Saturday, December 13, 2008

Maybelle's Guitar: 10 Favorite Riffs

Sorry not to have posted on here in awhile...

We've been hard at work on the book. Thumbnails are completed, and David has begun to render publication-size comprehensive roughs. I'm taking those and writing for-real dialogue.

It's nice to stop for a moment and consider the music that inspired us both to take on this creative project.

As much as the trio's haunting vocal blend, it's the lively, innovative guitar-work of Maybelle that gets me everytime I listen to some Carter Family favorites.

I've tried to decode some of Maybelle's oft-complex "Carter scratch" guitar lines. Some of them remain off-bounds to me. I can do a pretty mean "Cannonball," "Wildwood Flower" and "Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy," plus a couple others.

There are others that I expect I'll be trying for the rest of my days. How did Maybelle do it? Her harmonies and fretwork remain as fresh and challenging today as they must have sounded 70-ish years ago.

As a fan of Top Ten lists, I thought I'd compile my Maybelle Top Ten:

In no particular order...

John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man: A dynamic, vibrant guitar figure, with a great "high lonesome," highly modal harmonic structure, gives this Carter Family classic an immense urgency. This was the recording that really hooked me, all those years ago...

Wildwood Flower: A no-brainer. Amongst the most recognizable guitar figures of the 20th century, this elegant musical expression will continue to thrive well after you and I are long gone. I'm also fond of Chet Atkins' harmonic reimagining of the tune, which he recorded on Christmas Eve, 1953.

You Are My Flower: Maybelle at her most exotic and far-reaching. This 1938 recording must have been a real mind-blower for country musicians of the day. It still seems to reach out into the twilight zone in its manic mixture of string-band music and Latin sounds.

Hello Stranger: Maybelle most likely learned this piece from the Carters' friend and inspiration, Lesley Riddle. Riddle either wrote the song or, like A.P. so often did, cobbled it together from foraged bits and pieces. Maybelle shows a real feeling for the blues in her emotive, relaxed picking. There are times when this is my favorite CF side of them all.

If One Won't, Another Will: I will go to my grave trying to figure this #$%)@)#>": guitar line out! I think that Sara contributes something, harmonically, to this guitar figure. If not, then Maybelle apparently grew a third arm for this 1932 session. This is the most modal and adventurous of Maybelle's CF outings. The song is also quite haunting, and an under-rated piece in the CF canon.

The Cannon-ball: One of the loveliest and most enduring of the Carters' classic recordings, this cherished tune blends Maybelle's passionate, delicate and evocative guitarwork with a beautiful solo vocal by A.P. Carter. I am also fond of the 1930s re-recordings in which Sara and Maybelle share harmony vocals.

Forsaken Love: Another oft-overlooked gem in the CF catalog. Maybelle's strong guitar line bolsters this tragic lost-love plaint. I like how her picking coalesces with Sara's vocals.

Foggy Mountain Top/Sweet Fern: Twin contenders in the Maybelle slide-guitar canon. Her quirky take on Hawaiian and blues slide guitar styles really brought something new to the Carters' recordings.

I like both performances equally. In a pinch, I'd admit a preference for "Sweet Fern," as the eccentricity of Maybelle's guitaristry abets the weirdness of the song itself.

Her slide technique contributes greatly to the atmosphere of "Foggy Mountain Top."

Lonesome Homesick Blues: Maybelle also wrote this 1941 song, from the Carters' final studio recording session. She tears it up on the fretboard here. That last session is a real stunner--especially when heard via Rich Nevins' amazingly good remastering on the Bear Family box set In The Shadow of Clinch Mountain. For a low-cost option, there's also JSP Records' bootleg of the Bear Family set, in two five-CD volumes.

However you hear it, that final RCA session is one of the Carters' best. From a biographer's POV, I'm delighted that they quite literally went out on their highest note. The entire session harkens back, in both performance and material, to their Bristol sessions, and to the pivotal 1928 session that produced "Wildwood Flower."

I've left out many other great Maybelle moments... they're waiting on the Carters' recordings for you and I to enjoy.

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