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Country Music's First Family
New Book Chronicles Legacy of the Influential Carter Family

audio icon Listen to Bob Edwards' report.

listen Listen to a selection of Carter Family songs.

The Carter Family
The Original Carter Family: Maybelle (seated), with A.P. and Sara.
Photo: Flo Wolfe

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The Carter Family Album of Smokey Mountain Ballads
A Carter Family songbook featuring "Smokey Mountain ballads."
Photo: Flo Wolfe

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Carter Family songs

listen "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow" (Recorded Aug. 1, 1927, in Bristol, Tenn., during the "Bristol Sessions")

listen "The Poor Orphan Child" (Recorded Aug. 1, 1927, in Bristol, Tenn., during the "Bristol Sessions")

listen "Keep on the Sunny Side" (Recorded May 9, 1928, in Camden, N.J.)

listen "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" (Recorded May 10, 1928, in Camden, N.J.)

listen "Gold Watch and Chain" (Recorded June 17, 1933, in Camden, N.J.)

July 16, 2002 -- The Carter Family's influence has reached far beyond the makeshift studio in Bristol, Tenn., where their first recordings were made 75 years ago. Carter Family songs like "Wildwood Flower," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Worried Man Blues" laid the foundations for country, folk and bluegrass music.

Woody Guthrie, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have all recorded the Carter Family's music.

Mark Zwonitzer has just co-written a book about country music's first family, called Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. He tells Morning Edition host Bob Edwards that during those seminal "Bristol Sessions" in 1927 the Carters -- Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle -- sounded like nothing New York record scout Ralph Peer had ever heard before.

"Sara had an absolutely beautiful voice," Zwonitzer says. "She was a beautiful woman and she could really sing. People were absolutely knocked out by her. And Sara's cousin, Maybelle... was already, even at the age of 18, a guitar virtuoso. She had already developed her own style called the Carter scratch, where she could play both the melody and the rhythm on the guitar. It was like having two instruments in one."

Zwonitzer says the sound and words had a special appeal to rural America during the Depression. "I really think they cut down into their recordings the sense that country people had that somehow out in the middle of nowhere they were forgotten and didn't quite matter. And I think what the Carters' appeal was that they really spoke to those folks."

Or as his book puts it: "The lonesomest, neediest, most cut-off listeners could lean forward toward their radio sets, hear those songs, and think, That's just how it was....They understand."

But as they became more famous, the group was forced to come up with more and more songs to satisfy demand. That left A.P. Carter to scour the Appalachian Mountains for new tunes, and that took him away from home and Sara.

"A.P. was going in ever-widening loops in those mountains looking for new songs and he hauled up a lot of them," Zwonitzer says. "So there were times when he was out hunting songs and Sara really was left home with the kids with not much to make do."

While A.P. was away, Sara fell in love with a cousin of A.P.'s. But even after Sara and A.P. separated and divorced in the 1930s, the Carter Family kept recording. "And in some ways... those difficulties really added something to the music," Zwonitzer says.

In Depth

more  The Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith's influential compilation from 1952, features the Carter Family.

audio icon  The Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" is on the NPR 100 list of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.

more  An Aug. 31, 1998, edition of Fresh Air featured a rebroadcast of interviews with Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash about the Carter Family.

Other Resources

• Visit the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance to learn about the Carter Family and the seminal 1927 "Bristol Sessions" recorded by Ralph Peer.

• Read an excerpt from Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg.

• Read lyrics to Carter Family songs.

• Learn more about Bristol, Tenn., home of the famous 1927 recording sessions and considered the birthplace of country music.

• Review a country music timeline.