The Carter Family, The Carter Family 1927-1934

Kurt Wolff

By Kurt Wolff

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The Carter Family is country music royalty, a group whose legacy remains firm to this day and whose songs are among country music's most crucial foundations. From its first recordings in 1927, the original trio (A.P. Carter, his wife and lead vocalist Sara Carter and Sara's cousin, guitarist Maybelle Carter) brought rural folk music out of the mountains and into the homes, minds and memories of people across the nation. Gathered from numerous local sources by stoic A.P., their repertoire centered around traditional old-time songs like "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Wildwood Flower" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" — some folk and gospel numbers passed down through generations, others Tin Pan Alley creations and parlor ditties picked up by rural musicians. The Carters weren't the first to play such tunes in a commercial context, but their exceptional musicianship, tight harmonies and professional drive quickly gained them nationwide popularity and a lasting legend.

Hailing from rural Virginia, the original Carters debuted at the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions in the Virginia/Tennessee border town of Bristol. They went on to record hundreds of sides, mostly for Victor but also for such labels as Decca and Columbia. They split in 1943, with Maybelle and the Carter Sisters (her daughters Helen, Anita and June) bringing the Carter legacy into the modern country music era. Today, nearing a century old, the original Carter Family music holds up beautifully — it may be simple and a bit creaky, but it remains gorgeous, sturdy, vivid and haunting.

The Carter Family first recorded at the Bristol Sessions in 1927, and those six sides (including folk ballad "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and the peppy "Single Girl, Married Girl") kick off the 25 tracks on Disc 1. The rest were cut at RCA's Camden, New Jersey studios in 1928 and '29 and include the signature songs "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes."

The Carters 'repertoire consisted mostly of old-time gospel, folk, and parlor tunes "collected" and in some cases rewritten by A.P. (he and the group's producer Ralph Peer also copyrighted them). Recorded between 1929 and 1930 in New Jersey, Georgia and Tennessee, the songs on Disc Two include the lively classic "Wabash Cannonball," sad ballads like "Dying Soldier" and "Jimmie Brown the Newsboy" and the contemporary-themed "No Telephone in Heaven."

The Depression hampered many musicians 'careers, but Carter Family records still sold fairly well, their humble style and pastoral subjects retaining their appeal to rural sensibilities. Cut in Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia between 1930 and '32, the selections on Disc 3 run from the sentimental ("Darling Nellie Across the Sea") and stoic ("Room in Heaven for Me") to nutty skit-songs involving a fellow hillbilly music star ("Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family").

By the mid '30s, A.P. and Sara's marriage was crumbling — they eventually separated but continued recording together. That personal situation (plus the ongoing Depression) may have inspired the strong, upright tone behind some of the recordings on Disc 4, from the evangelical "We Will March Through the Streets of the City" to the dry take on "See That My Grave Is Kept Green" (a cover of a 19th-century sentimental number that inspired Blind Lemon Jefferson's more famous "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean").

The Carters remained in the Victor fold until 1935, when they switched to the ARC label (and then Decca). The songs on Disc Five (cut at two New Jersey sessions in 1934) again showcase their typical array of gospel and sentimental songs (such as "Hello Central! Give Me Heaven," in which a girl tries "calling" her mother in the Great Upstairs) with a few western numbers thrown in, too, like the sweet "Cowboy's Wild Song to His Herd."