This week I’ve had an unexpected blessing. After dealing with a pretty bad toothache, I broke down and went to the dentist on Tuesday who told me I needed to get a wisdom tooth pulled pronto. So Wednesday morning they pulled it out.
This has given me most of the week to relax and sit around the house and its also had me up a lot in the middle of the night. So I started reading Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer.
This book is kind of an odd one for a yankee from New Hampshire, who has almost no interest in country music to be reading, but it’s been absolutely fascinating. It tells the story of how three hillbillies from the mountains of southwestern Virginia became early musical celebrities and then placed a stamp on country music that is still there today.
That alone would be an interesting story, but several things about this story really hit me:
First and most obvious was just how hard they had it. Nothing came easy to these people. The sadness and death they sang about so soulfully wasn’t put on, it was a part of their life. Even as celebrities, the A.P. Carter family basically lived the hand to mouth existence of an Appalachian plot farmer. They knew what it was like to be hungry and to bury your children. They lived a really hard life. Even the second generation Carter family (June, Helen, and Anita) had nothing handed to them – they spent thousands of hours on stage and behind the mic in small no-name places before they rose to fame and prominence in the Grand Ole Opry.
The second thing that struck me about this book was how much A.P. Carter’s distance and flightiness hurt his family. A.P. (or Pleasant) Carter was a lot like me – he was chasing big dreams but was the kind of guy who almost always left projects half done. He spent decades abandoning his family hunting for new songs for them to sing, leaving his wife Sara alone to tend to their farm and raise their children. By the middle of the book his wife had left him and his children abandoned him. I definitely saw a precautionary character there for myself and it made me want to spend more time with my wife and kids.
A third thing I noted was how much America changed in a few generations. For instance, at the beginning of the book, it talks about how Maybelle Carter’s husband Eck rigged a generator from the river and became the first person in his area to have electric lights. Much was said about how the Carters went from foot transportation to being some of the first folks with cars. By the middle of the book Eck’s children are flying around the country doing concerts and living in luxury in Nashville mansions.
Fourth, I found it interesting how much this music has lasting impact on churches. So many songs you hear sung in southern churches were influenced directly or otherwise by the Carter family and the traditions they represent. (“Church in the Wildwood” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” were two of their early hits, both of which I’ve heard sung in church.) . The Carters were far from perfect, but they definitely had some Christian testimony and owned that.
Finally, as in every biography I read, there was so much pain caused by human sinfulness. Divorces, death, drunken and distant daddies. Petty rivalries. Crushed childhoods. Unrestrained ambition. I like to read the biographies of all kinds of people, from inventors to rock stars to actors to politicians to preachers to missionaries. If the writer is honest, I’m always reminded how broken humanity is outside of Christ and it makes me even more grateful for my family, my church and my Savior.