An investigative biography of the Carters, the legendary bluegrass/country music family, from documentary filmmaker Zwonitzer.
With little original source material to work from, Zwonitzer did plenty of ferreting to discover the influences of the original Carter Family—A.P., Sara, and Maybelle—who 75 years ago put their voices onto wax cylinders and left them to be remastered forever. With their unforgettable harmonizing and scratch guitar work on such songs as “Wildwood Flower” and “Let the Circle Be Unbroken,” the Carters’ music influenced later singers from Woody Guthrie and Elvis to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. But Zwonitzer also tracks musical influences on the Carters, from white southern gospel to Appalachian balladry, including descriptions of how A.P. scared up songs from the family’s poor hill country—from “remote hollows, tenant farms, mining camps, [and] big-city factories,” not to mention how they created wholly new material—songs of love, longing, hurt, loss, and suffering. Never soupy, always clear-eyed, the Carters offered a balm to the woes of the Great Depression with songs like “Keep On the Sunny Side.” Zwonitzer makes clear that they were no ham hillbilly act but just regular people, a family, though much of the story here is about the unraveling of that family and the reasons behind A.P. and Sara’s divorce and subsequent withdrawal from performing. Mother Maybelle kept at it, with her daughters, in the new Carter Family, and Zwonitzer charts their work here too, and their personal relations with artists like Hank Snow, Flatt and Scruggs, and Johnny Cash. He sheds light on the music industry’s financial skullduggeries, and there’s a greatly entertaining chapter on Texas radio station XERA, where the Carters were regulars, and on its owner “Doctor” Brinkley, purveyor of snake oil and sundry remedies.
“Above all, the Carters proved that simple songs about the lives of ordinary people can be as beautiful, as profound, and as lasting as music studied in conservatories.” Amen.