As I’ve worked on The Winding Stream, I’ve been struck by the passion people have for the Carters specifically and for “old-timey music” in general. It’s often an interest and commitment that transcends the music. I think it’s related to a focus on history itself, on the things of another time.
Some of the most involved Winding Stream Facebook “fans”, Twitter followers and email friends (oh yeah, and real life people I talk to in person!) have an amazing grasp of historical recording methods, or an understanding of rural social customs, or a love of vintage ‘30s clothing, or a knowledge of Depression-era politics. It’s great to engage with them on these topics. It certainly has opened up my own appreciation and comprehension of these aspects of the Carters’ world.
I guess what a lot of us share is a love of the past and a desire to preserve some piece of that. I know that’s what drives me to make historical documentary films. Being able to tell untold or little understood stories is a big motivator for me.
So it was nice to interview singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash about her extended family – particularly June Carter – and have her reinforce the importance of this passion that a lot of us share. Click this link to watch the video.
Speaking of Rosanne Cash, for our Pacific Northwest Winding Stream supporters, we’ve got a really great Kickstarter reward – a chance to meet her and her sister Tara at a cocktail party here in Portland. So visit our Kickstarter site for more details:
We here at The Winding Stream acknowledge that we learn a lot from the Original Carters. Don’t get boxed in. Broaden your horizons. Seek out the new, while honoring the old. This is evident in the way A.P. found new material for the trio to perform in the unlikeliest places, the way Sara chose to approach her vocals with a new kind of directness and power, and the way Maybelle was always stretching herself as a guitarist, absorbing and inventing as she went.
We want to be like them. So, while we are keen to tell the Carter Family story in the medium we know best – film* – we are also crossing platforms, as they say. We’re in the midst of writing an ebook to accompany the film – a Carter Family oral history based on the interviews we’ve done. And we’re still planning on developing a tourism app that will show you around Maces Springs and Bristol so you can walk where the Carters did and see what they saw.
Most recently, we’re trying a little experiment for those social media mavens who favor Twitter. It’s the Carter and Cash saga in tweets. One a day. 140 characters or less. It’s kind of zen. How much can you say in that amount of space and make it count, especially with a story as rich as the Carters’?
Judge for yourself. We’re only a couple of weeks into it (you can go back and see what you missed). Chime in, if you have thoughts. Add your details to the story. Correct us if we’ve got it wrong. But revel in their tale. It’s an amazing one.
So join us on Twitter (click that icon!). Or if you’re more inclined, we’re also posting the tweets to The Winding Stream Facebook page.
Let us know what you think.
* And never fear, we are making progress on post-production so there will be a film, too!
All this came up again recently when I met with my new friend David Lasky in his Seattle studio (he of the Carter Family graphic novel soon to be released “Don’t Forget This Song” – see my April 2, 2011 post “See You in the Funny Papers” for more info). David was showing me some of the pages of this wonderful book that he and Frank Young are putting together. He also showed me an album cover he’s working on for a recording called “America Salutes the Carter Family.” Now this isn’t your slick “Bono and Sinatra duet on ‘The Foggy Mountain Top’” sorta deal. This is by definition a lo-fi project. The person driving this bus is musician Markly Morrison. Markly let me ask a few questions and I think his answers underscore my point about a whole new world of interest in the Carters and old-timey American music.
The project also has a very nice goal of supporting a very worthy cause. Read on.
Tell me a little about you, where you’re from and your band/music background?
