A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
By Roy Kasten
The third in Rounder's epic reissues of the Carter Family's Victor recordings (9 CDs total) finds the trio cresting on the success of their first 78s but approaching tough Depression years. Most of the songs were recorded in one or two takes in Atlanta, and though over 60 years old, the quality is nearly hiss free, warm, and house-concert immediate. The instrumentation features, for the first time, Maybelle's big Gibson "F Hole," which ebbs and surges (one can nearly see the trio sway to and fro at the microphone) with complete confidence. Maybelle's playing is so fleet and rousing on "Cannonball" that one is tempted to call it rock'n roll, especially when A.P. sings "She's gone, she's solid gone...."
The Carter Family harmonies are, of course, a glory. "No Telephone in Heaven" shows the Hill Country musicians unblinkingly combining comedy and pathos. "Fond Affection" features lilting slide work, graceful yodeling by Sara, and capping harmonies by A.P.. These early recordings are especially wonderful as we hear the full trio more frequently than on later and better known songs (and those who own various Carter Family "Best of" collections will find few repeats here). Sara's voice is still the lynch pin, while Maybelle and A.P. offer tremulous counterpoint. But A.P.'s low, quaking voice, when he sings solo, is modest, clear and wise. When all three voices come together, as on "When the World's on Fire" (where Guthrie perhaps found the melody for "This Land is Your Land"?) the Carters created something absolutely rare: eternal documents of human hope and frailty.
The fine liner notes by Charles K. Wolfe make clear the diverse sources for the Carters' material. The family learned much from black guitarist Leslie Riddle, who gave them a model for gospel performance and shaped Maybelle's thumb-strum picking style. Civil War songbooks, ballets, black face minstrels, and the ever-circulating sheet music also formed their eclectic repertoire. The last is especially important, as sheet music publishers often brought to the south songs later labeled "traditional" by folk music collectors. In fact, many traditional songs had commercial sources hardly indigenous to the region. Therein lies the Carters' magic: they could overlay harmonies on a textbook weeper like "A Distant Land to Roam" and stamp it with Scott County integrity.
How can we measure our debt to the Carter Family? Were we to seek out the identity, the true tick-making of the deepest, most enduring strains of country and folk, we should find the Carters' staid shadows, hear the cosmic consonance of their voices. If they didn't literally own these songs, no one could better interpret them. For the Carter's combined a professional musician's care and confidence, an ear for clarity and accessibility, with the unbearable honesty of Sara's shape-note singing. Fans of today's acoustic boom owe it to themselves and their cultural heritage to overlook any fear of twangy voices, and seek out the Carter Family's recordings, truly the roots of the music we love.
[Edited by Shawn Linderman]