His legacy has often languished in the shadows of his more accomplished female relatives, but A.P. Carter’s contributions to the development of country music remain essential.
A.P. Carter was the oldest of eight children, growing up in the poverty of the Appalachian mountains. He struggled with tremors throughout his life, but still managed to master the fiddle. He sang in a gospel group with his family and began writing songs, usually heavily influenced adaptations of traditional mountain songs and classic story ballads from both the Americas and overseas.
His life changed when he met Sara Dougherty, who became both his performance partner and his wife. Alongside Maybelle Carter, his sister-in-law, they became a popular trio. The Carter Family soon auditioned for and landed a long-term contract with Victor Records. Beginning in 1927, they released widely popular country records, maintaining their success throughout both the Great Depression and A.P. and Sara’s separation. The importance of their records cannot be overstated, with “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”, “Wildwood Flower”, and “Keep on the Sunny Side” now widely hailed as the most significant formative records in country music history.
Still, it would be the women of the group, especially Maybelle, who would further cement the legacy of the Carters. After A.P. divorced Sara in 1939, the Carter Family’s breakup was inevitable. Sara retired from the group in1943, and while A.P. ran a country store, Maybelle hit the road with her daughters throughout the forties. The Carter Family made a brief comeback in the fifties, with A.P. and Sara joining their grown children on stage, but they disbanded after four years and a small handful of recordings.
A.P. Carter died in 1960, but his legacy lives on. While Mother Maybelle and her daughters are the most recognizable Carters, their success was made possible by the work that A.P. and Sara did with Maybelle in the first fifteen years of the Carter Family’s musical legacy.
Marty Stuart Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
The casual listener may remember Marty Stuart for the string of country radio hits he enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties. However, Stuart’s legacy was cemented by groundbreaking projects released after his commercial heyday had drawn to a close, particularly 1999's landmark The Pilgrim as well as 2010's career-best effort Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. Through such critically lauded work Stuart has built up a reputation as an elder statesman of country music, acting to preserve country music's heritage and traditions, while simultaneously working to move the genre forward.
One important reason why Stuart has been such a fine advocate of traditional country music is that he does not treat it as a musical museum piece, but rather treats it as it is – as real and relevant now as it has ever been. This is continually evident on Stuart’s new Sugar Hill release Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. The project finds Stuart graciously and sincerely paying tribute to country music’s storied past, at times through well-chosen cover songs. He offers his own rendition of the Jerry Chestnutt composition “Holding On to Nothin,” which was a Top 10 hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1968. The song’s brilliantly constructed lyric finds a couple’s desire to rekindle their romance colliding with the sad realization that there is little left to save. “I feel guilty when they envy me and you” is arguably one of the best lines a country song has ever come up with.
But while the album respectfully nods to the past, the loose infectious energy of up-tempo tracks like “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Truck Driver Blues” is hardly derivative, adding to the project’s contemporary edge. The latter finds Stuart both shredding the mandolin, and name-dropping wife Connie Smith. The album also offers a more restrained reinterpretation of one song that previously appeared on Stuart’s 2003 effort Country Music, and “Sundown In Nashville” is a song that is most definitely worthy of a repeat release. The lyric highlights the sad truth that for every performer who achieves the dream of becoming a country music star, countless others see their dreams “shattered and swept to the outskirts of town” – a sentiment that has remained of continued relevance on down through country music history.
On Tear the Woodpile Down, Stuart continues to indulge his penchant for collaborating with his like-minded friends. Sadly, the list of collaborators does not include Connie Smith this time around, but the harmony vocals of The Carter Family descendant Lorrie Carter Bennett add a bittersweet touch to the beautiful steel weeper “A Song of Sadness,” while veteran guitarist and Jerry Lee Lewis-collaborator Kenny Lovelace appears on “A Matter of Time.” The album closes on a high note with the Hank Williams III duet “Picture from Life’s Other Side” – a song originally written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr., and one that Stuart and Hank III have performed together live. Stuart’s smooth vocal delivery contrasts nicely with Hank III’s gritty drawl. The two are backed by a bare-boned acoustic arrangement, allowing the song itself to pull the full weight with its brilliantly dark take on human mortality. While backed by his seasoned cohorts The Fabulous Superlatives – who get to twang it out on the rousing instrumental track “Hollywood Boogie” – the project also includes appearances by veteran steel player Robbie Turner, as well as multi-instrumentalist Buck Trent, who lends his banjo work to the comedic title track and to “Holding On to Nothin’.” Such contributions aid in making Tear the Woodpile Down an endlessly cool-sounding record.
In classic Marty Stuart fashion, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down shines with stellar, classic-worthy songwriting, bolstered by top-notch musicianship and restlessly creative arrangements. It ranks as one of 2012’s best album’s yet – a thoughtful homage to country music's past that remains fully connected to the present, and one that will thoroughly satisfy any passionate devotee of pure, simple, non-hyphenated country music.
They started out as a gospel group in the forties, but it was their country-pop hits of the early eighties that made them superstars.
First formed as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers in 1943, they became the Oak Ridge Quartet when they found that they were performing their gospel songs in that area of Tennessee more than in any other place.
The lineup would change over the next thirty years, but their focus on Southern gospel did not. Renamed the Oak Ridge Boys in 1961, they slowly gained national prominence. In 1971, they won the first of four Grammys in the gospel categories, for the song, “Talk About the Good Times.”
Singing backup for Johnny Cash and the Carter Family in 1973, they earned their first country chart appearance with the minor hit, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup.” That same year, the lineup that would make them country superstars was finalized: Duane Allen (lead), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass). High-profile appearances with Roy Clark and Paul Simon soon followed, but their first major label deal was a bust, as Columbia didn’t understand how to market them to the gospel market.
