Friday, February 27, 2009

All in the Family


Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?, billed as a biography of the Carter Family, is actually two books in one. The first, about the original Carter Family of A.P. and Sara and Maybelle, is a gripping description of the hardscrabble backwoods of Virginny and the unearthly sounds that came from there, as well as of a somewhat unhappy family walking miles up and down the mountains just to visit their neighbors. A.P. is the driven one, pushing his little family to their recording sessions and traversing the backcountry in search of new old songs. Sara, his wife, is the cold fish who sings like no one else on earth but would rather perform in her living room than on the concert stage. Plus, she kind of hates A.P., has an affair with his cousin and eventually moves out on him and their children. Maybelle is the Appalachian Stevie Ray Vaughan, popping her bass string while she picks out intricate melodies up top. (I was always confused by Maybelle's status within the family, since she has been variously described as "cousin Maybelle" and "sister-in-law Maybelle." She was both; she was Sara's cousin, and after Sara married A.P., Maybelle met and married A.P.'s brother Ezra.)

When Sara finally splits for good in 1949, Maybelle goes on the road with her daughters Helen, Anita and June, which constitutes the second half of the bio. And it's boring, despite the fact that they give Chet Atkins his first real job, befriend Hank Williams (who puts the moves on Anita), and go on tour with Elvis in 1955. But everything was more fun when Kingsport was the big city, and an all-day drive from home. Go figure.

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