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The Carter Family's American Music Legacy

On an August day 75 years ago, three country musicians traveled to the southern town of Bristol, Tennessee for their first record audition. They called themselves The Carter Family.

"They pretty much figured they were as good as anybody on record," said writer and documentary filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer. "So in 1927 when a record scout came down to Bristol, Tennessee, they piled into a little Essex automobile and bumped down a little dirt road and rode right into history."

Writer and documentary filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer has published a new book that coincides with the 75th anniversary of that historic audition. It's called Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music.

For the Carters, music and family have come to mean much the same thing. They've been singing together for generations now, everywhere from their own front porches to stages, radio stations and recording studios across the United States. Mark Zwonitzer says it's a tradition they still carry on, in their home town of Maces Springs, Virginia.

"They make music every Saturday night at the Carter Fold," he said. "It is about family, and it is about music, and it is about forgiving the difficult things about one another."

It's also about honoring a pioneering heritage. Mark Zwonitzer says the original Carter family helped redefine American music.

"The Carter family really were the first to bring this music that came out of the mountains down South to a modern audience of the 1920s and 1930s," he said. "And their music continues to be played to this day."

Mark Zwonitzer wrote his new book, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, with help from journalist Charles Hirschberg. The story unfolds in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, where A.P. Carter, born Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, Sara Dougherty and her cousin Maybelle Addington grew up steeped in local ballads and gospel hymns.

In 1915 Sara married A.P., and they began singing together. Soon they were joined by Maybelle, who married A.P.'s brother. Mark Zwonitzer says the group combined a range of gifts - Sara's strong, low-pitched voice, Maybelle's gifted guitar playing, and A.P.'s talent for writing and collecting songs.

"He would go house to house searching for songs. He would go to Kingsport where black blues musicians had songs. He went into the churches and got music," said Mr. Zwonitzer. "Eventually he was piloting his big red Chevrolet all over that part of the world grabbing new songs."

But Mark Zwonitzer says the Carters also put their own imprint on those songs.

"The guitar was relatively new in that kind of music," he said. "Previously it had been fiddle and banjo. They brought the guitar to the forefront and they bought strong voices and strong harmonies to the forefront."

By the late 1930s the Carter Family could be heard on a radio station along the Texas-Mexican border with a signal so powerful it reached across the United States. With their trademark song, Keep on the Sunny Side, they gave hope to Americans struggling their way out of hard economic times.

"They were speaking to a people who in many ways were dislocated," said Mr. Zwonitzer. "People from the South had moved up to take jobs in factories. They'd moved out west towards the picking fields of California. And folks stuck in Arizona or California could turn on the radio and feel a little piece of home."

But if they sang songs of encouragement, Mark Zwonitzer says pain and heartbreak also shaped their music.

"Life in the valley when you were working that land down there that wasn't particularly good land - it was tough," he said. "A lot of people died young of accidents or diseases that couldn't be stopped. Sara's mother died when she was three years old, and A.P.'s sister had died very young and unexpectedly. And then they had the break up of their marriage, which was also quite tragic."

While A.P. Carter was away searching the hills for new songs, his wife Sara fell in love with his cousin, Coy. In 1943, the original Carter family broke up. Sara remarried and moved to California. A.P. lived out his days in his native Virginia.

But Maybelle began a new musical career, performing with her three daughters at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. They were known as the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle.

Maybelle and her family performed with a host of other musicians from folk singer Pete Seeger to country music star Johnny Cash. He married Maybelle's daughter June and became part of the Carter family legacy himself. Here he and June Carter Cash sing together.

"This is a family that's always looked ahead," Mr. Zwonitzer said. "And the Carter sisters were interested in a jazzier kind of country. And later Carlene, the daughter of June, made some wonderful music of her own."

Carlene Carter, is one of many Carter family members, friends and neighbors who shared memories with Mark Zwonitzer while he was writing his book. He also talked with musicians across the United States. He says he was especially struck by how many were influenced by the Carter family.

"There was a whole generation of young performers-to-be like Willie Nelson and Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings, whose father used to pull a pick up truck up to the house, and hook up a car radio to the car battery so they could hear the Carters. And it's not just in country music. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once said there's always a little piece of the Carter family in any song I write. So their influence is deep and it's wide."

The recent hit movie O Brother Where Art Thou? contained several songs made popular by the original Carter Family. The film has helped create new interest in those old southern ballads of hope, loss and yearning. Mark Zwonitzer believes it's the kind of music that goes in and out of style, it but always comes back again.