Various Artists: The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family
In 1987 a trio from Illinois calling themselves Uncle Tupelo began making music, which, to oversimplify, combined the melodic twang of country music with the energy of punk rock, and forged what has come to be known today as alt-country. After disbanding, songwriter and guitarist Jeff Tweedy went on to found Wilco, which today is one of the most vital and innovative rock bands around. It is fitting, then, that Uncle Tupelo's watershed album took its title, No Depression, from the song of the same name (dropping "In Heaven" from the end) by the Carter Family. Beginning as a trio themselves in 1926, the Carter Family was among the first groups to bring rural music into the mainstream, and in their 17-year existence (in their original incarnation) created a body of work which drew from the old folk and gospel traditions, and influenced their contemporaries, right on through to Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and a full 60 years later, three kids from Illinois. The legacy of the Carter Family is as relevant today as it was when their journey first began, which places them alongside the greatest of the greats in the pantheon of musical history.
For the delicate task of paying proper homage to such figures, John Carter Cash stepped up to the plate as producer -- his parents are none other than country legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (daughter of founding member Mother Maybelle Carter). His pedigree alone bodes well for the project, and the fine job he's done with this tribute would make his kin proud. Right down to the purple and sepia, old-time, 78-style packaging, The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family hits as close to the mark as any could hope for.
As good as a tribute album can be, historically the results tend to range somewhere between respectful and catastrophic, never quite crossing into the arena of excellence. In contrast, the collection at hand displays a uniform vision and several tracks are, indeed, excellent. Apart from the involvement of John Carter Cash, which no doubt guided the artists along a certain path, the nature of the songs themselves, arranged (and sometimes penned) as they were by the thoroughly unpolished Carters, almost demand to be rendered in as spare a manner as possible. George Jones effectively dulls down his shiny croon for an excellent "Worried Man Blues". Sheryl Crow, whose appearances on tribute albums seem always to outshine any of her other work, turns in a faithful performance of "No Depression in Heaven". She sheds her smooth, even voice and adopts a slightly off-key, nasal twang, set against a stripped-down country musical arrangement that could almost have been recorded fifty years ago. Emmylou Harris, likewise, plays up the warble in her voice for "The Sea of Galilee", and, as usual, turns in a fine traditional country tune.
Adding to the album's worth is the strong presence of Carter genes; Janette and Joe Carter (daughter and son of A. P. and Sarah) not only do justice to their kin with a stark rendition of "Little Moses", but it actually sounds like a genuine lost track from a 1927 recording session. Janette's deep, lead vocals creep thick and heavy as molasses over the spare autoharp and guitar underpinning, featuring Joe's slightly higher tenor as harmony. The recording was done digitally in the otherwise rustic Cash Cabin Studio across the way from the Cash family compound in Hendersonville, Tennessee, but the rudimentary sound suggests an Edison wax cylinder recording. Johnny Cash's rendition of "Engine One-Forty-Three", a John Henry-type tale of Georgie the engineer who is, in fact, thankful that he perishes (by the flames of the engine) on his beloved train. June Carter Cash, with her unique, raw delivery further substantiates her Christian morality with the mother-to-child advice to never stray from the path of righteousness in "Hold Fast to the Right". Death and salvation are common themes throughout the Carter Family's catalog and as a result, most of country music.
Folkie couple Norman and Nancy Blake team up with contemporary bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien for a wonderful version of the early-American shantey "Black Jack David" -- a traditional, early American or English shantey rearranged by A. P. Carter. John Prine works "Bear Creek Blues" up into a rowdy gallop of country rock, while Willie Nelson takes "You Are My Flower" down to the border with a delicate Spanish guitar supporting his sleepy outlaw croon. Pop-folk singer Shawn Colvin whispers her way through "Single Girl, Married Girl" which, despite featuring the incredible talents of Earl and Randy Scruggs, is uninspired. Rosanne Cash gives "The Winding Stream" a syrupy sweet, distinctly feminine, Linda Ronstadt feel -- pretty but not particularly compelling. Album closer, "Gold Watch and Chain" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is reimagined with an accordion and the slightly polished huskiness of Kris Kristofferson on vocals.
The roots of many traditional songs remain uncertain to this day. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", for one (strangely absent from this tribute), is commonly thought either to be of unknown origin or to have been written by A. P. Carter, when the fact is it was a gospel song written by Charles H. Gabriel and Ruth Ada Habershon in 1907 -- over twenty years before Carter got ahold of it. But musicologists and historians seem not to mind Carter's technically false claims, because without A. P.'s versions of this and many other old songs (some dating back, not just decades, but a century or more), they might have been lost forever, never to become such vital parts of our great American folk tradition. Long before bands like Uncle Tupelo crossed genre-lines with alt-country, the Carter Family did their own tampering with the musical styles available to them at the time and established the very first folk-gospel-country band the world had ever seen. As Otis Redding said of Aretha Franklin's definitive version of his song "Respect": "She done stole my song". Yes, but would it ever have been the anthem that it is without her? Unlikely. So we can look at A. P. Carter in the same light. A. P.'s versions of traditional songs became definitive and, along with Mother Maybelle's often-imitated but unsurpassed guitar picking, and Sara's rhythm guitar, autoharp, and arresting vocals, generations have been exposed to this music. So, as a tiny snapshot of the Carter Family's reach and influence, The Unbroken Circle is a reverent, well-executed, at times excellent, at times flawed, but always enjoyable, tribute album. But if this music is of real interest to you, then the original Carter Family recordings are the only place to start.