Southwest Virginia, the place I call home, has a rich musical history. Our esteemed Commonwealth has done an admirable job of marketing this legacy through The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a series of venues and historic sites in the beautiful Virginia mountains that document the region’s music. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, consider a drive along the Crooked Road, taking in a few stops to hear some tunes.
While many musicians have called this region home, three particular Virginians constitute one of the most important families in the history of American music. Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. Carter, collectively known as The Carter Family, first came to national attention after the seminal 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee (sometimes known as the “Big Bang of Country Music”), and went on to record for over dozen years. They wrote and sang such classics as “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower,” earning the moniker “The First Family of Country Music” along the way. This month’s column will explore the heritage of the Carter Family as described on a handful of websites.
What made The Carter Family so important? According to Bill C. Malone, in his authoritative history Country Music, USA, “when the Carters sang, they evoked images of the country church, Mama and Daddy, the family fireside, and the ‘green fields of Virginia far away.’” They had a distinctive, now iconic vocal style, accompanied by an equally distinctive instrumental sound. Indeed, Maybelle’s thumb-brushed bass string melody technique was so influential that, in Bill C. Malone’s words, “in the decades after 1927 it became the height of accomplishment for southern country guitarists to learn the Maybelle Carter guitar style.”
To get a sense of what their earliest work was like, check out the public domain holdings available through Internet Archive. A handful of their songs, including versions of “Church in the Wildwood” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” are available as streaming audio or free downloads here. Another set of tunes, including “No Telephone In Heaven,” is available here , while an even larger collection of 25 songs can be found here.
An online history of the Carter Family is available on Richard Matteson’s Bluegrass Messengers website. The PBS show American Experience featured a segment on the Carter Family a few years ago entitled The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The program’s website has some information about the Carters and their influence on country music, as well as an interview with Gillian Welch about the Carters’ legacy.
The Carter Family estimated that they recorded around 300 songs. For folks who need to have them all, the German label Bear Family Records released a massive 12 CD set entitled Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain. (While domestic copies are not that easy to find, you can order it from County Sales.) While we’re on the subject of music from Southwest Virginia, I’ll put in a plug for County Sales, which bills itself as “The World’s Largest Selection of Bluegrass & Old Time Music.” They have an excellent cyberstore, but they also have a great store tucked downstairs in a building in Floyd, Virginia, right on the aforementioned Crooked Road. It’s just around the corner from the Floyd Country Store, where they have old-time picking and dancing on weekends. Odds are pretty good that you’ll hear a song or two by the Carter Family there. And that would be just fine.
— Gene Hyde