Growing the Wildwood Flower

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The little newspaper article that germinated the "first family" of country music - the Carter Family

Growing the Wildwood Flower

The little newspaper article that germinated the
"first family" of country music - the Carter Family

 

The tiny black letters of the morning newspaper were suddenly transformed into musical notes and dollar signs. Alvin Pleasant Carter gulped another swallow of his morning coffee and focused on the half column article on the front page of the Bristol News Bulletin. As he read, he began to picture a possible new chapter in his hard-working life as a farmer, carpenter, and fruit tree salesman.He wasn't quite sure what that chapter would be. But the article with the headline: "Mountain-Songs Recorded Here by Victor Company," seemed to be talking directly to him. He knew he had to pack his wife and sister-in-law - along with the children, guitars and autoharps - into the old Model A Ford and head down the mountain to read that new chapter.

The article announced a recording session by Victor representative, Ralph Peer, to be held in the nearby town of Bristol, which straddled the Tennessee-Virginia border. Peer had made an agreement with the Victor executives to go out into the hill country and round up some local talent. He had successfully recorded old-time mountain musicians for the General Phonograph Corporation's "Okeh" label and in fact, had introduced country music pioneer, "Fiddlin" John Carson."

Peer was quite the wheeler-dealer, and seldom had to pay for advertising.  This time, he had arranged for the well- known folk-singing "Stoneman Family" to join him for the recording session. Then he had convinced the News Bulletin editor that their presence in his town would warrant a front-page write-up about the event.Alvin Pleasant, or "A. P." as history would know him, contacted Peer and set up an appointment. On the first of August 1927, he pulled up in his mud-caked Model A, and he and his clan strolled into Peer's makeshift studio. They struck Peer as being pure mountain folk. A. P., as he later recalled, was "dressed in overalls." The women with him, he remembered, were "country women from way back there." As Peer and his two engineers prepared the trio for the recording session, Mrs. Peer took their children out back for ice cream.

A. P. and his wife Sara had already been singing together at casual neighborhood gatherings for over ten years by the time they landed in Peer's studio. Sara's sister Maybelle, had joined them the previous year. The homespun trio already had a good collection of songs, since A. P.'s father had been a mountain banjo player and his mother enjoyed singing old country ballads. Throughout his life, A. P. had been soaking up the fiddle tunes of the local square dances and hoedowns, the gospel songs of itinerant preachers and the work songs of black laborers.

As Maybelle tuned up her guitar and Sara positioned her autoharp, that little portable recording studio was on the verge of writing a golden chapter in country music history.  "As soon as I heard Sara's voice," Peer later remembered, "I began to build around it...I knew that it was going to be wonderful."During this brief session, the Carters recorded six sides, including "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow" and "Little Old Log Cabin by the Sea." After they had finished and the kids had polished off the last of the ice cream, Peer thanked them for coming. He then turned his attention toward some of the other local musicians who had been waiting their turn.

While the Carters returned to their simple life in the Clinch Mountains, Peer released their record. As he had suspected, something wonderful began to happen. The hardworking salt-of-the-earth southern families suddenly began to include something new on their weekly shopping list...that Carter Family record. It was selling well all across the South. In Atlanta alone, it sold over two-thousand copies in a single month.  Back in their mountain home, however, the Carter family members weren't even aware the record had been released. For one thing, they didn't own a phonograph. A. P. eventually learned of their good fortune when he heard the record being played in a store.

Seven months after their Bristol session, Peer asked the Carters to come to Camden, New Jersey to record again. That historic session engraved their name even more deeply into the halls of country music history. As the southern farm families touched their Victrola needles to the grooves from that session, they were treated to a pure earthy mountain sound. When "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Little Darling Pal of Mine" and the "Wildwood Flower" flowed from their speakers, their work-tired muscles relaxed, and a warm glow settled over their living rooms.

In later sessions, the Carters recorded more golden classics, like the "Wabash Cannonball" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" These songs would secure their status as the "First Family" of country music. Unfortunately, they didn't secure enough financial security to let them play full-time until the late 1930's. Several times during the height of their recording career, the group would have to stop performing so A. P. could find a carpentry job to keep food on the table.

Between his jobs, they presented stage shows in small towns throughout the south. These shows were very informal events, usually held in the local schoolhouse. The Carters would visit with the crowd before show time and sell the tickets themselves. Once they took the stage, they maintained the personal atmosphere, taking song requests throughout the performance. If the requested song was in a different key than the one they had just played, they calmly re-tuned their instruments, while the audience patiently waited.

The pure rich harmonies of this folksy mountain family would echo through the years, providing the spark for Bill Monroe's bluegrass and Bob Will's country swing. Woody Guthrie would carry Maybelle's guitar style from "California to the New York Islands." The tiny letters in that little Bristol newspaper article didn't just turn into dollar signs and musical notes. They eventually transformed into a musical language so universal it could join the world of country music lovers into a circle that will forever remain "unbroken."


Submitted: September 01, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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