Nashville Public Television premiered its new documentary, The Carter Family: An American Original, Tuesday (July 20) at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater to an audience that included Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Janette Carter, the daughter of the pioneering musical group’s founders, A. P. and Sara Carter.
Set to debut Thursday (July 22) on WNPT, Nashville’s public television station, the hour-long film traces the formation and national impact of the original Carter Family trio — A. P., Sara and Maybelle (Sara’s cousin and A. P.’s sister-in-law). The primary themes of the production are A. P.’s voracious appetite for finding and “fixing up” songs and his volatile relationship with his independent-minded wife.
Actor Robert Duvall serves as the film’s off-camera narrator. The chief on-camera commentators are Mark Zwonitzer, author of the 2002 biography, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music; Janette Carter and her brother Joe; Rita Forrester, Janette’s daughter; musician Bill Clifton, a longtime friend of A. P. and Sara; singer and songwriter Gillian Welch, who explains Maybelle’s much-copied style of guitar picking; Marty Stuart; Joan Baez; and Mary Bufwack, co-author of Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music. There are cameo comments by June Carter Cash, Rodney Crowell and Ralph Stanley, as well as audio remarks by Maybelle and Ralph Peer, the man who ’discovered” and first recorded the Carters and later published their music.
In addition to using lots of archival photos and film, producer and director Kathy Conkwright also employed actors — who are photographed through gauzy filters — to portray the Carters in pivotal scenes. A. P. emerges as a semi-tragic figure, not only because he eventually lost Sara, but also because his larger ambitions for the group were thwarted by the onset of World War II and changing musical tastes. When he died in 1960, one commentator notes, a local newspaper didn’t even print an obituary. Maybelle died in 1978 and Sara in 1979.
Guests attending the premiere were given copies of a CD-sampler of Carter Family music, which was taken from the forthcoming Dualtone Records tribute album The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family. Selections on the sampler are “Gold Watch and Chain,” performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Kris Kristofferson; “Will My Mother Know Me There,” by the Whites and Ricky Skaggs; and “Hold Fast to the Right,” by June Carter Cash, Maybelle’s daughter.