The Carter Family &
Their Legacy In American Music
By Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg
Simon & Schuster, 397 pp., $25
Mark Zwonitzer's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? describes the funeral of Sara Carter, the haunting alto voice of the Carter Family, thus: "Janette [the daughter whom Sara all but abandoned to Sara's ex-husband] lost any Carter reserve she had left, and as she was taken up to the open casket for the last look at her mother, she could no longer control her sobbing. Mommy, she cried out, for something beyond that body in the casket, Mommy, Mommy." The image of a grown woman crying out like a child at the passing of a mother she lost long ago is plucked directly from some lost Carter Family song. Not a page goes by in Zwonitzer's detailed history that he does not find some way to connect the facts of the Carter Family's lives, be they cold and hard or positively jubilant, to their tremendous and tremendously important body of recorded work.
From virtually the dawn of the commercial recording industry to the Great Depression and WWII (a time when even big hillbilly stars still had to sweep spiders from the outhouse), the Carters were the musical voice of the American heartland. Will You Miss Me, almost Dickensian in its scope, misses no exotic detail or idiosyncrasy as it chronicles the Carters' steady rise from the desperate poverty of the appropriately named Poor Valley to their full-fledged superstardom playing the powerful U.S.-Mexican-border radio station XERA, which was owned and operated by a wealthy quack doctor who made his fortune grafting goat glands onto human testicles to "cure" impotence.
Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter called himself a "musicianer." But he was a self-made folklorist who collected, recorded, and, as a songwriter, drew inspiration from the charismatic gospel, lean blues, and ancient balladry of the region surrounding his Clinch Mountain home in rural Virginia. His love of old songs transcended even the racial hatred of the Jim Crow South, and long before Elvis garnered an undeserved degree of infamy for recording the songs of such well-known African-American artists as Big Mama Thornton, A.P. was searching for a way to shatter the race barriers in music. The recordings he and his musically inclined family made of these same songs represent the virtual fountainhead of both folk and country music.
According to Zwonitzer, A.P. was delusional when he gave up the ghost at his Poor Valley home in the shadow of Clinch Mountain. Not at all surprising for a man who lived his life in a sort of self-involved daydream -- a daydream that cost him his marriage, his band, much of his livelihood, and a great deal of recognition. In his last hours, he thought he was performing again with the Carter Family, and he would call out song selections for Sara, his long-absent ex-wife, to perform. He died without the money for a proper monument but with substantial landholdings to pass on to his children. The local paper even failed to carry an obituary. Zwonitzer renders the character of A.P. with such tremendous detail, you feel like he's standing in the room with you, asking if you have any old song you'd be willing to part with, and yet he remains an enigma both powerful and powerfully tragic: the very model of a broken honky-tonk protagonist living with nothing but memories of a time when life was full of love and excitement.
A.P.'s sister-in-law Mother Maybelle Carter, whose innovative and influential guitar playing as well as her generosity of spirit and unfailing moral compass made her the living patron saint of country music, passed quietly in her sleep after a triumphant evening at a bingo parlor where she won $50. Her career stretched well into the age of television, and her death drew international media attention. Like everyone who ever met her, Zwonitzer treats Maybelle with nothing but affection and respect.
From the generally exploitative business of the nascent recording industry to the rise of radio and television, Zwonitzer never misses an opportunity to define his subjects in terms of history and technology. By chronicling the often funny and occasionally terrifying tales of generally unwanted romantic overtures from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and relating stories of Elvis Presley's youthful pranksterism, Zwonitzer places the Carters alongside the most important musical figures of the first half of the 20th century without ever letting his story drift in the direction of hagiography. In fact, the more star-studded the book becomes, the more humanizing it becomes. It reminds us that before mass media infected the world with the concept of superstardom, many of the biggest stars of pop music were just plain folks. That simple fact is, in many cases, what made them famous in the first place. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is an engrossing, entertaining, and constantly revealing portrait of the first family of country music. It never ceases to amaze and enlighten.