My introduction to the Carter Family came via "The Johnny Cash Show," Cash's 1969-71 variety program on U.S. television. Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen and Anita sang harmony behind Cash, sometimes performed singly or as a duo or trio, and nearly always closed the program with an old-time hymn or spiritual.
Others of my generation first entered the Carter fold when Mother Maybelle started touring the folk circuit in 1963, playing a series of dates that started in Los Angeles and culminated with a triumphant performance at the Newport Folk Festival -- yes, the same year that Joan Baez brought the "unwashed vagabond," Bob Dylan, onstage with her at Newport.
And many more first came to know Mother Maybelle and the music of the Carters through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark 1972 record set, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
But various incarnations of the Carter Family had been entertaining the Baby Boomers' parents and grandparents since the early 1920s. As Zwonizter and Hirshberg amply demonstrate in Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?, the Carters truly deserve the title of America's First Family of Music.
It's practically shameful that this is the first major biography of the Carter Family, but it was worth the wait. Will You Miss Me rises to the level of Nolan Porterfield's masterful bio of Jimmie Rodgers, at least in its thoroughness and quality of writing. A glaring omission is any kind of discography, index or other appendices.
The comparison to Jimmie Rodgers' biography is apt, of course, because the Carters' recording career began at the same time and place as Rodgers', at Ralph Peer's July 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. Their careers were more or less parallel for a few years, until Rodgers' untimely death from TB. And like Rodgers, the Carters' "overnight success" as recording stars was really the culmination of many years of performing on their own around the South, perfecting their act in schools, churches, front porches and living rooms.
Will You Miss Me covers the life and times of the Carter Family, from the birth in 1891 of Alvin Pleasant Delaney (A.P.) Carter in the rugged Appalachians of Virginia, to the passing of his ex-wife, Sara Carter Bayes, in California in 1979.
The book paints a vivid picture of A.P. Carter as a restless soul who could hardly sit still for a moment, and who always had a tune or a song running through his head; of his wife, Sara, as a rock-solid mountain woman who loved to sing but didn't love A.P. enough; and A.P.'s sister-in-law, Maybelle, as an outwardly calm and unflappable but inwardly fun-loving and intensely competitive artist.
Their career had many phases, from their years of independent woodshedding around the mountain country of Virginia, Tennessee and nearby states, to their recording career, to their years on Texas "border radio" that reached both coasts and north into Canada, cementing them as nationwide stars. We see the Original Carter Family fall apart during and after World War II, and watch as Maybelle's husband (A.P.'s brother) Eck Carter, shepherds his wife and three daughters into carrying on the tradition, eventually to become beloved regulars on the Grand Old Opry.
There, they had lasting impacts on the careers and lives of such notables as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash. And so the circle goes, from one generation to the next.
Through extensive research and interviews with many in the Carter extended family and people in the communities where they lived, Zwonitzer and Hirshberg put together a detailed picture of the hardships and joys of a life in the entertainment industry, that spanned nearly the entire 20th century. Like this passage about the travels of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, pre-Opry:
"There were times Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters would do five shows in a day, fix their own flat tires, and rehearse on the road in the Cadillac or one of the Packards. And sometimes on those long drives, the old Carter Family songs would come on their car radio, and they'd all quiet down, bone-tired and aching, and just listen."
Or in the spring of 1963, when Maybelle, in her 50's, flew across the country to play a series of dates with Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers. They picked her up at the airport and immediately went to rehearse at Seeger's apartment:
"First an hour, then two, and Maybelle didn't say a word. Finally, she mentioned, almost in passing, that she hadn't really slept on the plane the night before: 'I'm a bit tired,' she said. 'I suddenly realized how inconsiderate we were being,' says Seeger, 'but she hadn't given us any sign until then. She was a trouper, and she took great pride in being a trouper.' "
Will You Miss Me is an important and entertaining book about some of the key figures of American music, and must reading for anyone who loves that music.