A.P., Maybelle (seated), and Sara Carter in a 1927 publicity still
Several years ago when I was still single and people still listened to music on things called compact discs, I occassionaly bought myself a boxed set around my birthday. There were not too many, but sets I did purchase included Charles Mingus’s Complete Atlantic Recordings and Miles Davis’s Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel. Usually I stayed away from such extravagances, because I found boxed sets to be gratuitous and usually stuffed with a fair amount of filler. It tied in neatly with the reissue boom that brought the world full versions of often-truncated original releases. This was especially true when it came to live sets. For instance if a Waylon Jennings concert was originally ninety minutes, the original album might have been whittled down to forty-five for space or commercial reasons. A compact disc allowed for the release of the full, original listening experience. At least that was the ideal. Usually however, cd re-releases were a shameless money grab for labels to get people to buy what they already had. How many reissues of Kind of Blue did the world really need?
Almost a decade ago I bought The Carter Family’s In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain, a twelve cd behemoth from Bear Family that was worth every penny. The Carter Family were A.P., wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. Their 1927 records for Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee are the foundation of modern country music. What made their sound so immediate was its stress on the vocals and deemphasis of the instrumentation. The American recording industry was coming into its own at this time and companies like Victor, for whom Peer worked at the time, were eager to capitalize. That same week in the same place Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers as well.
I have always tended to listen to the earlier years of the collection, which contains over 275 songs and an extended interview with Mother Maybelle. Over the past twelve days I mixed it up and listened to the twelve discs in chronological order. I don’t know how a band can go on and on for decades without recording a bad song, but the three managed to do it. What is even more incredible is that they did it amidst such personal strife and marital chaos.
I have always enjoyed the Carter family full oeuvre but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until taking it in in its totality. There is also the fact that as I get closer to fifty I understand the message much better than I did when younger. How much does one know about loss or regret when in one’s twenties? The Carters’ music is so powerful because it looks at the ambiguity and complexity of life so unblinkingly without ever losing its hope and affirmation. I have found it comforting to listen to over this spring.
(top image, Victor Talking Machine Company; lower image, Perfect Records)