I grew up in the Mojave Desert — Lancaster, CA and surrounding areas to be exact — and moved to Olympia about five years ago. Some friends of mine moved up here from the Los Angeles area, and soon suggested to me that Olympia would be a more conducive environment to further my musical endeavors. Since relocating to the Northwest, I have been blessed, doing musical projects about half of my overall year. I play with a sort of soft rock group called LAKE, and a psych/americana ensemble called Lazer Zeppelin (pictured above). LAKE has a song called “Sing 99 and 90” which is an interpretation by band member Ashley Eriksson of a very old folk tune called “The Devil’s Nine Questions.” It’s one of those mellow-band-does-hard-rock types of songs that really brings a cool contrast to what we’re doing. There’s another number called “LMJ” where we kind of take that idea and reverse it — Ashley wrote some personal lyrics to the melody of an old Irish folk song. Eli Moore based our song “Madagascar” on a traditional Malagasy folk song called “Botsi Boka.” Lazer Zeppelin also does a lot of folk and country music. We wrote a version of “Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women” having never heard the original, and it turns out they are strikingly similar. We do a version of the spiritual “Moses,” “Jane Jane” which I believe is a Christmas carol, and too many others to list. And when those bands aren’t active I do a solo project called Skrill Meadow, which in recent years has been straight-up honky tonk for the most part, some originals and a lot of classics from all the good singers. I also have a handful of other projects and I’m getting really in to wedding entertainment.
Tell me about this project you’re doing now.
About two years ago, Lazer Zeppelin played a concert in somebody’s house with a terrific Olympia rock group called Rainbow Bridge. Coincidentally, both of our bands had re-workings of Carter Family songs, and I just sort of thought that something was going on there. Before giving it much thought at all, I instinctively got my hand-held cassette recorder and decided to start scouring the diverse Olympia musical community for more. At first I thought of it as a short-term project, you know, just to see what I could gather in a couple of weeks from around the neighborhood. But it was summer, which is a busy season if you’re a musician, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to record some of the other groups I would be seeing. I took the time limit off, dubbed the project “America Salutes the Carter Family,” and have since taken the project on the road for a cumulative year all over the country while touring, visiting friends and family, catching a travelling group coming through Olympia, or going on dental-themed adventures to Tijuana. In a way I feel a sort of kinship to A.P. Carter, the way he would travel the country as a salesman and collect songs from people in his free time. I’ve had the opportunity to record nearly 40 different artists in that time – Jeffery Lewis, the Curious Mystery, Peter Stampfel, R. Stevie Moore, Golden Boots, Calvin Johnson… on and on. Sometimes completely on the spot- Seattle-based comic artist/musician Dennis Driscoll is a perfect example. I ran into him in Olympia and asked him if he wanted to sing anything from the Carter catalog, and he just sang into the tape recorder, then and there, on the side of the road. That’s why I always try and have a tape recorder on me. Cassette has always been my medium of choice ever since I was a kid, and I still love the way it sounds. It really captures the room, the whole situation, and makes the recording feel so real and raw, the way old folk groups would sound when they gathered around a microphone and pressed some 78’s. A lot of the old tape recorders and boomboxes you find at the thrift store tend to have really nice condenser microphones built in that capture the most intricate sounds, and I think it’s nice to have that continuity throughout the document, despite the stylistically diverse array of songs. That’s why I haven’t accepted any outside submissions for the project; I want to physically be there, so my notes can tell the story of that particular moment. And when I found out about Rita Forester’s tragedy, and her connection to the Carters, I thought that this album could potentially raise some financial relief for the Carter Family Fold and those that were affected by the fire back in 2009.
I learned about your project through David Lasky. Tell me about how he’s participating in your project.
I found out about David’s project about a month after mine began, while I was in Chicago with LAKE. My bandmate Adam saw Lasky’s blog and showed it to me. I was familiar with David’s work and was pretty excited to hear about “Don’t Forget This Song!” I looked at the sample pages and within a minute I introduced myself via email and asked if he would be interested in drawing the cover to my pending project. We’ve met a couple of times since and he agreed to execute the artwork for the record, which we hopefully will see coming out sometime around the end of this year on cassette, vinyl and digital download. I can’t wait to read the graphic novel, I already think it’s going to be my favorite and I read tons of them. And to have David’s beautiful drawing on a nice, big LP? Priceless! I feel lucky to be collaborating with David.
