38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
There is not a dull page in this 397 page account of The Carter Family. The writers manage to strike a happy medium between a scholarly treatise and a popular biography, something I find very appealing. In addition to being a biography of the Carters, the book also is a history of country music in the first half of the Twentieth Century roughly and a statement on rural Southern sociology of the time as well.
The book is full of information that I suspect is told for the first time as well as trivia many of us knew but had forgotten: For example, there was a time when soft drinks were called "dopes" in East Tennessee. I had forgotten that and that my aunt wore Blue Waltz perfume. (There is a funny account of Maybelle's breaking a bottle of this dreadful perfume she was using as a slide for her guitar in a recording session.) I laughed out loud to learn that Helen Carter, who could learn to play any instrument almost immediately, was having trouble with her first accordian. It took Pee Wee King's telling her she was playing the instrument upside down to get her on the right track. The Original Carter Family was the first group to let the women lead as opposed to being backup singers. The less than admirable Ralph Peer of the recording industry coined the term "hillbilly" for the kind of music Carters and other country Southerners played in the early part of the 20th Century. There is a good account of A. P.'s collecting mountain songs all over the South. That contribution alone would make him a giant in folk/country music. Finally we learn a great deal about both generations of this great family, from A. P., Sarah and Maybelle to "Mama" Maybelle and her daughters. I was pleased to learn, for example, that Maybelle was as good and kind a person as she always seemed to be. (She even sat with sick people for part-time employment at one point in her later life when country music was in an eclipse.) There is a poignant contrast between what apparently was the long and happy marriage of Maybelle and A. P. Carter's brother Eck and A. P. and Sarah's marriage that ended in divorce. Certainly there is nothing more heart wrenching than Sarah's dedicating a song over the radio (apparently in the presence of A. P.) to the man she married after her divorce. The song was "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes." Coy Bays, the intended recipient, heard the song all the way in California and came to Texas for his woman. In the many years that A. P. lived alone thereafter, he never stopped loving Sara. She was preceded in death by him. Both of them are buried, however, only two rows from each other (even though Sara died in California and had been divorced from A. P. for many years) in Mount Vernon Cemetery in Maces Springs, Virginia with identical tombstones. Above their names and dates in beautiful pink marble are perfectly round 78 records and the words "Keep on the Sunny Side."
This is a really fine book. Even folks not interested much in this sort of music should find it fascinating. It is the one by which later biographies of the Carters will be judged.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2002
To all but a few of us -- that "few" being those who knew them personally -- A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter have always been little more than stoic, unsmiling, unreadable faces on the covers of Carter Family reissues. Mark Zwonitzer, assisted by Charles Hirshberg, manages to put breath and life into these three giants of country and folk music. Though they were ordinary people, they possessed an extraordinary gift, and it took them far from the shadow of their native home in Clinch Mountain, Virginia, and into the ears and hearts of people all over the world -- yet without ever revealing very much of anything about themselves.
In a number of ways, this is a sad story. Alvin Pleasant Carter emerges as something of a tragic figure. He is also by far the most interesting personality of the three, even if not possessed of the stunning musical talents of Sara and Maybelle. The book comes most to life, in my opinion, when A. P., without whom none of us would have heard of the Carter Family, is at its center.
As a purely human story, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? -- the title comes from one of the family's most doleful songs -- will keep you reading far into the night. In focusing on the personal aspects, however, it foregoes the sort of deeper musical analysis some of us would like to have seen. It also lacks a discography, which one would have thought essential to a volume of this kind. Even so, this is a welcome, informative book which treats its subjects with an appealing warmth devoid of sentimental gloss.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Zwonitzer's look at the First Family of Country Music, the Carter Family, is long overdue, but very much welcome. Finally the information and stories that fans have been waiting decades for come to life on the book's pages. And what stories they are...
