Daddy had to agree to hoe the weeds out of Eck's corn patch for him for two days afore he'd agree,"

A.P. had seen an ad in the Bristol newspaper: "The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records." Peer was paying $50 a side for whatever he recorded. Sara – who'd had experience with talent-scouts; A.P brought one home from one of his frequent trips and he'd turned them down because only 'race' records had female lead singers – pooh-poohed the idea: "Ain't nobody gonna pay us that much money to hear us sing." Then a few days later a story appeared with the even more tempting information that Stoneman's records had earned him a then-enormous $3,500 the previous year. The journey through the foothills, over rocky roads and fording the River, was an ordeal in the stifling heat. The thin tyres frequently burst; the puncture-patches melted. They stayed at A.P.'s sister's, whose husband also planned to audition, and the next day, in their Sunday best, joined the crowd outside the warehouse.

Peer's first impressions of the Carters weren't good. "The women are country women from way back there – calico clothes on. The children look like hillbillies." And baby Joe was screaming to be fed. But when he heard them perform, he invited them straight back to record – upstairs, where the walls were buffered with quilts, a microphone hung from the ceiling, and a scaffold with a complex system of pulleys and weights powered the turntable, rural electricity being highly unreliable. The Carters went home $300 richer.

By October, 11 of the Bristol groups had records out on the 'New Orthoponic Victor Southern Series', but not the Carters. Peer too had reservations about female leads, and was somewhat perturbed by A.P.'s way of leaving a song mid-way and wandering about. "He just sang every now and then," Janette wrote in her book Living With Memories. "He would walk to and fro, even on stage. He drove my mother and Maybelle up a wall!" A.P didn't even show up for the second session. "Someone said to him, 'You don't do much, do you?'" says Seeger, "and he said, 'No, I just bass in sometimes.' But he didn't just come in whimsically. I've listened to those recordings closely, taught their harmonies in folk music camps, and if you try singing bass in places where he didn't it doesn't work. What A.P. did on those songs was quite ingenious, very different from the harmony singing of the time, Sara too. They crossed parts, something you think of as very modern, and did unisons, which people in those days didn't like to do at all. And Maybelle's musicianship was amazing."

'The Poor Orphan Child' finally appeared in November, selling 100,000. Peer, who offered to manage them, invited them to New Jersey to record more. He said to bring as many new songs as they could find, and they came with a variety – "English" (traditional) songs, hymns, scaffold songs, murder ballads, work songs, parlour songs, vaudeville numbers from the "ballets" (song sheets) sold at the travelling tent shows, and all sorts of amalgams. They'd ask neighbours and friends, and piece songs together like Chinese whispers.

"A.P.," says The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks, "is probably single-handedly responsible for saving many ancient folk songs that otherwise might have drifted off into the ether. At the same time they had that understanding that simple melodies and simple stories of everyday life can hold within them moments of pure transcendent magic. You could write a book about 'Wildwood Flower' and talk about the strains of medieval poetry, the beautiful guitar work, the soft and simple harmonies. But mostly, I think about how the simple act of twining flowers into your hair can heal a broken heart."

With his third of the royalty cheques, A.P. bought a red Chevrolet. He used it to ferry his sow across his land to the stud pig and to tow home the sawmills he became addicted to buying. He also used it for the band's 'tours' – usually regional churches and schools; 25 cent tickets and a sign declaring "The Program Is Morally Good". During 1928-9 their record sales were second only to Jimmie Rodgers, but their approach remained far more homespun. (The contrasts were highlighted on the odd 'skit' record the Carters and Rodgers made together in 1931.) Sara bought a motorbike with her share, Maybelle a top-of-the-range Gibson arch-top L5 guitar, which she played the rest of her life, but it didn't even occur to them to give up work.

As the growing record industry demanded more product, A.P. took off in his Chevy to look for songs. Often he took along Lesley Riddle, a one-legged black blues musician he'd seen playing in nearby Kingsport and invited home; A.P. wasn't much for social norms. "My mother bought him his first leg," recalls Joe. "He could play really good." A.P. had problems remembering melodies, so Riddle would memorise them and teach them to Maybelle and Sara when they got back (he tried teaching A.P. guitar, but failed). Problems only arose at night-time – the strangers who put A.P. up drew the line at accommodating a black man.

It was his father's frequent absences, Joe surmises, that caused his mother to go. "He just left her for quite a long time and didn't think of his obligations." One time he left his young cousin, Coy Bayes, to help with the chores. Coy and Sara fell in love. Coy's parents, stepping in, moved the family to California, claiming the climate was better for Coy's siblings – they suffered from TB, the disease that killed Rodgers in 1933. When Coy left the Valley, Sara did too, moving back to her aunt and uncle's at Copper Creek.

A few weeks later, Peer summoned them to record for new label The American Record Company. Sara refused, but with the Depression biting and money hard to come by, she relented. Her departure hadn't helped A.P.'s fierce, Old Testament moodiness, and the 1934 sessions included songs pointedly about an errant wife. After their divorce in '36 they carried on recording, now for upstart new label Decca. These sessions were some of their best, but sales were poor. There was little spare cash around for records. Even Pops Stoneman was back working in a factory. Then the group were offered a residency at one of the big new radio stations on the Mexican border that circumvented US laws about the wattage power of regional stations. These 'super transmitters' broadcast nationwide. And just as local bar-owners had worked out that music helped them sell drinks, the businessmen who owned the stations knew bands could help them sell their products on a grander scale. Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation of Chicago gave them a massive $4,000 apiece to move to Texas and play two shows a day at XERA for six months. Listeners could send in CRCCC bottle-tops for a free Bible signed by the Carters.

"Imagine how powerful it must have been to hear The Carter Family on the radio and think, This is my music, this is speaking to me, then go out and buy the record and hear it again, at a time when records were so new," says Gillian Welch. XERA increased the group's national acclaim. Listeners included Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams (who would later fall for Maybelle's youngest daughter, Anita – as would Elvis), Johnny Cash (who would marry Maybelle's daughter June) and Coy Bayes. He heard the love song 'Sara' dedicated to him, drove to Texas and married her. Janette says the wedding broke her father's heart. The radio station thought so too; they said his forlorn voice was upsetting the listeners and sent him home. Sara and Maybelle finished the shows alone.

They returned for another season – this time with Maybelle's young daughters playing – but when XERA closed down in the early '40s, so pretty much did The Carter Family. After a final session (for Victor again) in 1943, Sara went back to the California trailer park where she lived with Coy, and A.P. went home to the mountains. While 'Mother Maybelle' continued to perform with the 'Carter Sisters' – Eck, who had retired, became their manager, hiring Chet Atkins on second guitar – A.P. went back to carpentry. He built homes for his children and a general store for himself that, typically, he only opened when he felt like it. It's now the Carter Museum, part of the Carter Fold, the weekly, old-time music acoustic venue that Janette set up to fulfil her father's dying wish to "keep the music alive". A.P. died in 1960, a few weeks before a large royalty cheque arrived for The Kingston Trio's hit recording of his 'Worried Man Blues'.

© Sylvie Simmons, 2002

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