Thursday, February 02, 2006 ... 7:53 PM
Charlotte Skyline: Boney's Anachronistic Best of 2005, part four
6) The Carter Family 1927-1934 (JSP); Will the Circle Be Unbroken (PBS)
Last week I discovered that each morning, on my way to work, I drive past the recording studio where in 1965 James Brown cut "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." It's called Studioeast. It's a brown-brick shoebox, hunkered between a crematorium and an appliance mart, across the road from Sharon Memorial Park & Cemetery. The neighborhood is one of those urban-sprawl commercial zones that mainly leaves the impression of stained concrete.
Back then, Studioeast was run by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, a multi-instrumentalist in jazz, swing, and country stringband music. He was also a songwriter, and a broadcast personality with a nationally syndicated TV variety show. In photos he looks dapper and kind of uptight. Even dressed down in flannel he less resembles a ramblin man than a Senator on vacation. Smith co-penned the tune "Feudin Banjos" in 1955, and later won a lawsuit against the producers of the movie Deliverance when they used his song without permission. His 1948 record "Guitar Boogie" helped popularize the electric guitar, and in particular the Fender Broadcaster, a Telecaster prototype. "Guitar Boogie" is also one claimant to that nebulous laurel, First Ever Rocknroll Record.
In 1965, James Brown and his band were in Charlotte for a tour date. In Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's tracking room, they captured "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" on the second take. Jimmy Nolen's guitar jangled and chirped, the horns hopped around. It was a new sound for soul music. The group played it slower and longer than what you hear on the Oldies station; Ron Lenhoff, Brown's regular engineer in Cincinnati, edited the Charlotte tape down from seven minutes, and then sped it up. You know the rest.
My wife and I had to drive to Atlanta to see Neko Case, and we last caught Gillian Welch in tiny Lexington, Virginia. Chris Scruggs made a Charlotte stop in July, and no one showed up to see him. Last month, Aerosmith's appearance here was a very big deal. The nightly news ran "Love In An Elevator" with the end credits. Charlotte in the 2000s seems filled with young bankers who drive SUVs and satisfy their groove with Hits of the 80s radio.
It was not always so. In the 1930s, Ralph Peer and other label scouts cutting hillbilly and race records in the field set up permanent facilities here, establishing Charlotte as the recording center of the Southeast. WBT, the region's first commercial radio station, featured top country acts such as Dave Macon, the Carter Family, and Bill Monroe. Running these days on 1110 AM, WBT has become the local dump for garbage such as Rush Limbaugh and Neal Boortz. Recently on a lunch break, I listened as Rush blustered on and on about how the just-announced indictment of "Scooter" Libby did not support the theory that Bush's case for the Iraq War was a deliberate deception. Rush kept predicting, "Now you're going to hear the left-wing media try to tell you ..."
In 1943, the same WBT gave the Carter Family their last gig. Maybelle, AP and Sara played the daily sunrise slot for one year. When they had fulfilled this contract the three original Carters split, and from Charlotte went their separate ways.
To paraphrase Sarah Vowell, it's fun to know about the history that visited the ground beneath your feet. For instance, the Delmore Brothers recorded here, and Uncle Dave Macon. Betsy and I wonder if Uncle Dave is singing about the Old Plank Road in northwest Charlotte.
A couple miles north of my house, REM in 1983 recorded their first LP Murmur. Was Alternative Rock born here? I won't argue that, but I'll suggest that you consider it -- Murmur. Also consider that in 1936, about two miles west of me, Bill and Charlie Monroe cut their first ten sides, including "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms," making Charlotte the Bethlehem, if not the Nazareth, of Bluegrass music.
Here in 1939, the Carter Family in their penultimate sessions recorded "You Are My Flower" and "Coal Miner's Blues." When their border radio sponsor moved to Charlotte in 1942, the Family came with him, though Sara was reluctant to go on with her music career. The previous year the group had held their last recording session in NYC, and Sara sang "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room." Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here, and I long for elbow room.
The WBT studios were located on the corner of South Tryon St and 3rd St, in the Wilder Building. Maybelle's daughter June Carter would perform on the show, which ended at 6:15AM, and then head off to class at Paw Creek High School northwest of the city. June said of the WBT gig, "It was kind of a strained situation. My uncle A.P. and aunt Sara had been divorced." She may have understated the vibe; around this time Janette Carter, daughter of Sara and AP, recorded the aggressive suicide threat song "Last Letter":
Why do you treat me as if I were only a friend?
What have I done that has made you so distant and cold?
Sometimes I wonder if you'll be contented again
And will you be happy when you are withered and old?
I wonder about those months here in Charlotte. How it felt. Sara had remarried, but was unable until now to finally extract herself from her life with AP. I wonder why she stuck around. I come up with security, in all forms, however stifling. Money, the habit of just being there. The sense of responsibility to AP, whose long hounddog face must have haunted her each morning, the way his quavering baritone haunts the choruses of her songs. These are familiar feelings to anyone who first married too young, and was ready to quit long before awakening to the reality of moving on.
Sara Carter never let us know how she felt. The subjects of her songs are melodrama, tragedy, histrionics, holy ecstasy -- but her delivery is invariably cool and opaque. The bounce in Maybelle's clawhammer guitar scratch telegraphs her enthusiasm for the music, and AP's voice jumps in and out with the insecurity of a third wheel. Sara's readings are blank screens. All the country musicians looking up to her have projected upon her. The Carter Family have been called upon for credibility by folks from Johnny Cash to Freakwater, and I always wonder what these folks think they hear in there.
Just before Christmas I e-mailed the Carter Family Fold, hoping to get through to Janette, who ran the place, hoping to ask her about those last months her parents worked together in Charlotte. No one ever responded. I don't know if she would have returned the e-mail, but I just discovered that Janette was sick. She died three weeks ago on Sunday. The Virginia legislature adjourned in her honor, according to daughter Rita's statement on the Fold website. Rita also tells a good story there about Janette meeting Margaret Thatcher:
Mom smiled her sweetest smile and said, "Hello, honey, how are you?"
Information about the last year of the Carter Family is sparse. I wonder if anyone who'd remember it survives. The 2005 documentary Will the Circle Be Unbroken barely touches that period. Mark Zwonitzer skims it in his biography of the Family, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone. He tells us that the Family lived in the Roosevelt Hotel and that for breakfast they ate biscuits and gravy. He focuses on Maybelle's kids, the future of the Family. Drawing a straight line to the future from 1943, we see a parking lot where the Wilder Building stood. You can wait there on the corner of 3rd and Tryon hoping to pick up a Carter Family vibration, but you will only get a mouthful of car exhaust. The textile mill workers and furniture craftsmen who made up the country music audience of WBT have evaporated, their jobs gone to China, clearing the city for the young executives of Wachovia and Bank of America, who we presume prefer Rush Limbaugh's political analysis to the ancient maudlin ballads and blues.
Boy, does this post kick ass. I sure wish I'd written that.
Thanks Kurt. The Monochord is one of my favorite sites, so your praise and the link mean a lot to me. I'm not positive I have enough to say about old-time music, but a collective would be fun.
Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"
Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?
The Greensboro Review
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central