I wish I could have been in Bristol when A.P., his wife Sara, and cousin Maybelle Carter made their first recording for Ralph Peer. It had to be one of those timeless moments in music history when someone realized that everything that had come before was about to change. Zwonitzer captures that moment and many others for the reader. The story of how the Carter Family was formed, thrived, soared, and then torn apart is a story that beats the heck out of any soap opera. It's a wonderful story, an inspiring story, and ultimately a heartbreaking story. The style of writing is familiar and comfortable, like an old uncle sitting on the front porch, telling you what it was like when the Carter Family was still around.
The best part of the book is the close examination of each of the three principal players in the Carter Family saga: The quiet, never-sitting-still A.P., leaving home for days on end, seeking out new songs for the group while further alienating his already distant wife Sara, the one person he could never forget. Maybelle, who loved performing almost as much as she loved her family. Her style of guitar playing is still studied and imitated by guitarists all over the world. And Sara - perhaps the most tragic figure of all...but I won't tell you the full story. (Otherwise you might not buy the book!)
'Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone' tells these stories so well that when it strays away from the three principal players, I grew less interested. It seemed much attention and far too many pages were devoted to too many minor characters. And so many other parts of the book were severely truncated: Where is all the information about Maybelle and Sara's reunion performances and recordings? How did they feel singing songs they hadn't performed together in over 20 years? What about the origins of some of the songs? In one portion of the book, Zwonitzer tells us that Maybelle gave interviews telling where several of the songs came from, how A.P. put them together, etc., but I wanted to know more. After all, some of these songs have stood the test of time for over 75 years.
Although the book contains some disappointments, I can say the same for it that I do for the recordings: I'm thankful for what we have. It hurt me to read how the music of the Carter Family was almost forgotten by the music industry and the public in the 60's. This music is timeless. If you've never heard a Carter Family disc, buy one. Better yet, buy the 5-disc 1927-1934 set. (It's a steal on Amazon!) Then read the book. Sadly, we will probably never see their like again. But they were here for a short time, and what a difference they made and continue to make. The circle remains unbroken...but yes, we do miss them.
397 pages with photos
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2003
I largely agree with previous reviewers who praise this book's fine writing and intelligent analysis. The book is indeed a valuable addition to the literature on early country music and roots music in general. Clearly this is a labor of clear-headed love backed by prodigious research. But here is a major problem that should disturb any conscientious reader: the book cites no sources and has no notes or bibliography. This is just indefensible in a work of scholarship -- lazy at best and dishonest at worst. Even if one gives the author a pass on citing his own interviews, there is an enormous amount of information in this book that simply goes uncredited. It's not enough to thank a few people in the acknowledgements. Not only does the book plunder others' work without giving due credit, it also gives the reader no way to follow up on subjects of interest -- one of the joys of the reading life. One hopes that the author and Simon & Schuster will do the right thing for the paperback edition and supply at least a minimum of documentation for what is otherwise an excellent study.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2003
This is an awkward, well-researched but uneven treatment of the Carters by writers who appear to have only a passing familiarity with traditional country music but who sensed a "good story" in the family saga. It is perhaps unfair to complain of a lack of scholarship, since the authors make no claim to such and are clearly aiming at a general audience. A "popular" approach, however, needn't employ cornball, prissy prose of the sort sometimes used in efforts to make history palatable to "young adult" audiences. ("The frets seemed to pull those nimble fingers to the very place where they were supposed to be."
The text contains many clueless, nonsensical musical descriptions that lead to the unfortunate conclusion that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, has not seen fit to have the book given the once-over by an editor with some minimum musical savvy. A&R man Ralph Peer is described as "an opera's worth of contrapuntal chords." (Say what?) We're informed that the music of black Kingsporters was "starting to get the bluesy feel they'd picked up on old Scott Joplin-like ragtime records." Really? What records might these be? Do the authors contend that Joplin is "bluesy?" (Maybe they've got him confused with W. C. Handy.) What is meant when the authors say that the Carters "added frets" to a performance? The authors write that Maybelle used a pick "when things got too fast for her bare fingers;" she did play "the Carter scratch" with a thumbpick, and played some numbers fingerstyle, but speed was not a consideration.
