The Winding Stream as a title for a film does not just refer to the Carter Family song of the same name. It’s also a metaphor for the current of music that started with the Original Carter Family and flowed through subsequent generations of family. The second generation is characterized by The Carter Sisters. The third by musical folks like Carlene Carter, John Carter Cash and Lorrie Bennett.
I have to admit that someone from the third generation whom I think is supremely talented, dedicated to the legacy and far too unsung is A.P. and Sara’s grandson, Dale Jett (he’s the son of the late Janette Carter). Dale has a beautiful, soulful voice and a deep appreciation for the music and its history. He was a mainstay at the Carter Family Fold, has played with his relatives on many occasions (check out the Carter Family III CD), and now appears regularly as part of the trio called Hello Stranger (Dale sings, plays guitar and autoharp along with his wonderful wife Teresa on bass and multi-instrumentalist Oscar Harris).
Although he was surrounded by music in his childhood, Dale came to guitar playing relatively late. He thought his left-handedness prevented him from playing. It took a visit from a family friend – the legendary folk artist Elizabeth Cotten – to straighten him out (she being left-handed, too, as it turned out). Not a bad teacher. After that, there was no stopping Dale.
To hear Dale’s approach to the Carter Family repertoire you owe it to yourself to hear Hello Stranger’s album, “Going Down the Valley” which is downloadable via CDBaby (www.cdbaby.com/) or in hard copy form through Dale’s website: www.dalejett.com. It’s the real deal. This music is in his blood and he interprets it with a subtle passion, a sincerity and depth of feeling that I know Carter Family fans will appreciate. Also, while you’re on their site, check out their fall schedule of concerts. Maybe you can catch a show near you?
Finally, keep an ear out for a new CD that Hello Stranger is working on. It will be called “When the Sun Comes Out Again” and is a collection of Civil War era music. The trio has recently completed five songs for the CD at the studio of friends and music greats Dixie and Tom T. Hall. And there’s more in the offing.
But I’ll let you all know when it’s released.
This time of year always makes me think of the event that launched the Carter Family. It was eighty-three years ago this coming week when one fortuitous decision changed their lives.
It started when Ralph Peer, a producer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company arrived in the city of Bristol, a town in two states with a shared main thoroughfare – Virginia on one side of the road and Tennessee on the other. Peer came equipped with recording equipment and a big desire to find the next big thing in a genre of music – called alternately “Old Time” or “Hillbilly” – that was just recently finding commercial interest.
Peer arrived in late July and had done some advance PR work and advertising with the local paper to lure would-be candidates – most of whom lived in the countryside – into the city. With his two engineers, Peer began setting up lightweight (relatively speaking) state of the art gear in vacant space in an old hat factory.
In two weeks time he recorded nineteen different acts – among them the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers and a trio from Maces Spring, Virginia — the Carter Family.
In these two acts, not only did Peer find the hit makers he sought, but he’d spark a cultural change that many refer to now as “the Big Bang of Country Music.”
Peer was in a hurry. He did only two takes of each of the songs the Carters came prepared to play. The record shows that on the evening of Monday, August 1 between 6:30 – 9:30 PM the trio recorded “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree,” “Little Log Cabin By the Sea,” “The Poor Orphan Child,” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean.”
The next day, August 2, between 9:00 and 10:45 AM, Sara and Maybelle recorded “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Wandering Boy. “ A.P. never arrived at the session so the women just carried on without him. According to the late music historian Charles Wolfe, A.P. had gone in search of a tire for the car so that they could make the trip back home.
The three musicians left Bristol and went back to their lives in Maces Spring. A.P. alone held out hope that something would come of these sessions but no word came from Peer. Then one day in November, Maybelle and her husband Eck happened to pass a store in Bristol. A phonograph was playing music out onto the street and a crowd had formed to listen. It was a new 78 rpm record from Victor Talking Machine. One side was “The Poor Orphan Child” and the other was “The Wandering Boy.”
The Carters were on their way to becoming recording stars.
Just a few days ago I got to see the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops playing at the Oregon Zoo outdoor summer concert series. This is a trio that honors and performs in the African-American string band tradition. With their very presence they underscore the idea that before record companies started inventing “categories” in which to pigeonhole artists, country music encompassed a lot of different kinds of people bringing together a lot of different musical influences (something that A.P. Carter recognized when he collected songs all over the region in both black and white communities with bluesman Lesley Riddle).
Rhiannon Giddens, Don Flemons and Justin Robinson are young musicians who learned from some of the masters of the string band form and yet are putting their own special stamp on it. So at a typical gig, they might perform a rural classics like “Cornbread and Butterbeans” followed by a country version of the hip hop number, “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” capped by a performance of a Johnny Cash-June Carter staple, “Jackson.” It’s eclectic and yet oddly cohesive. And a real treat to experience as they’re accessible and dynamic stage performers.
We’ve been lucky enough to get them to agree to appear in The Winding Stream. I’ve proposed some possible songs for them to consider and they’re mulling ‘em over and I trust they’ll toss some ideas back my way. I think the process of picking the song will be a lot of fun. We hope to be able to film them sometime this fall. We’ll tell you when we do and post a clip from the session right here.
Meanwhile check out their website, buy their music and make a point to see them next time they’re in your area. www.carolinachocolatedrops.com
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