with Charles Hirshberg
Alvin Pleasant Carter fell for the voice before he even knew which girl it belonged to. Trudging over Clinch Mountain toward his cousin’s house to try to sell fruit trees out of a catalog to his relatives, A.P. was struck by an alto singing the train-wreck ballad “Engine 143.” It took some time for his affection to be returned, but he eventually won Sara Dougherty over. When asked in later years what had been responsible for her attraction to A.P., Sara would profess an admiration of his voice. “A.P.’s main savior was his bass,” she said.
When the two were married, on June 18, 1915, A.P. was 23 years old and Sara was nearly 17. In the mid-’20s, with the addition of Sara’s younger cousin Maybelle Addington on guitar, the Carters became a popular amateur attraction around their neck of southwestern Virginia. When Maybelle married A.P.’s brother Eck, she became a Carter, too. And when the Carter Family recorded for Victor A&R man Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tenn., on Aug. 1, 1927, the group became the stuff of legend.
The performing partnership lasted about a decade longer than Sara and A.P.’s marriage, as might be expected given that musical affinity seems to have been the only unforced aspect of their rather strained relationship. By the time, in 1943, Sara retired and went to join her second husband, A.P.’s cousin Coy Bayes (ne Bays), in California, the Carter Family had waxed hundreds of sides for Victor, ARC, Decca, APS, Columbia, and Bluebird and cut hundreds more songs for radio transcriptions to be played on the high-powered stations that lit up the country from across the Mexican border before World War II.
As Sara and A.P. faded from sight, Maybelle turned her daughters, Helen, June, and Anita, into a polished band of troupers that toured tirelessly throughout the ’40s and ’50s. In the ’60s, Maybelle herself was rediscovered and feted by the young turks of the folk revival, and June hitched the family bandwagon to Johnny Cash’s roadshow, later marrying the man in charge. By the time Maybelle died, in 1978, 18 years after A.P. and only a couple of months before Sara, she had become the most famous of the three, the matriarch of country music: Mother Maybelle.
Seventy-five years after the Carter Family’s first session, public-television documentarian Mark Zwonitzer and music writer and Popular Science editor Charles Hirshberg have published the first full-length, cradle-to-grave biography of the First Family of Country Music. (Michael Orgill’s Anchored in Love: The Carter Family Story can’t be considered serious competition; it’s difficult to tell whether this sanitized 1975 attempt was intended for young-adult readers.) Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music is a book many fans of early country have been waiting years for, the lack of a proper monograph having been made all the more apparent by Rounder Records’ nine-volume CD reissue of the Carters’ Victor recordings in the mid- to late ’90s and Bear Family’s definitive, multi-label 12-disc box set in 2000.
What Zwonitzer and Hirshberg have delivered is a diverting popular treatment, written in a folksy, colloquial style that only rarely clatters. It’s a storybook, almost a paraphrased oral history, packed with colorful episodes in the lives of the Carters and their kin. Both Sara and A.P. were born in the last decade of the 19th century, Maybelle in the first decade of the 20th, and their lives are set against the backdrop of those 20th-century industrial forces—recording, radio, internal combustion—that made cultural isolation a thing of the past, forever altering the meaning of “country.”
The authors’ greatest success is in creating a palpable sense of place and time, particularly when laying out the remote hills and hollows of Appalachia before the ’20s. This was back when local transportation meant walking for hours, the only artificial light came from kerosene lamps, and the Big City was Kingsport, Tenn., a town described to me as recently as the mid-’80s—by one of its own sons, no less—as “a place where the family trees go like this [at which my guide cut his hands down sharply into the point of an inverted triangle], instead of like that [drawing them apart in the expected fashion].”
A few evenings after Maybelle’s March 1926 wedding, friends and neighbors turned out to treat Eck to a “shivaree…a vaguely barbaric and unsettling old pagan ritual wherein a new husband (and sometimes a new fiance) is stripped down, tied to a greasy pole, slathered with assorted and odoriferous substances, and carried around his house and outbuildings.” When the revelers were met by the enraged figure of Eck’s father, they simply chose him instead.
But by the spring of 1933, such shenanigans seemed a world away. The Carters were stars, their fame cemented with a stream of black shellac, but Sara and A.P. were on the outs and Peer’s wife, Anita, was called in to make things right—the important things, at least. “I have been divorced once myself…” she wrote to Sara, “so I can sympathize with you perfectly, and I will be glad of a chance to talk to you and perhaps give you the benefit of my experience….Isn’t there some way you can get together and fix up some songs for recording?…I’ll do anything you suggest to get things organized again. Even if you never live together again you could get together for professional purposes like movie stars do.” This was perhaps cold comfort to a woman from a culture in which divorce, though scarcely unheard of, even today remains so taboo that the subject was verboten when a New York Times reporter recently visited A.P. and Sara’s daughter Janette. But the Great Depression was colder still, and work was welcome.
