Saturday, May 16, 2009

Carter Family 101

This 10 minute clip from a BBC documentary does an excellent job of summing up the story of the Carter Family and the lasting influence they have had. I believe the title of the program was "Lost Highway".

The group shown performing live is The Whites. You have probably heard their redition of "Keep on the Sunny Side" which is on the soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou".

The group who appears in the recreation of the Bristol Sessions is the cast from a musical called "Keep on the Sunny Side" which I hope to be able to see one day.

My favorite part of this clip are Carter Family home movies from what looks like the late 1950's.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother Maybelle Carter: Celebrating Her Centennial

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Maybelle Addington Carter. We wanted to mark this historic occasion on our blog. Maybelle is the anchor of the Carter Family's music. Without the vigor, inventiveness and passion of her guitar playing, and her vocal harmonies, the music of the Carters, while still outstanding, wouldn't have seemed quite complete.

Of the Carter Family's three members, Maybelle seems to me the most relaxed and assured. I'm impressed by how dedicated she was to her family and to her music. As well, it's remarkable how focused she remained throughout her entire musical career--but especially during the dramatic era of the original Carter Family.

Maybelle's marriage to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) was much more stable than the heart-breaking relationship between A.P. and Sara Carter. While A.P. and Sara struggled, both emotionally and financially, Maybelle and Eck seemed to be blessed with a far happier and more peaceful existence. This contrast in the married lives of the Carters is among the most dramatic aspects of their story.

As Sara's friend and relative, Maybelle certainly was privy to the ups and downs of her colleagues' marriage and musical partnership. I'm glad that Sara had such a true friend and soul-mate in her life. Maybelle was a constant and stable influnece for Sara.

Sara and Maybelle meshed remarkably as musicians, throughout their lives. The interplay of their voices and their instruments can be hypnotic. In the superb remasterings of their Victor material by Richard Nevins, on the big, handsome Bear Family box set (and, in pirated form, on the JSP collections), their contributions to the Carter sound are stunningly revealed.

A recent discussion with Mike Seeger reminded me of the extraordinary style of their vocal harmonies. [Sorry for the "music talk" here, if it's all Greek to you.] They sometimes sing in sunny thirds--the most common and simple harmonies found in country music. But they often take surprising turns. At their most adventurous, they utilize seconds, fourths, fifths, sevenths and unison singing--often shifting from mode to mode within a verse or chorus of a song.

In layman's terms, Sara and Maybelle weren't afraid to go to unusual places with their singing. As we know the Carter Family was a well-rehearsed unit, these complex and advanced harmonic touches weren't just improvised in the studio. They might have realized that this was a way to keep their music fresh and exciting, even as their recorded sound settled into a reliable formula.

You may have read my earlier post on my "top ten" favorite Maybelle guitar riffs. If not, please search for that post. It would fit into this piece fairly well.

Maybelle expressed herself divinely through her guitar and voice. I feel that she must have been able to channel all the emotions around her and transform it into the music she played. Emotions seem to flow through her fingertips in her eloquent performances.

Speaking of those hands, here is a photograph from Eric Schaal's 1941 LIFE magazine session. We see Maybelle has a capo on her guitar. This device, colloquially referred to as a "cheater" by country musicians, enabled her to play in a wider range of musical keys--those optimal for Sara's vocal range--while staying in familiar, easier-to-navigate chord shapes.

If only these photographs had appeared in the December 8, 1941 issue of LIFE, as originally planned! Schaal's images are the best photographs ever taken of the original Carter Family. Here is another Schaal shot I really like. Maybelle's facial expression makes it seem that she really enjoyed her role in the Carters:

It's also Mother's Day--how appropriate! And I've saved the best for last. Here's a sketch of Maybelle by David. Enjoy!

Please, take some time today to listen to her music. Be it the classic Carter Family material, her 1960s LPs with Sara Carter, or the more pop-orientated Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle sides (hard to find these days!), Maybelle's music will brighten your day and make the world around you a better place to be.

Happy Mother Maybelle's Day to you all!