A duet by Anita Carter and Hank Williams on a Kate Smith TV show is described as "sophisticated" and "complicated." We're told "copyists in NY were having a devil of a time translating Sara and Maybelle's melodies into sheet music notes." (Where did the authors glean this information? No novice copyist would have any difficulty with a Carter melody.) The Carter's music speaks for itself - attempts to validate it in the eyes of those outside the fold by attributing to it some mysterious "complexity" are misguided. Cannot the music be deep and intense and at the same time simple (relative to the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the era's pop and jazz music)?
Along with the musical misstatements there's some plain bad writing. Elvis Presley, a onetime suitor of Anita Carter's, is described as having "riled" an audience when the authors' intent seems to be to convey that he excited rather than antagonized his listeners. (Rile: " to irritate and make angry" in my dictionary.)
A total absence of footnotes or even a list of sources is does not inspire confidence in the accuracy of quotes or anecdotes. There are some quotes from Ralph Peer that show him in a bad light, but we can't find where they originally appeared, so as to judge whether they've been reproduced accurately or out of context. Without some citation of (even an anonymous) source I have a hard time accepting at face value a passing mention of Minnie Pearl (!) having propositioned both Hank Williams and Carl Smith.
The caption to a photo of June Carter with Carl Smith (her first husband) identifies him as Johnny Cash (her third), bolstering the feeling that this book was not written or edited by people who know country music.
After all this griping, it must be conceded that the authors, aided by access to the surviving members of the Carter circle, do a credible job of illuminating the character of A.P., Maybelle, Sara and their offspring. Light is shed on the tangle of marriages and divorces, especially Sara's split with A.P.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2009
This book covers an enormously important group in American music, and for that the authors deserve our thanks. It's a decent read and has plenty of fun and interesting information and anecdotes that people will no doubt enjoy. But as a serious (which is not to say scholarly) biography, it falls short. There are gaps in information, little real insightful analysis of what it is that makes the Carters' music so special, and some rather poor writing. Compare this to something like Nolan Porterfield's outstanding biography of Jimmie Rodgers, and the weaknesses in this book become startlingly apparent. Until a better study of the Carter Family comes along, there's no real alternative to recommend (there is Charles Wolfe's extensive liner notes to the Carter Family box set on Bear Family Records, but that's not easily accessible). If you're interested in the Carters, read this, but prepare to be underwhelmed--not by the story of the Carter Family, but by the way it's told here.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2002
"Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" is not only an exceptional history of the Carter family but also a fine history of rural America in the 20's, 30's and 40's. From the mountains of Virginia, the powerful radio stations in Mexico across the river from Texas, the great depression, and life in the 60's and 70's. If you have the slightest interest in country music this book should be on your must read list. You will not only read a great history of the Carter family but find stories of Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Tom T.Hall, Hank Williams and others. I have read this book three times thus far and each time I find it hard to lay the book down.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Seamless tracing out of these people out of the hills of Virginia who till the end, didn't see themselves as any different from the rest, other than they liked to play and sing music, and people liked to listen.
For one such as I who never knew much about those behind the likes of June and Johnny, this was revealing. Strong characters of A.P. and Sarah and Eck and Maybelle, et al, form the nucleus of this formidiable foundational country/folk.
The ties with the likes of Atkins and Hank Williams and Elvis and Nitty Gritty, etc. are documented in such a unasuming and relaxed way that it seems as though you're there in their warm hospitality which they showed to all who came to Clinch Mountain.
The reader will surely take away fond stories, such as: Maybelle's panic to find instrument for June to play as approach Texas radio gig, writing chord changes on autoharp, June recalling Mom's admonition "You will learn to play the autoharp this week;" or Cowboy Slim borrowing Maybelle's guitar, only to lose it in a poker game; to dreaded Al Gore Sr.'s singing.
Appreciated spiritualness of the Carter's. Interesting point Zwonitzer makes on page 311: "Sam Phillip's boys--Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash--were raised on gospel and country music. .... But their hit songs were the yearnings of the flesh. In fact, by the mid-fifties, everybody seemed to be sings about the scratching the big itch, and Maybelle's more indirect and innocent songs of woodland cottages and myrtle, dewy roses and heavenly light, were starting to feel a little dusty."