So David, you and I are all doing Carter-related projects – music, comics and film. And we all live in the Pacific Northwest. What is it about this place and the Carters? We’re thousands of miles from Maces Springs, Virginia!
Isn’t that the wildest thing? And all at the same time. Maybe it’s in the environment, the mountain air and wide country that makes the Carter Family’s music so relevant. I’ve never been to Maces Springs, but I have grown up familiar with the Carters’ music since before I was conscious of who they were, and living up here has really brought a glow to those old recordings. I have no idea how we all came to be working on similar projects in different mediums. Is it cosmic?
Here are a couple of links to learn more about Markly’s bands:
The Winding Stream film project is lucky to have Lorrie Carter Bennett as a friend and longtime supporter.
The daughter of Carter Sister, Anita, and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, Lorrie is an amazing vocal talent in her own right. Just a few years back, Lorrie played her mother in a stage play about the Carter Sisters called Wildwood Flowers. I was lucky enough to catch the opening night at the Acuff Theater in Nashville. What a treat to hear her sing, made more spine-tingling because she was doing so with her fantastic cousin, Carlene Carter.
I’ve interviewed Lorrie for the film and she had great stories about touring with her mother, aunts, cousins and grandmother. But recently, I asked Lorrie if she’d agree to answer a few questions for the blog and she obliged. She also provided some great photos.
Thanks to Lorrie for sharing some of her family history and also thanks to friend of The Winding Stream Vicki Langdon who helped us get around some computer hurdles in preparing this post.
What can you share with us about the Original Carters that you knew?
I never knew Uncle A.P. because he died when I was only a year old, but I knew Aunt Sara very well. She and her second husband, Uncle Coy, had an Airstream camper and divided their time between Angels Camp, California, Hiltons, Virginia, and Nashville. They were usually in Nashville two or three months at a time, “camping” in Grandma and Grandpa’s yard.
Most of the time that I spent with Aunt Sara was playing games, not music! Every night, we played “Don’t Get Mad,” a homemade board game similar to “Aggravation.” The board was the size of Grandma’s kitchen table. Aunt Sara and Grandma were “dead serious” about games, playing Rook or going bowling if the “Don’t Get Mad” board was in use by others! Grandma’s best friend, Min (Mrs. Hank Snow), was usually there with us playing too. Every once in a while, Grandma and Aunt Sara would talk about “making music,” but I only recall two or three times when they actually sang and played music together at home. Aunt Sara, crazy about my grandma, called her “May” and always seemed to be “looking out” for Grandma. I always enjoyed Aunt Sara and Uncle Coy being around.
It seems like being on the road was a seamless thing for your family – at least that’s how it’s depicted in Wildwood Flowers. Tell us some more about the on the road/off the road Carter Sisters.
Our entire family was very close. When they were in off the road, there was never a day that went by when they didn’t speak on the phone several times a day. When they weren’t on the road working, they were on the Opry. In addition to that, Mom was in the studio singing background on other artists’ records. I was always tagging along, and I’d eventually fall asleep on the floor during the sessions. I had to be where Mom could “keep an eye” on me. During those years, two studios were used – Columbia or RCA Studio B.
Back in the ‘60s, the Opry was wonderful. It was like everyone was family. Everyone had their kids with them, and I stood to the side of the stage watching “Grandma and the girls” as they did their spots. So many of the Opry stars babysat me, but I remember it usually being Skeeter Davis, Ralph Emery or, of all people, Faron Young! Everyone on the show watched each others’ children. I suppose that we were always going along with our parents to have more time with them since they were out of town so much. Some of the Opry personnel referred to the kids as “Opry brats.” In between Opry shows, we’d stay in the crowded dressing rooms of which there were only two – women’s and men’s.
I’d love to hear more about your days touring with the family.
When the family worked shows apart from the Johnny Cash Show, they traveled in a Cadillac Fleetwood, and from time to time, the grandkids got to go, but we were packed in like luggage! There wasn’t much extra room, so usually only one of us could go. I loved getting to go with them. Mom’s job took her away a lot, so it was a treat getting to spend more time with her.