Switching to ABC, they quickly became country stars with their 1977 breakthrough hit, “Y’All Come Back Saloon.” The song was such a big hit that they were soon country radio staples, winning Vocal Group honors from the CMA in 1978 and the ACM in 1979.
In 1981, “Elvira” launched them into the stratosphere, powering their Fancy Free album to double platinum. They won a Grammy and Single honors from both the ACM and CMA for that platinum-selling hit. They remained top-selling artists through 1984, thanks to big hits like “Bobbie Sue” and “American Made.” And while album sales began to slow in the second half of the decade, they remained in heavy rotation at country radio.
Golden exited the lineup in 1987, replaced by Steve Sanders until 1995. Album sales weren’t as high during this period, but they did score another pair of signature hits that topped the charts: “Gonna Take a Lot of River” in 1988, and “No Matter How High” in 1989. They enjoyed their last top ten hit in 1991, “Lucky Moon”, their only successful single during a short tenure at RCA.
Personal problems led to Sanders exiting the group, and Golden returned in 1996. In the years since, their original country lineup now intact, they’ve continued to record and to tour, as they approach the band’s seventieth anniversary in music.
This was the decade that brought back the single. Not that it ever fully went away, as radio still played the promotional ones and video outlets the filmed ones. But actual commercial singles had gone the way of the dodo, until the digital revolution suddenly made them practical again. Why buy the whole album when you can just get the song that you want?
The devastation this has brought to record company bottom lines was probably unavoidable anyway, given the realities of post-Napster society. But technology has its perks. Now you can buy the songs on this list with a click of the mouse!
And what a list it is: 201 singles that run the gamut, from genuine hits that topped the charts to songs spun only by renegade DJs working the night shift. Here’s how we compiled it: four Country Universe writers ranked their personal favorite 100 singles, with an inverted point system applied (#1 on a list meant 100 points, while #100 on the list meant 1 point.) The songs were then ranked by number of total points, greatest to least. Ties were broken by the number of lists the song appeared on, then by highest individual ranking.
There was more consensus than usual for CU, and we all agreed on one thing: this list was a heck of a lot of fun to compile. We hope you enjoy it, too!
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 1: #201-#181
#201 “I Run To You”
There’s a palpable intensity to this song that grips me every time I listen to it. Love isn’t always characterized by peacefulness, and the song’s pulsing production perfectly conveys the urgency, desperation and passion that often accompanies it. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
Today’s Recommend a Track focuses on those songs that remind us to “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
As I wrote in my review of the new Rodney Atkins album, I’m an optimistic guy. So while I do love me some dark and depressing country music, the songs that best match my personal philosophy are those that look at the brighter side of life.
Some of my favorites:
The Carter Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side”
The Grandmama of them all. This was released during The Great Depression, y’all.
Shania Twain, “Up!”
Rodney Atkins sounds about as optimistic as Dwight Yoakam when compared to Shania Twain. This remains one of my favorite songs she’s ever released. Bonus points awarded to this clip because it not only features Alison Krauss & Union Station behind her, but Krauss and Twain discuss deodorant and shaving during the winter seasons.
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Darrell Scott penned this ode to taking joy in the little pleasures of life.
Those are three of my favorites. Share your favorites in the comments!
Harlan Howard is one of the most distinguished songwriters in country music history. When interviewed about his #1 hit for the Judds (“Why Not Me”), he made an interesting statement about the need for repeating certain titles throughout a song:
“Why Not Me” wasn’t a great title. To get a really good record, you’ve gotta write a hell of a song when you’re dealing with a title that average. The only thing I know to do with songs like “Why Not Me” and “Busted” – which I never thought was a good title – is to put the title in there often so that people remember it. The weaker the title, the more you gotta hear it.”
“Why Not Me” earned the Judds the Country Duo/Group Grammy and the CMA award for Single of the Year. “Busted” was hit for both Johnny Cash with the Carter Family in the sixties and John Conlee in the eighties. Both songs feature the titles repeated endlessly.
I think this quote is fascinating because it provides a window into how two songs from different eras were crafted by the same writer. I never noticed the similarities before reading the quote.
I’d also add that the Little Texas hit “My Love” and the Brooks & Dunn hit “That’s What It’s All About” show how the rule can be taken too far, in my opinion, and turn into just an annoying song.
Just over eighty years ago, a family act from Appalachia traveled to Bristol, Tennessee. Behind the wheel was A.P. Carter, and on board were two mountain women he believed were destined for stardom: his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter, and his wife, young Sara Carter, who was eight months pregnant as they made the trip.
The previous day, A.P. had arrived home and declared, “We’re going to Bristol tomorrow to make a record!” The Carter Family had been performing in churches, living rooms and anywhere else they could get an audience in their Appalachian world, and when A.P. heard that a Victor Records employee was seeking rural talent to record in Bristol, he saw their golden opportunity to make it big.
When they got to the recording studio, which was really just a converted warehouse, they took part in a twelve-day recording session with two dozen other artists, ranging in genre from blues to gospel to folk. But among all the other raw talent, the startling vocals of Maybelle and Sara shone through.
They weren’t the first country women to put their voices on record, but for all intents and purposes, the story of women in country music traces its roots back to Maybelle and Sara Carter, members of what is now referred to as The Original Carter Family. Their seminal records took country music to the masses for the first time, as they emerged from their humble Appalachian roots to become the first female country stars to make an impact.