If you haven't heard of them, the Carter Family were just that: Alvin Pleasant Carter; his wife, Sara; and their sister-in-law Maybelle. (A.P.'s brother and Maybelle's husband had the positively Faulknerian name of Eck, but he wasn't in the band.) All three sang; Sara played an autoharp, Maybelle picked a guitar. A.P. played fiddle on occasion, grudgingly. The Carters were authentic before the word had its modern-day connotation, or needed it. They were impoverished hill-country people who came down from the Clinch Mountain ridge in southwest Virginia in a beat-up Model A to meet up with Ralph Peer and his mobile recording studio in 1927. None of the three were particularly educated, in music or anything else. Liner-note writer Charles Wolfe quotes Peer describing his first meeting with the Carters: "They wander in. ... He's dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there -- calico clothes on." And yet the Carter Family became one of the most popular "country music" combos of the late '20s and early '30s, putting out numerous records on Victor, and influencing just about everybody since in the fields of country, western, or folk, from Woody Guthrie and the Louvin Brothers to Johnny Cash and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Alex Chilton and Uncle Tupelo. (And remember that it was a Carter Family song, "No Depression," that gave the Americana movement one of its names.)
We have to call the music of the Carter Family "country music" -- quotes and all -- since the meaning of the term has changed. Nashville was but a stagnant, mosquito-breeding mudpatch when this sort of music was first played in North America. The Carter Family's songs are mostly traditional (even when credit is given to A.P. Carter or "Peer Int'l Corp") -- and traditional in those days meant songs and themes that went back hundreds of years. When the sophisticates in Boston were still powdering their wigs, packing snuff, and kissing royal ass, tunes that sounded very much like "Wildwood Flower" were being performed by the rustic folk, whether or not they dressed in overalls and calico at the time. And even songs that weren't strictly traditional -- such as "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," which started as a 19th-century parlor song -- ended up sounding traditional in the hands of folk musicians.
And though this sense of history -- along with baser concerns like disease, poverty, insularity, and stagnation -- may well lend the Carter Family discs some of their glorious creepiness, there is more to it than that. Today, the records give us an added sense of creepiness just from the antiquated techniques used to record them. Indeed, when chord progressions and vocal melodies are this simple, the music could have come from any time period. Of the six discs released in the series thus far (Anchored in Love, 1927-1928; My Clinch Mountain Home, 1928-1929; When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland, 1929-1930; Worried Man Blues, 1930; Sunshine in the Shadows, 1931-1932; Give Me the Roses While I Live, 1932-1933), the sonic tenor is like that of a lively performance heard through a dense, scratchy wall -- a perfect, active metaphor for a dead and bygone time.
The song titles themselves brood and suggest. Deep realms of subtext lurk. "Keep on the Sunny Side" implies that there is another. "Anchored in Love" carries with it connotations of ballast, weight, and death by drowning. "Lonesome Pine Special" is literally about the sound of a train, but it also sounds like a 6-foot box. The gospel title "Sunshine in the Shadows" is a blunt paradox. And "Will the Roses Bloom in Heaven," "Give Me the Roses While I Live," and "When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland" all bear with them the feel of the funereal. The traditional role of roses in funerals is to ward off the stink of death. Often, the Carter Family's music has a similar purpose: Compare the danceable three/four-time major-key strums on "The Cyclone of Rye Cove" to its lamentation about a child-killing tornado (a true story):
Oh listen today in a story I tell in sadness and tear-dimmed eyes
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way and blew our schoolhouse away ...
There were mothers so dear and fathers the same who came to this horrible scene
Searching and crying, each found their own child dying on a pillow of stone.
At one point in the song, the children in the schoolhouse actually plead with the cyclone for their lives, as if it, and every other dark force in nature, had that unforgiving, Old Testament sort of sentience. Much of the Carter Family's lyrical material demonstrates similar Appalachian fatalism and superstition. The songs were entertainment, but they were also there to record and communicate anything deemed important by the locals -- faith, history, disaster. And that, prior to the excesses of this century, was the whole purpose of art.
But far more creepy than the technicalities of the recordings and even the subject matter of the songs -- and appealing in more wholesome ways -- are the qualities of the Carter Family's voices and instrumental sounds. Before I come across as a hick-fearing reprobate, afraid to squeal like a pig, let me point out that here I literally mean the timbres, not just the rural accents. Sara's and Maybelle's voices soar in unschooled glory, even as A.P.'s deeper voice haunts the melody like something less pleasant. (Indeed, Alvin Pleasant himself may not have been too Pleasant a character.) The intonation of both the voices and the instruments is slightly off -- an effect that can make the music sound more human and immediate, but also eerie and discordant.
Granted, some of the success the Carter Family saw in their day with their Victor recordings probably had something to do with hick fear, or at least fascination. And it's not as if their art remained pristine after they descended from the Clinch Mountain ridge -- they did, after all, have a producer. When Sara yodels on "Clinch Mountain Home," it's a producer's trick -- Peer's suggestion, to emulate other successful country acts of the day, like Jimmie Rodgers -- and certainly nothing she would have been doing unrecorded in southwest Virginia. But the music's success then, and its allure today, suggests that the creepy lives on, even as a studio product. Death, disaster, and superstition are still a part of the American experience, and still something worth singing about.