It seems simple enough: Find every single recording by the first family of American country music and put 'em in a big box with a killer hardcover book full of essays and pictures and intricate track notation, right? Wrong. While it's true that Germany's Bear Family label produces box sets that virtually put every other company -- especially those in America -- to shame, it's the fanatical attention to detail and aesthetics that makes these sets so necessary. In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain
is a case in point, for it contains virtually every recording done by the Carter Family for every label they recorded for. No one else, not even Rounder with its exhaustive but slipshod reissuing of the Victor recordings, has even come close. Contained on 12 CDs are the sides that the Carter Family recorded for Victor, ARC, Decca, APS, Columbia, and even Bluebird. The sound sets a remastering standard for regaining fidelity from old masters without compromising integrity, and the package features photographs from the personal collections of Mother Maybelle and Janette Carter
, as well as numerous publicity shots. There is a fine biographical essay by Charles Wolfe
, and disc 12 is an interview conducted in 1963 by Mike Seeger
and Ed Khan with Sara
and Maybelle. The attention to detail on the track notation is frightening in its intricacy, and the book as a whole weighs more than the box with the CDs!
Enough about the package; it's the music that counts. From the earliest days of the Bristol, TN, sessions recorded by Ralph Peer in 1927, the Carters are documented not only as a developing recording and touring act, but also as interpreters of virtually forgotten songs of every type: folk songs, child ballads, gospel songs, blues, primitive forms of bluegrass, adapted shapenote songs, etc. The beginnings are easy enough to hear as history, for they have been presented in numerous settings before. On those first two days of August in Bristol, the Carters -- A.P.
, his wife Sara, and cousin Maybelle -- cut six sides for Peer, who was on a mission not only as a talent scout searching for the best of the traditional music acts in the Clinch Mountain vicinity (the Stonemans
were already recording by then), but was also hoping to find songs that had not been recorded before to bring them under a publishing umbrella. A.P., as is demonstrated on CD after CD, was an astute and crafty collector of old songs that he, Sara, and Maybelle remade in their own image. "Single Girl, Married Girl," from that first session, sticks out as something unmistakably and purely Carter, no matter how many times it was cut subsequently by other artists. The Victor period was certainly the freshest period for the group, as is evidenced here, but the Coral, Brunswick, Bluebird, and OKeh tenures, the final recordings by the original Carters made a scant 14 years later, are equally strong for their assurance and the haunting demeanor the songs and delivery had taken on. A.P.'s bass voice picked up the bottom end and fed it to Sara, who soared with Maybelle finding her way through the middle and playing some of the meanest slide guitar north of the Mississippi Delta. The now famous "No Depression" along with "In the Shadow of the Pines," "Answer to Weeping Willow," and "Dark Haired True Lover" from 1936 and 1937 were stellar in their delivery and in the lively harmony style A.P. developed around Sara's voice. But even at the very end, when the Carters recut "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Single Girl, Married Girl," there were new gems in the form of Maybelle's "Lonesome Homesick Blues" and "You Tied a Love Knot in My Heart," as well as the final recording of A.P.'s "Wabash Cannonball."
When A.P. walked away from music in 1941, it was Mother Maybelle, mother of June Carter Cash
, and Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara's daughter, who kept the flame alive. That story, too, is told here. But in the pictures, the song lyrics (complete), and the music itself, a much broader story is told, not only of the Carters but of the entire history of country music in particular and American popular music in general. Here were ordinary people who made extraordinary music, and changed the face of everything forever. It's hard to say if Peer had any inkling of this when he signed the Carters, but he had the vision and crafty knowhow to get the records made, pressed, and delivered to the public. The Carters' legacy as documented here leaves behind far more than the story of the first family of country music; it documents the continuation of the folk song tradition as administered by the Carters. While it's true that A.P.'s name is on almost all of these songs, he didn't write them. They were old as the hills themselves and in some cases older. In many cases, when the roots of a particular song could not be found, A.P. would learn it, change some words or a harmony or a melody line, and call it his own. And it was far from unethical during that time. And thank God he did, for many of these treasures, so readily available to anyone who wants to seek them out, would no doubt have passed into antiquity unremembered. This is the box set of the year 2002.