Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?
The story of the Carter Family, also known as the First Family of country music.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?
By Mark Zwonitzer with
Simon and Schuster, 417 pages,
The story of the Carter Family is the story of Appalachian mountain music, the genre that would later spawn country, bluegrass, and folk music. Along with Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters were among the biggest stars of the late 1920s and ’30s. Their 78 rpm recordings of “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” sold close to 100,000 copies at a time when the recording industry was still relatively new. Carter Family songs have been recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, among others. They’re also credited with the first recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
For nearly half a century, the real story behind the breakup of the original Carter Family remained a mystery. Ensconced as the first family of country music, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle never spoke publicly of the split. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, however, reveals the family secrets in agonizing, intriguing detail worthy of a John Steinbeck novel. It’s a fascinating, eye-opening journey into the desperation that not only defined the Great Depression, but that also was the essence of Carter Family songs.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? is more than the Carters’ story, though. It’s also the story of the birth of the recording industry and the hoodwinking quackery of a millionaire “medical practitioner” named Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, the man who broadcast the Carter Family to much of the western hemisphere over his million-watt border radio station XERA. In fact, it’s the bizarre introduction of Brinkley’s cure for male impotence (which he regularly hawked over the airwaves) during the book’s prologue that initially prompts the reader’s jaw to drop before the Carters ever show up in their own book. The doctor was pocketing $750 to $2,000 a pop in the 1930s performing operations that involved grafting bits of goat testicles onto the gonads of gullible men who were seeking to regain their virility. One can hardly wait to find the Carters’ connection to this freak show.
Raised in Poor Valley, Virginia, at the bottom of Clinch Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter possessed a slight tremor from childhood on. The affliction (“nervous energy” the locals called it, as A.P. constantly talked to himself and could not sit still) was attributed to his mother having been struck by lightning while pregnant. His constant shaking added a distinctive vocal quiver to his bass voice that lent an ethereal, tender quality to the Carter Family sound. On the other side of Clinch Mountain, his future wife Sara lived in Rich Valley, so named for its fertile soil. Sara’s cousin Maybelle eventually married A.P.’s brother Eck, and soon Maybelle and Sara were close as sisters, spending their free hours singing and playing guitars together.
If having a woman [Sara] as lead singer made the Carters a unique act, A.P.’s role made them even odder. His bass dropped in and out of songs unpredictably, and there were some nights he didn’t bother to show up for concerts or recording sessions at all. A.P.’s number-one contribution was roaming the hills of Tennessee and Virginia in search of songs that he could adapt to the group’s sound. Though his name is listed as the writer on most of the Carter songs, he rarely wrote anything.
A.P. was unique in another way: he sometimes stayed with black families while traveling to collect blues songs and then reciprocated by allowing blacks to stay with him and Sara, much to the consternation of the locals. A.P.’s incessant travels left Sara to tend to the farm and raise the family, offering the first clue that their marriage would soon unravel. That Sara fell in love with his first cousin Coy, who moved into the Carter house to help Sara with the chores while A.P. traveled, made the divorce even more bitter.
Ralph Peer, the man who made a fortune off of musician Jimmie Rodgers and who introduced the terms “hillbilly” and “race” into the lexicon as new rural musical genres, recognized the Carter Family genius. Peer literally grew up with the recording industry. He was born in 1892, the same year that Thomas Edison introduced his Electric Motor Phonographs for $190 each. After the Carters’ audition in Bristol, Tennessee, Peer signed the trio to his Victor recording label, paying the group $50 for each song recorded. Steeped in opera and classical music, Peer despised the hillbilly and black blues from which he was making a fortune, but he made the Carter Family a household name by 1928. Soon, Maybelle’s graceful, thumping guitar style that incorporated rhythm and lead at the same time would be the most widely imitated picking technique around. Their harmonies grew incredibly tight. Because three minutes was the maximum space available on a 78 rpm record, they whittled a song down to its essence.
Maybelle and her husband Eck, however, stayed above the frayed edges that haunted A.P. and Sara’s lives. While singing songs about what the book refers to as “the fine art of hard living,” they lived like royalty, spending their money on cars, motorcycles, and other luxuries their neighbors could only dream about. Even Maybelle was a motorcycle enthusiast. The image of June and Maybelle careening around the dirt roads of Poor Valley at 100 miles per hour does not match the backwoods Grand Ole Opry image projected by the simplicity of their music or June’s dumb-girl comedy routine. Maybelle and her clan were actually quite sophisticated for a bunch of Clinch Mountain yokels. Eck, an entrepreneur at heart, introduced electricity to the valley in 1930 when he rigged a turbine wheel in a nearby creek. He was so successful that the Appalachian Power Company of Bristol bought him out when he began plugging in his neighbors. As part of the deal, Eck demanded—and received—every electrical appliance on exhibit at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Daughter Anita, the youngest of Maybelle and Eck’s three daughters, said she could not recall ever being without a dishwasher. It’s almost surreal, the way the Carters lived. Every Sunday afternoon, Eck would set up huge speakers in his yard and baffle the surrounding hillbillies by blasting Mozart and Beethoven into Poor Valley.
By the time Dr. John Romulus Brinkley entered their lives in 1938, Maybelle and family had been living well for quite some time. At Eck’s behest, Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. moved to Del Rio, Texas, where Brinkley paid them $75 a week each, with six months paid vacation thrown in. The Carters did two shows a day for six months on XERA, an outlaw radio station with the miraculous power to “shrink a vast continent down to the size of a small village.” Brinkley had been run out of Kansas after being stripped of his medical license. Fleeing to Texas, where medical standards were less stringent, he built a couple of hospitals for his libido-rejuvenating procedures. He even had pens out back for his many goats, allowing patients the opportunity to pick out their own goat testicles. Because of 50,000-watt restrictions on U.S. radio stations, Brinkley built XERA across the border in Mexico, where his million watts not only broadcast his surgical skills, but also sent the Carters across America, into Canada, and as far south as South America.
At this point, the story is only half-told. There’s still the anecdote of a drunken Hank Williams trying to shoot June Carter. And, of course, June will eventually marry Johnny Cash, who adds another dimension to Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? by performing such wild antics as kicking out the stage lights at the Grand Ole Opry. Night after night, the Carters went on perpetual searches of Cash’s dressing room to flush the many pills he had stashed away. Trying to find Cash’s pills was “like an Easter egg hunt,” said June’s sister Anita. A.P. does not have a happy ending, and most appropriately, neither does Dr. John Romulus Brinkley. Sara settles down in California with her true love, Coy. And as for Maybelle and her family, the best is yet to come. &