NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Carter Family Riches Recalled in The Unbroken Circle

John Carter Cash Presents a Family Tribute

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The first time I played this Carter Family tribute album, The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family (Dualtone), about halfway through George Jones’ driving (and electrified) cover of the Carter anthem “Worried Man Blues,” I heard the Carter Family’s version slide in underneath Jones, complementing him beautifully. Very cool, I thought. What a great idea. And I reached to turn up the volume on those beautiful and ageless Carter harmonies on the opening track.

A few days later, when I asked the album’s producer — Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s son, John Carter Cash — about that, he just chuckled as if he had heard it all before.

“No,” he said, ” those Carter Family harmonies are so stuck inside our heads that I still hear them. We all do.”

Yeah, I said, but I really did hear it, and it continued through half of the next cut, Sheryl Crow’s cover of “No Depression in Heaven.”

“Sure,” he said, as if humoring a slightly daft uncle at a Carter Family reunion. “There are no phantom tracks on this record,” he said, with a tolerant smile.

I dunno. I’m still playing my two copies of this CD, hoping to sneak up on the phantom track and record it. So far, it hasn’t reappeared, and I haven’t caught it — yet.

Lord knows, there are ghosts enough on this CD even without my own spectral apparitions. The Carters, as everyone knows, were — along with Jimmie Rodgers — the dominant creative force behind the rise of country music. A.P. Carter was responsible for assembling, writing, editing and collecting the most important body of songs in country music history. Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar style influenced every guitar player in popular music. They virtually invented harmony singing in country music. They achieved all this without straying too long from their beloved Clinch Mountain homes in Virginia, so they never really achieved success from network radio or Hollywood.

The secret of their success was that they were energetic, progressive young people capturing, improving on, writing, improvising upon and perpetuating a musical tradition that spanned generations and still continues. Before Maybelle, no one had made the guitar not only a lead instrument but a lead instrument that could play rhythm and melody simultaneously. And she taught herself slide and Hawaiian steel guitar. I was amazed, but shouldn’t have been, to read an interview with Jimmy Buffett in which he expressed his own amazement that country music today is the only place — with the exception of a few remaining rock bands — where artists can even play their own instruments anymore. Where they know how to play them. And play them very well.

John Carter Cash produced the album and faced his most daunting career task ever on two fronts. Of the hundreds of Carter songs, he had to decide which ones would be crucial for a 15-song tribute CD. Overall, I think he’s done a very good job. The songs are a good mix of the well-known and more obscure treasures. And the artists — even guest musicians such as Earl Scruggs — have obvious musical and emotional ties to the Carter-Cash world.

The aged Joe and Janette Carter, the children of A.P. and Sara, evoke that long-vanished era in the Clinch Mountains with “Little Moses,” which they had learned as children from an aunt.

Ironically, John Carter Cash produced the last sessions his parents recorded. “Engine One-Forty-Three,” the last song Cash recorded, appears here and was one of the first the Carter Family learned. When A.P. fell in love with 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, she was supposedly singing “Engine One-Forty-Three,” and he happened to overhear her and was enchanted by her voice.

June Carter Cash sings “Hold Fast to the Right,” a lesson of advice from a mother to her son, which the younger Cash recalls her singing to him as a child.

“Single Girl, Married Girl” (sung here by Shawn Colvin, accompanied by Earl and Randy Scruggs, both on acoustic guitar) was one of the few Carter songs that was recorded with only Sara singing. She married A.P. Carter at 16 (and later left him for a cousin), and the song seemed to have meant a great deal to her. It’s not so different from “Redneck Woman” when you examine the context of each song. They’re separated by almost a hundred years, but the same yearnings and frustrations and hopes are carried in both songs.

Sara and her cousin, Maybelle, were no-nonsense women and proved their mettle in what was truly a man’s world in the music industry of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. They smoked cigarettes and dared to wear trousers and cut their hair, which devout mountain women did not do. On Carter tours, Maybelle did most of the driving, and she drove fast. And she loved gambling.

I first met Maybelle at the Nashville recordings for the first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album and found her to be an utter joy. She insisted that my wife and I sing on the title track. When I protested, she made me join in, saying, “Don’t worry, son. Just sing it from the heart, and you’ll be all right.”

Album Lineup:
“Worried Man Blues,” George Jones
“No Depression in Heaven,” Sheryl Crow
“On the Sea of Galilee,” Emmylou Harris with the Peasall Sisters
“Engine One-Forty-Three,” Johnny Cash
“Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You,” Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
“Little Moses,” Janette and Joe Carter
“Black Jack David,” Norman and Nancy Blake with Tim O’Brien
“Bear Creek Blues,” John Prine
“You Are My Flower,” Willie Nelson
“Single Girl, Married Girl,” Shawn Colvin with Earl and Randy Scruggs
“Will My Mother Know Me There?” the Whites with Ricky Skaggs
“The Winding Stream,” Rosanne Cash
“Rambling Boy,” the Del McCoury Band
“Hold Fast to the Right,” June Carter Cash
“Gold Watch and Chain,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Kris Kristofferson