The Carter Family is one of music’s greatest pioneers and inspirational forces. A traditional American folk music group, the trio’s songs and albums — recorded between 1927 and 1944 — had a profound influence on folk, country, bluegrass, Southern Gospel and even rock musicians. Few have ever had this sort of generational impact with so many diverse musical styles.
Yet upon the discovery of a graphic novel about the Carter Family, I admittedly had some early trepidation about reviewing it. There have been graphic novels written about serious issues, of course. It was the unusual marriage of comics, biography and country music that originally gave me pause.
My curiosity to see the final product trumped all other concerns, and I’m glad it did.
Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song” is a superb graphic novel about country music’s first supergroup. It was published by Abrams ComicArts, a subimprint of Abrams Books, which has released impressive collections of Shazam, Krazy Kat and Will Eisner’s PS Magazine, among others. This particular book is both visually appealing (Lasky) and well written and researched (Young). There is even a bonus 18-minute CD included of 11 rare recordings from 1939 that makes the perfect accompaniment.
Throughout the graphic novel, Mr. Young and Mr. Lasky maintain a sympathetic ear to the Carter Family’s successes and failures. From the poignant language of these simple country folk to the deep, rich colors in the artwork, they weave a beautiful and personal tale. For those who are familiar with the Carter Family, and those who are learning about them for the first time, you are in for a real treat.
Mr. Young writes in the preface that the Carter Family “are the foundation upon which all of commercial country music (and, by extension, rock ‘n’ roll) exists. … The stories of their lives and career is a great American saga.” It’s an excellent assessment, and the humble beginnings of this group only add to their mystique. The three original members, A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter, his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle, all came from small-town Virginia. Family values, religion and financial struggles were a part of daily life. Musical influences included mountain music and Christian hymns, even though A.P.’s mother had a penchant for calling the fiddle the “devil’s box.”
The road to the Carter Family’s musical success wasn’t immediately paved with gold. While A.P. and Sara hoped to record an album, they went through many trials to put food on the table and take care of their children. Their first recording attempt was with Brunswick Records: it netted them $25, but the album never got released. The second attempt was through Victor Records. Even though A.P. was worried “them city boys don’t know beans ‘bout our kind o’ music,” the result was a success. They were signed to two contracts — one as a group, and one for A.P. as a songwriter — and their career was under way.
The Carter Family became widely recognized for so-called “hillbilly music,” aided in part by Victor Records‘ decision “to launch a new ‘Old Familiar Tunes’ series.” Some of A.P.’s original songs such as “Diamonds in the Rough,” “The Foggy Mountain Top,” “Chewing Gum” and “You Are My Flower” became early hits. Popular cover versions of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wabash Cannonball” and “The Meeting in the Air” are still played to this day in films like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song” has many interesting stories to tell. For instance, A.P.’s long-term friendship with black guitarist Lesley Riddle began when he heard the latter play a song, “The Cannonball,” that he “heard a man sing” on one occasion “an’ took a like to it.” The unfortunate separation and divorce of A.P. and Sara is treated by the authors in a forthright manner. Various road trips and musical adventures include bits of humor and plenty of Southern drawl. Their twice-daily program on the Mexican radio station XERA, where they “work and live … six months every year,” painted a brief albeit interesting picture of the border community of Del Rio, Texas.
The trio’s decision to break up was a fitting end to the graphic novel. Readers will feel a combination of sadness and happiness as A.P., Sara and Maybelle come to the end of their long musical journey. In the book’s final panels, A.P. comes across an apple tree he had planted years ago near his beloved Clinch Mountain home. He looked proudly at his handiwork and said, “You’ve left your mark on the world … hope I was able t’ do the same.”
Yes, he did. They all did.
• Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.
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