On a three-day tour, the car had to not only transport Grandma, Helen and Mom, but enough luggage to last a month and every instrument imaginable. They were prepared for anything. If anyone booked on those package shows needed something, it was no problem because Grandma or the girls had it. ’Til the day they died, they were like that. Their purses alone had most anything anyone could possibly need – from laxatives to shoe polish! Everyone knew who to go to for help!
The “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, which Grandma recorded in 1972 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a host of other great musician friends, introduced her to a whole new generation of fans. In 1973, I started singing on the road with the family (Grandma, Mom, Helen and Helen’s son David), still traveling in a darned Cadillac. During the summer of 1973, we worked many bluegrass festivals, one of which had the stage in the middle of thousands of people, mostly “hippie”-looking younger folks. The only way to the stage was through the crowd (great planning!). It was the strangest thing; the crowd just parted. People came to their feet and cheered for Grandma as we walked through, and they remained on their feet until she had made it all the way down that hill and onto the stage. She lovingly waved back to the crowd as if to say, “Thank you; I made it.” She received standing ovations before and during the long walk, with hands reaching out to help her make it down that hillside in her long dress and heels.
Everything she said, they cheered. Every song she sang, she received another standing ovation. Being quiet and a bit shy, Grandma seemed embarrassed over all of the attention. She never seemed to feel she was worthy of such a fuss. At this point, I realized she wasn’t only my grandma. Instead, she and her music belonged to every person in that crowd. They treated her like royalty. They treated us all like royalty. It was an eye-opening experience for me. From that moment on, I understood.
Grandma was an absolute perfectionist when it came to her music. Her guitar was not going to be out of tune even if it meant tuning it in the middle of a performance. And, if one of us was on the wrong part, she would give the “offender” a tragic look. She never actually said a word, but her eyes did the talking!
As we continued working and re-joined the Johnny Cash Show tours, I saw how the Cash Show crowds reacted to her; everyone loved and respected her. In fact, they loved and respected the whole family and their music. Working with Uncle John’s show, which included Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers and Gordon Terry, was really cool too. More of the kids (besides David and me) joined the show – Rosanne (Uncle John’s daughter) and Rosie (Aunt June’s daughter). Later, in 1974, Carlene (Aunt June’s daughter) and Danny (Helen’s son) joined us.
The travel (air transportation instead of crowded cars) was much easier now! The old Cadillac was back home, and there was no more driving all night to get to our next date. And, there were no more economy motel rooms! We slept in fancy hotels with room service and were picked up by cars at the airport. Now, I had experienced two very different ways of traveling on the road. Both were fun!
You have a beautiful voice but I’ve seen mention on your Facebook page recently that you’ve been slow to accept your talents. How come?
Because my mother was such a great singer, it’s always been a task for me to sing because I felt everyone expected my mother’s voice to come out when I opened my mouth! I do sound a lot like Mom, but I have just recently accepted myself as me! I can’t hold a candle to my mama’s voice, but what I’ve just recently realized is that no one but me has expected me to sound like Mom. We have similar tones and phrasing, but I’ve just never had that “punch” that Mom had. But, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with myself, and it has made such a difference.
Mom was the greatest mother…ever. Even though she had an unusual job that required her being away from home a lot, I came to realize that was just her life. She had sung professionally since age 4, and that was the only life she knew. I missed her a lot when she was gone, but I never resented her profession. As a child, I often found it comforting to keep Mom’s robe with me when she was on the road, just so I’d feel she was close. After I had a child, I chose to not pursue a career in music because I remembered being little and missing my mom. Therefore, I made the decision that it was better for me to just sing occasionally.
My mom and I had an excellent relationship. She balanced career and being a mother as well as if she’d worked a 9-5 job in town. My brother, Jay, has autism, and even with that being a bit more challenging for a mother, she still managed it all very well. We’ve all considered Jay a godsend, and he is such an inspiration. Mom even found the time to be very involved with fundraising for Jay’s school, as did my dad, who was always there too and very supportive of my mom’s career.
