Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?

No, that’s not the epitaph of Ken Cuccinelli.  It’s the name of a great book written about the Carter family of Scott County, Virginia.

For those of you not grounded in country music, the 1930′s was the birth of that genre in America. It coincided with the advent of radio programming from “super stations” that sprang up along the Rio Grande and broadcast unregulated into the States.  Those programs created a national audience for the earliest performers.

And who were they?   Much as the first rock and roll singers came out of the Mississippi Valley and recorded in Memphis, the first country singers came out of the Appalachian Plateau and migrated to Kingsport, Bristol and Knoxville to cut their first records.

The original Carter family consisted of A.P., Sarah and Maybelle, who lived in the shadow of Clinch Mountain in Maces Springs, Virginia, and drove to Bristol for their first recordings.  They were signed up on the spot by one of the early impresarios of the music industry, Ralph Peer, who also inked mountain music pioneer Chet Atkins.

The rest is music history.  Using instruments and cadences picked up from trips across the mountains, the Carter family rolled out hundreds of hits which they played and sang on a thirty-minute show broadcast nationally  on XERA from Mexico.  Through the 1930′s, they were nationally known for such timeless hits as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

Things didn’t work out perfectly.  A.P. and Sarah divorced and the original Family Trio inevitably fell apart. Sarah moved to California and remarried. A.P. moved back to Scott County.  Maybelle moved to Nashville and became part of country music royalty.  Her sister Anita was chased by Elvis.  Her husband drank with Hank Williams Senior.  Her daughter June married Johnny Cash.  Maybelle, with her unique style of guitar playing, was recognized as one of the most original musicians of any era.  Truly, they represented an original American music form.

I learned all this from the book, which I picked up this summer at “The Heartwood” center in Abingdon.  What a story.

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