The highly influential Carter Family made their first recordings in 1927. Between then and 1943, when they disbanded, the Family recorded more than 300 old-time country and folk songs. The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Carter Family in no way represents the best of the Carter Family’s full recorded output. Rather, it focuses entirely on the three years the trio spent recording for the Decca label. Although this doesn’t automatically make it a bad collection of music, it certainly means it’s been hopelessly misnamed.
Between 1936 and 1938, the Carter Family recorded 60 songs in three sessions for Decca. Two of these sessions have been released in full on two individual volumes during the first years of this new millennium. Volume Three of the Decca Sessions, however, is nowhere to be seen. This new compilation takes five songs from the first Decca Session (June 1936), four from the second (June 1937) and five otherwise currently unavailable songs from the third and final session (June 1938). It’s a pretty skinny offering, really—a scant 41 minutes of 70-year-old tunes—and although the sound quality is high and the playing is technically quite possibly the best the Carter Family ever achieved, there is something important lacking here. It can probably best be described as energy and commitment. Or perhaps soul.
The Carter Family consisted of Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle Addington Carter, who just happened to be married to A.P.‘s brother Ezra. Sara sang lead and played autoharp. Maybelle played guitar and provided distinctive harmonies. A.P. contributed little musically and sang a very occasional bass harmony. Essentially, his role was to find and arrange the songs that Sara and Maybelle performed. By the time of these Decca recordings, Sara Carter had left A.P. and the end was already in sight for the Family. It may be fanciful to imagine that you can hear the tiredness and disenchantment in these performances. It may simply be the effect of Sara’s always straightforward and almost perfunctory vocals dropping down several notches from her original alto pitch. But still, the overall impression is a vulgar picture of a record company re-packaging the second best works of musicians who were simply going through the motions by this stage. Interesting, but far from inspirational.
Even so, the minimalist and innovative sound of the Carter Family is something to cherish, and their legacy is pervasive even today. It would be impossible to imagine, say, Abigail Washburn’s recent debut, the wonderful Song Of the Traveling Daughter, without the influence of the Carter Family; and songs as fine as the best of this collection (“No Depression”, “The Wayward Traveller” and, especially, “Coal Miner’s Blues”) certainly deserve to be heard.