Mom never wanted stardom. She was content singing with her family. After all, that’s what it’s all about…family.
Tell me about how you and Carlene came to be involved in the Wildwood Flowers show. What was it like to play your mother? Did you gain new insights into her life?
Angela Holley Bennett approached Carlene and me in 2005 with a script of the play, “Wildwood Flowers – The June Carter Story.” It sounded great to me, but the final decision had to come from Carlene who ultimately gave her stamp of approval. With Carlene playing her mom and me playing my mom, we did a three-week run at the Acuff Theater next to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. The play was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and very emotional, but very healing at the same time. I’m hoping that Angela is successful in her current quest of trying to open the play (with a different cast) in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The script is great, and I would highly recommend the show to anyone.
Sounds like you’re up to some new things. Did I see you mention The Fabulous Superlatives in one of your Facebook posts?
Until recently, I hadn’t been singing much except at the annual family festival held in August at the Carter Family Fold. However, in November 2010, our good friend and adopted Carter cousin Marty Stuart asked me to meet him and his band – The Fabulous Superlatives – at the studio to rehearse a few songs. That uplifting experience resulted in Marty inviting me to join them to tape three of his TV shows that air weekly on RFD-TV. He’s asked me to join him on the Opry in the next few weeks and hopefully more when he begins taping next season’s TV shows.
I have really enjoyed harmonizing with Marty and his band, all of whom are fantastic singers and musicians. It’s like being back singing with my family, and I’ve also been blessed to re-connect with Connie Smith (Marty’s wife and legendary singer in her own right). I’ve always said that my mom was the greatest woman who ever lived, but in my books, Connie is right up there with her.
Saw it in the news last week. After submitting a request to raise postal rates, it turns out that the United States Postal Service was turned down by its regulator, begging the question how this beleaguered government office – which had a $6 billion loss last fiscal year – will be able to foot the bill for national six day a week mail delivery in the future. I guess the answer is they won’t and we will just be communicating here in cyberspace more and more.
I suppose that’s inevitable. But if/when it goes, it will be sad to lose one of the great things about snailmail — stamp art. Stamp art like the swell series we had in 1993.
Seventeen years ago last week the U.S. Postal Service issued a special stamp, one that gladdened the hearts of country music fans and might have tickled at least one of the people it depicted.
According to the All Experts site on philately (which is a pastime more commonly called stamp collecting), the Postal Service issued a Legends of American Music series in 1993. There were 18 stamps issued in three categories:
Rock & Roll.
Rhythm & Blues.
Country & Western.
(Side note: How come popular musical categories come in pairs like that? As in, “I like both kinds of music – Country AND Western.”)
Anyway, earlier that year greats like Elvis Presley, followed later by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Bill Haley, Dinah Washington, Otis Redding and Clyde McPhatter, were depicted on the USPS stamps.
Finally on September 25, a block of stamps featuring Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and the Original Carter Family were issued.
There they are – Maybelle and Sara in matching blue polka-dot dresses flanking A.P. in the center who’s sporting a grey suit and vest. All are staring solemnly from their perforated window, a streamlined USA gracing the right corner and the price a mere 29 cents on the left. In tiny print at the left hand border we are delicately reminded that they are “country singers.”
Why should we care if someone’s face is on a postage stamp? Maybe it’s not that important. But all you have to do is listen to A.P. Carter’s granddaughter Rita Forrester (in one of our Winding Stream interviews) talk about it to know that it has meaning for someone:
“I worshiped my granddad. Ever step he took, I’d try to take one behind him. And, Lord, I miss him. But I do feel like he probably never realized what he had done, or his contributions to music. He would have been bowled over by the fact that his face was on a postage stamp. He would have got a kick out of that.”
And if you want to know how a stamp gets approved, visit this USPS link about the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee: http://www.usps.com/