Author is real wordsmith. Reading this book is like putting on that ole pair of bluejeans that feels so good and comfortable. Fine example of written documentary of seminal musical group to this country's rich musical lore.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2002
This is probably one of the best books about an entertainer (or in this case a group of entertainers) that's ever been written. The book is scholarly and well researched, yet entertaining enough to appeal to the masses. The authors obviously have a great deal of respect for the Carters and their legacy in music. This book is a mirror of the Carter Family legacy. It is full of tradition, heartbreak, humility, sadness, love and hope.
Much of the information in this book is new to even the most dedicated Carter Family fan. That makes the book well worth the read. The authors have repeated a few well-published and circulated stories about both of the first two generations of the Carter Family. However, these stories only add to the book's appeal as they are woven within a larger and more vivid picture of the clan than has ever been made public. Much of the book explores the career of the "second" Carter Family: (aka Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters). One wonders why they don't also appear on the cover. Their career lasted longer than did the Original Carter Family's and was of great importance as well.
There needs to be a movie. I hope there will be.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2006
If you are a fan of the Carter Family, then you will find this book interesting to the same extent that you enjoy their music, I would say!
WILL YOU MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE is a great biography that goes pretty in-depth, and explains the joys and sorrows of the lives and musical careers of the Carter Family!
It is really fascinating to read about who the original Carter Family trio were -- (A.P. CARTER, who was the songwriter, researcher, arranger, bass backup vocalist and leader of the group; and SARA CARTER, his wife, the lead vocalist and harpsichord player; and MAYBELLE CARTER, their younger cousin/in-law, backing vocalist, and the most underrated and forgotten guitar playing pioneer in musical history!), -- and how they got into the music business, and how they influenced the early music industry and country music.
All the Carter Family members sang, and their harmonies and vocal interplays are among the most sincere, skilled, and enjoyable of all country music, of any time period, though they did it first and best on record. That's a fact, in my opinion!
The second version of the Carter Family, (mother Maybelle and her three daughters, Helen, June, and Anita), is also covered in-depth in the second half of the book! This is where many characters overlap characters seen in the 2005 Johnny Cash biography movie, WALK THE LINE, (also highly recommended by me, to you).
There are plenty of interesting, informative, and entertaining photos (both family and professional promotionals) sprinkled throughout the book, too!
If I had to criticize anything, I would say that sometimes the author wanders too long explaining the peripheral things going on in America and/or the music industry. These things are fascinating, but you start to wonder why it's all included. Thankfully, most of it pays off later when these obscure, forgotten people and events cross paths with our heroes of the story, the Carter Family! Stick with it, it's worth it!
I actually started reading this book a few years back, but I got bogged down trying to picture who was who, so I ended up putting it on the shelf for years. After I saw the recent Johnny Cash biography film, WALK THE LINE, which featured some of the Carter Family members, I was better able to put names with faces and characters, and that film also rekindled my dormant interest in the Carter Family.
There is a pretty decent DVD from PBS called THE CARTER FAMILY: WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN, which shows the author of this book, and is a terrific companion piece for this book. In fact, I'm not sure if you should read the book first, or watch the DVD biography? You decide whichever format you prefer first, and you will likely get both eventually.
The DVD sort of shows, accidentally, that there are two kinds of Carter Family fans: actual people from the South who love and live the music, and folk music loving intellectuals who love the music and its place in Americana! I am of the latter, but I grew up around plenty of Southern people, though the youngsters preferred Skynyrd, while only the older folks liked the really rootsy classics.
You should also get the two 5-disk CD sets from JSP Records, 1927-1934, and 1935-1943. These two CD sets are affordable from amazon.com, and they are the best and most economical way to have a virtually complete library of the original Carter Family's studio recording history, and there is no better collection currently available to my knowledge!
I would recommend the 1927-1934 set first, which has the most historic stuff, the most energy, and the best vibe. The 1943 set is after they had stopped living together, but is more professional sounding, yet less energetic (more melancholy); but you will likely get both after hearing the 1927 set, I trust.