- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

At 80, singer Janette Carter has experienced more than her share of ups and downs, musically speaking. She experienced both the birth of the country music industry, in 1927 in Bristol, Tenn., and most of its growing pains, when the Depression hit and musical tastes changed.

Through it all, she maintained a passion for what got it started in the first place — that old-time sound that brings to mind front porches, gospel sings and mountain music.

“I gave up everything for music,” she said recently from her home in Hiltons, Va. “I’ve worked in factories, in schools, in the fields, but music is what paid off for us.”

“Us” means the Carter Family, and on Wednesday at 3:15 at the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Mrs. Carter will be present at a workshop that explores their music.

Since those early sessions in summer 1927 — when her parents, A.P and Sara Carter, along with cousin Maybelle, laid down a few tracks of “old-time” tunes — Carter Family favorites like “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wabash Cannonball” have been recorded by a wide range of musicians. The Bristol sessions, where the Carters were joined by music legend Jimmie Rodgers, are considered the birth of the country music industry.

Why did these early sessions recorded in a makeshift studio cause such a stir?

First, of course, there were the songs. They were the kinds of things folks sang in ad hoc “entertainments,” or Sunday programs after church. There were tunes played at parties, where Mrs. Carter remembers, everyone would move out the furniture from the front room and take up the rug so people could dance. Some, like “Wabash Cannonball,” were longtime favorites. Others were the products of painstaking collection by Mr. Carter, who trooped around the countryside in search of songs.

“He would go around asking if people knew tunes,” remembers Mrs. Carter. “Or he’d take a poem and put music to it.”

Then there was the sound. Mr. Carter had a rich, resonant bass, developed in church choirs and family get-togethers. Sara had a dead-on talent for harmony and a real facility with the autoharp. And Maybelle was known for her unique style of guitar playing, with the melody picked out on the lower strings and rhythmic fills taking up the treble.

“They all played by ear,” Mrs. Carter remembers. “Mother had to get a pitch that Daddy and Maybelle could come in on. They rehearsed an awful lot.”

By the time Janette Carter was a teenager, the Carter Family had hit the big time. The early recordings had sparked interest by the burgeoning radio industry. In the late 1930s Mr. Carter and Sara had packed up their family and moved to Texas to perform with Maybelle for radio station XERA, the “Sunshine Station Between the Nations,” a 20-million-watt radio station just over the border in Mexico. Since the Mexican station was not subject to U.S. laws limiting the amount of a station’s wattage, soon people from all over America were listening to their music.

Before long, however, the Carter Family itself had fallen on some hard times. Sara and A.P. had separated and then divorced. Maybelle traveled with daughters Helen, June, and Anita as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. While Mr. Carter sporadically tried to reunite the original Carter Family, at least professionally, things were never the same as they were in those early, heady days of music making.

Just before he died in 1960, Mr. Carter asked Janette to carry on the tradition. The result is the Carter Fold, a 1,000-seat theater in Hiltons, Va.

“Daddy had left his store and his house to me,” she recalls. “It hurt him when the original Carter Family broke up. He wanted to preserve and keep alive their music.”

Now, there’s old time music in the valley again, every Saturday night. Mrs. Carter first held the concerts in A.P’s old store, but that quickly proved too small for the kind of interest sparked by the music. With the help of her brother Joe, she erected the current structure in 1976.

Mrs. Carter still selects every band that plays in the hall. And this is one place where, despite the old-time nature of the music, there is no generation gap. In fact, Mrs. Carter says, the only indication that there is such a thing comes during the dancing.

“The old ones say the young ones don’t really dance, they just jump straight up,” she chuckles. “Mostly though, it’s just people trying to remember.”

• • •

Other performances of note at this week’s Folklife Festival in the Appalachian program include guitarist and luthier Wayne Henderson, who brings thumb and fingerpicks and his unique style of guitar playing to the Mall. Mr. Henderson performs tonight as part of the National Heritage Winners presentation (6 to 9 p.m.). He’s on stage also tomorrow for an evening concert, Saturday at 4 p.m. as part of a guitar workshop, and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. as part of a guitar workshop. Dates and times are subject to change.

Over in the Scotland area of the festival, a performance tonight celebrates the launch of a new Smithsonian/Folkways CD, “Scotland the Real.” Performances on Wednesday include Johnny and Phil Cunningham, and the Wrigleys, sisters from the Orkney Islands.

From Mali on Saturday comes Oumou Sangare, the “Queen of Wassoulou,” who will be performing for the evening concert. Always associated with women, Wassoulou pop emerged in southern Mali during the 1960s. Miss Sangare started singing at the age of 5, encouraged by her mother and grandmother, both of whom were singers. Today her music employs native instruments and an exploration of women’s roles in Africa. Over the years, she’s been accompanied by some of the best in the business, including Pee Wee Ellis, who played with James Brown’s band and probably grew up listening to the Carter Family on the radio.



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