In the shadow of Clinch Mountain in Scott County, Virginia, lies what is called Poor Valley. Out of this hardscrabble environment emerged the legendary musical pioneers the Carter family. A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle sang and played their way to fame and fortune, creating in many ways the basis for the entire American traditional, folk and country music industries.
In Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, documentary filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer teams up with veteran journalist Charles Hirshberg to capture the historic lives of the Carters, from the moment they were discovered by music producer and publisher Ralph Peer in the 1920s, through their groundbreaking careers as recording artists, to their deaths in the late 1970s. In between is an incredible tale of poverty, sudden celebrity and wealth, seminal recording dates, national radio exposure to a country mired in the Great Depression, unceasing concert performances in towns both small and large, appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and associations with musical greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff and Elvis Presley.
There's also an interesting profile of the young Johnny Cash, who eventually after a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth became daughter June's third husband in the 1960s and has kept the family tradition going ever since. This volume is thoroughly researched, and the authors don't stint on coverage of the Carter forebears, the details of their simple country life and the idiosyncrasies and squabbles that characterized, in particular, the lives of A.P. and Sara, who divorced fairly early on, yet continued working together for the sake of the music (and the money). The text paints intriguing portraits of all the major players but throws rays of especially revelatory light on A.P.'s brother Eck, who was not simply Mother Maybelle's devoted husband but also a reliable and organized manager for his wife and a loving father to their singing daughters (June, Helen and Anita).
Music fans will be particularly fascinated with accounts of how A.P. in need of recording material scoured the countryside collecting folk and gospel songs from local citizens, tinkered with the words and melodies as necessary and then, innovator that he was (or scoundrel, depending on your point of view), parlayed his finds into copyrightable gems that netted him (and Peer) a king's ransom in royalties. In the right place at the right time, the Carters brought to the world the spirit of Wildwood Flower, Keep on the Sunny Side and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, among many other classic tunes. This book is an essential work of musical Americana.
Aspiring musician Martin Brady writes on the arts.