The story of the Carter family, America’s musical clan
A new graphic novel tells the story of the Carters, one of America’s pre-eminent country-music families.
Seattle Times book editor
The artist and co-author of “Don’t Forget This Song” will participate in a day devoted to graphic novels with other graphic artists, including Seattle’s Ellen Forney, starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Seattle Design Center, with afternoon activities and an after-party at the Fantagraphics Bookstore. Sponsored by the Graphic Artists Guild. Info and tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/307634
Sometimes life circles back on you, as graphic artist David Lasky knows. It took a move across the country to Seattle for Lasky, a native Virginian, to discover his home state’s most famous musicians — the Carter Family.
Any student of contemporary music knows about the famous Carters, who lived in the state’s mountainous west, sang like angels in church, played instruments like the devil and wailed the tragic ballads of their Anglo-Saxon forebears.
In the late 1920s three of the Carters — A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (married to A.P.’s first cousin) traveled to Bristol, Tenn., and auditioned for a New York record executive looking for “hillbilly” talent.
The three would form the core of the Carter Family — the tunes they recorded, including “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” remain at the core of the country-folk-bluegrass pantheon.
Maybelle’s daughter June would marry and perform with Johnny Cash, their love story immortalized in the song “Ring of Fire.” Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie would both later acknowledge their debt to the Carters.
Lasky was raised in the Virginia suburbs, not the hills. In the early 1990s, living in Seattle, he saw a TV documentary about the Carters and became obsessed with their story. “What I’ve learned about country music is that it became big when people moved away from the country, working in the cities but wanting to hear something from home,” Lasky recalls. “That’s what happened to me.”
He linked up with Seattle writer Frank M. Young, who had heard the Carters’ music while growing up in Florida. “They were songs everyone seemed to know,” Young remembers. The two hatched an idea — to create a graphic novel telling the Carters’ story.
The result — “The Carter Family — Don’t Forget This Song” (Abrams Comic Art, 192 pp., $24.95) will be pure pleasure for anyone interested in music history (a bonus CD includes a Carter family music collection). It tells a bittersweet and very American story.
Young and Lasky vividly re-create the hardscrabble life of the Carters before music put cash in their pockets. They often went without food. The women did all the housework and child rearing, early on without modern appliances (washing machine, indoor plumbing).
A.P., Sara and Maybelle eventually recorded more than 300 songs. They moved for a time to the Texas-Mexican border to live half the year and broadcast over XERA, the mammoth transcontinental broadcasting station. They sold a million records.
The Carter children joined the group, and “Mother Maybelle” pioneered a guitar technique of playing the baseline with her thumb while her fingers strummed the melody. Young, a guitarist as well as an author, says that “I’ve spent lots of hours trying to figure out what Maybelle Carter was doing. I can do a pretty good ‘Wildwood Flower,’ but I’m still trying to figure out a lot of it, 30 years later.”
This wholesome facade masked a family tragedy — A.P., a head-in-the-clouds guy who neglected his family to seek out new songs, eventually drove Sara into another man’s arms. They divorced; she remarried. But the public saw the singing Carters as a seamless unit.
Young and Lasky tell the story with sympathy and insight. Lasky’s artistic style reflects the golden age of comics, taking inspiration from strips like “Little Orphan Annie” and “Gasoline Alley.”
They read dozens of books, including several family memoirs and listened to the music. “I came from a different time and place, and I really had to do my homework, It was a different way of living,” Lasky says.
The Carters were a bridge from that time to this. “So many things that would happen to rock or soul musicians later in the 20th century happened to the Carter family first,” Lasky says.
“Coming out of the church and into commercial performing ... the blending of genres. They did all that before Elvis or the Beatles experienced those things ... it’s a really important part of American music.”
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.