The Carter Family: Can the Circle Be Unbroken

The Carter Family
Can the Circle Be Unbroken

Seminal music always seems to come at intersections — the vertices where separate forces meet and create something original. Sometimes the forces keep it light. Like when jazziness and hip-hop teamed up on A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. And sometimes the beauty and essential correctness of the collision creates a revolution. Like Elvis. A little of both was in the air when New York based A&R man Ralph Peer went to record indigenous music in the physically remote area of the mountainous mid-South known as Appalachia. The Carter family was his most important find. Even before they were discovered, the group was already a fusion of sorts, combining church singing with front porch picking and a new droning harmony sound. But beyond their regional innovations, they had a commercial appeal they couldn’t possibly have imagined.

From 1927 until 1943, the Carter Family was a national sensation. Roughly concurrent with the rise of jazz, they brought a new awareness of regional music to an America obsessed with radio. Before nationalized entertainment their fame would have been unimaginable. As it was, they became an important cultural reference point to the still embattled South. And when the group broke up they continued on anyway, with Maybelle Carter and her daughters Helen, Anita, and June (the future Mrs. Johnny Cash) keeping the group’s name and, to a lesser extent, songs, alive and well.

Can the Circle Be Unbroken is not from Ralph Peer’s original recording session, but from eight years later when the group was an accomplished act, flush with radio success and professional confidence. The 17 songs they recorded (three more songs from a 1940 session are tacked onto this re-issue) are all classics that were taken almost entirely from the public domain and credited to group leader A.P. Carter, as was traditional at the time. Some aficionados have criticized Can the Circle Be Unbroken as less immediate than earlier Carter Family recordings. To my ear, these recordings are just as affecting as those first efforts: slower and more polished, but with no less impact. And the improvement in fidelity, especially in this virtually hiss-and-pop-free re-mastered version, is striking.

When you listen to the Carter Family you’ll hear guitar, autoharp, and singing. That’s about it. But it’s the way they sing and play the guitar that’s important. Sara Carter’s lead vocal is plain, simple and beautiful in an old-fashioned way. Maybelle Addington (later Carter when she married A.P. Carter’s brother, Ezra) played the guitar with the instrumental equivalent of Sara’s singing: with clarity, subtlety and cocksure time. A.P., as the group’s musical director, was responsible for the song selection and arrangements, which were as much a part of the group’s success as anything else. Sometimes he threw in a low harmony to fine effect, but mostly he dealt with songs. And judging by the 20 gems on Can the Circle Be Unbroken, he rarely faltered.

The term is overused, but the Carter Family is truly essential listening for anyone interested in American music. It’s virtually impossible to imagine how Country would have gone without their influence. They weren’t mercurial talents like Louis Armstrong or Elvis Presley. Their recordings won’t shock you with exuberance or unbridled genius. And there is no guarantee that, had they not been discovered when they were, they would have changed the world. But nonetheless, through a combination of talent and fortuitousness they did.