I’ll be quite upfront. I have come late – very late – to this particular party. To have reached the age of 74 without having taken much – if any notice – of the Carter Family is very much my loss. My interest – and then passion bordering on mania – was watching a segment devoted to them on the Ken Burns documentary film Country Music. Cue a huge Amazon buy and hours transferring the CDs to my computer. So, what’s all the fuss about? A brief biography first.
The original Carter Family comprised Maybelle Carter, guitar and harmony vocals, Sarah Carter, autoharp and lead vocals and her husband Alvin Pleasant Delaney (AP) Carter, occasional singer, founder of the group and collector/arranger of songs. Maybelle and Sarah were cousins and sisters in law, as Maybelle had married AP’s brother Ezra. They began playing together at social events and family occasions, in and around south-western Virginia, and in 1927 would begin a recording career which spanned almost twenty years. The trio somehow survived the break-up of the marriage between Sarah and AP, and her relocation to California. Sarah and Maybelle still occasionally played together into the 1960s, by which time their influence on country music had become profound. and recognised. One of Maybelle’s children, June, married Johnny Cash, to establish something of a Country Music royal family. Maybelle also performed with her three daughters. Here is a live recording from the 1960s, with Sarah and Maybelle performing Cannonball Blues.
THE MUSIC: The songs
So, what is so special about the Carter Family and their songs? AP Carter’s ‘day job’ at one time, was traveling salesman.and he was a voracious collector of the songs that he heard as he moved from town to town. He clearly had a very good ear for melody. The words were almost certainly written down, but the tunes would have been just carried in his head. The songs are from a broad spread of different traditions. Some – in the lyrics at least – are clearly versions of songs that would have come over from the British Isles centuries earlier, while others are clearly 19th century American hymns and religious songs. Regarding the British songs, there is little or no sign of the modal tonality that you hear in later transcriptions of such songs by people like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. The astonishing thing is that overwhelming majority of Carter Family songs are what musicians call ‘three chord tricks’. In other words their harmonic structure is Tonic, Sub-Dominant and Dominant. Chord-wise, that means, if we are in the key of C, they use C major, F major G major and G seven. I have listened to dozens and dozens of recordings, and it is quite remarkable that they never seem to use a minor chord. The songs are almost always played using guitar chords in the key of C. That is not to say that the songs are in the absolute key of C, as Maybelle would use a capo. as well as detuning her guitar by as much as three or four semitones.
THE MUSIC: Maybelle’s guitar style
It is no exaggeration to say that Maybelle Carter was one of the great innovators of guitar music. In terms of what she achieved she is up there with the greats alongside Reinhardt, Hendrix, Clapton, Cooder and – in her own genre, players like Doc Watson and Chet Atkins. I am a guitarist myself, and have been playing for over fifty years. It’s a good job I never had to earn my living from it, but I consider myself a reasonable amateur player. What Maybelle Carter did sounds elementary on the records, but when one comes to try and copy the style it is very, very difficult. She had several different techniques, but her signature style was what is known as ‘The Carter Scratch’. She plays melody with her thumb on the lower guitar strings, while using her index finger to strum out a percussive rhythm of the higher strings. She occasionally uses a different finger picking style, picked up from black blues players, which is more akin to ragtime syncopation.
THE MUSIC: Sarah Carter
Sarah’s autoharp is an important feature on all the recordings. It backs up the incessant rhythm of Maybelle’s guitar, but because its strings are tuned much higher, it cuts through in the treble frequencies and provides an important texture to the music. Crucially, though, when you listen to a Carter Family recording it is mostly Sarah’s voice you hear. It would be wrong to call it a thing of beauty. It has a hard edge, with an almost masculine timbre. There is never any vibrato, but intonation-wise it is spot on every time, right in the middle of the note. The lyrics she sings are almost always shorn of pretension or ambiguity. They speak of simple truths – love, life, death, hardship, betrayal, joy and sorrow. Her voice tells it like it is. There is no doubt, no nuance but instead, utter conviction and sincerity.
The Carter Family were giants in the world of Country Music, of that there can be no doubt. They stand up there on the summit – for me, at least – unrivaled by any anyone else. Other huge talents – like Hank Williams, George Jones, Bill Munro, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Scruggs and Flatt – are on the mountain too, but none could claim the far reaching influence of the trio of Virginians. Crucially, their sound went wider than the (admittedly large) niche of Country music. Maybelle’s guitar playing broke new ground, admittedly, but it was the harmony singing which, I believe, we hear echoes of in so many performers in popular music across the later decades of the twentieth century. The Chordettes, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles and their imitators, The Eagles – when I hear them sing, I hear Sarah, Maybelle and AP. The Carter Family had a signature tune called Keep On The Sunny Side. In anyone else’s hands it would probably be reduced to banal optimism, but when they sing it, it’s transformed into something that reaches out across the darkness that everyone faces at sometime in their lives, and tells us to battle on and trust in whatever God we believe in.