However strong the Carters’ ties to home remained, their value to the ever-developing instruments of the mass media drew them away. Staying together for the act meant moving to Del Rio, Texas, in 1938. There they lived for six months at a time, cranking out the down-home entertainment that lured far-flung rubes into the clutches of one of America’s most unscrupulous and successful hucksters.
Already a good read, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? shifts into high gear for its mini-biography of “Doctor” John Romulus Brinkley, a brazen quack who broadcast promises to restore male potency through his own south-of-the-border bullhorn, the million-watt XERA. By the time the good doctor’s empire collapsed, in the early ’40s, he had made a fortune by grafting goat testes to their human counterparts—and lost it when a number of patients who hadn’t died started levying complaints in the courts.
Inappropriately, the ballad of Dr. Brinkley sings like no other section of the book. It’s so vivid a story that part of it is bumped up to the prologue. Never mind that the Brinkley episode falls at the denouement of the Original Carter Family arc and that he is much less important to their career than Peer, the steely-eyed businessman who also first recorded Jimmie Rodgers—and erected a publishing empire around his two premier signings. Peer, like the Carters themselves, pales in comparison to Brinkley, whom, one gathers, Zwonitzer and Hirshberg would have preferred to write about had he not already attracted a biographer decades ago.
If Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone at times feels like an authorized biography, that’s because the authors seem to have expended little effort in going after the stories survivors didn’t want to tell. And it doesn’t help that the three Carters gave so little of themselves away while they were living. By the end of the book, we carry distinct images of them—Maybelle: saintly, sphinxlike, and capable of bringing any wild dog of a man to heel with a flash of her pale blue eyes; Sara: distant and “regal,” with no love of fame and little nostalgia for the career she abandoned; A.P.: driven, undemonstrative, restless, and “wifty,” which, in the neighborhood of Clinch Mountain, means roughly what “pixilated” did around the stomping grounds of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds. But A.P. and Sara remain essentially unknowable, and Maybelle develops chiefly in relation to her years with the second-generation Carter act, an account of which constitutes the brisk but fairly conventional showbiz narrative that occupies the last 150 pages of the book and whose high points are Cash’s drug terrors and Maybelle’s benign quest for the loosest slots in town.
The story speeds up as it nears the finish, and it becomes peppered with questionable gaps. Youngsters may not recall, but Carl Smith is not a country music footnote. He’s a bona fide country music star, the fourth biggest artist of the ’50s, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Country Singles. And he was married to June Carter for four years at the peak of his stardom. So how come he rates about as much ink as Edwin “Rip” Nix, who was June’s husband for a few years long after he’d peaked, on the college gridiron?
Any book that purports to essay the Carters’ “legacy in American music” needs to devote considerable space to matters both musical, such as the development of acoustic guitar styles, and mercantile, such as the precedent set by A.P. in making copyright claims on material he did not write. Zwonitzer and Hirshberg don’t entirely ignore either subject, but, having stirred their readers’ curiosity, they consistently pull up short. The ideal Carter Family biographer would be not just a storyteller but also a scholar of the music business, an expert in the evolution of popular song, and an acute critic, able to discern whether it indeed takes a wifty man to sing a wifty song.
As for sourcing the Carters’ material, a subject that could fill a volume all its own, the authors examine in moderate detail only the best-known case—”Wildwood Flower”—and elsewhere tend to let the matter slide, implying that this is the province of folklorists, scholars, and other obsessed, sandal-wearing geeks. Perhaps, as someone who has spent days tracking down publishers for Kingston Trio arrangements of material that is in the public domain, I fall into this category, but I don’t find it satisfactory to let stand without explanation the assertion that no A.P. Carter copyright was ever subject to a legal challenge, especially when you consider that more than a few of them staked claims to already published material.
A few visual aids would also have been in order, perhaps a map of the Virginia-Tennessee border similar to the one used for the endpapers of the book that accompanies the Bear Family box set, so we could follow A.P. on his song-gathering treks. And how about a foldout family tree? Any clan that has a Carter of indeterminate paternity, whose mother was once married to William A. Bays, marrying a Bays known to have descended from William H. Bays—not to mention two appearances of the name Ettaleen—is no less worthy of graphical explication than the Plantagenets. (We could use a periodic table of Addingtons, too. How else to keep straight which of Maybelle’s brothers was nicknamed Deejer, Sawcat, Doc, Toobe, or Bug?)
Such lapses aside, it’s impossible not to recommend Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? to anyone interested in the development of American popular music or in the foremost group from the early days of
recorded country. But a thorough critical biography of the Carter Family is still desperately needed. And, for the tenacious reporter who acts fast, I’d be willing to bet there are a few more tales to be teased out of those hills. CP