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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Yesterday And Today

Tom Brosseau and Friends Come Together for a Special Evening of Carter Family Songs

by Terry RolandOctober 2019

The Carter Family in 1927: Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter.

Tom Brosseau.

Producer of In the Shadow of the Hill, Sean Watkins.

John C. Reilly.

Tom Brosseau and Friends at Adams Avenue Unplugged a few years ago. Left to right: John C. Reilly, Gregory Page, Lou and Virginia Curtiss, Brosseau. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Being raised in Great Forks, North Dakota was a challenge for young Tom Brosseau. Built at the forks of the Red River and the Red River Lake, the region is known for snow-bound winters, hot humid summers, and seasonal floods that have left the city devastated as recently as 1997. But, Brosseau’s roots run deep in his family’s soil, planted generations ago. He grew up in the shadows of great ancestry.

During a recent conversation the singer-songwriter described scattered foggy childhood memories exploring family heirlooms in his grandmother’s attic. “It became clear that I could see something of who they were back then in every piece of memory I found there.”

His grandmother, Lillian Ovidia Uglem, lost her first husband to the war in 1945 before she married Brosseau’s grandfather in 1948. She lived to the grand old age of 91 a family matriarch. She crafted, canned, and taught her family in the better things of life. This means she taught Brosseau how to play acoustic guitar as well as fostered a deep appreciation for the variety of gifts life has to offer in all of life’s passing moments.

As he moved through the attics of his childhood, it was in the musical memorabilia and collections of antique records that captured Tom’s imagination. “I found old albums, broke-down equipment and ancient photographs that showed what life was like for her. I remember finding a picture of Al Jolson. It brought to life how important music was to their lives.” Brosseau said.

His new release, In the Shadow of the Hill: Songs from the Carter Family Catalogue, Vol I is an illustration of life-lessons learned from his grandmother during his childhood as he embraces the best American music in its purest form as it reaches back over a century.

In the Shadow of the Hill demonstrates Brosseau’s sense of place in time and space, which has led him to seek and find the better angels of his ancestral soul through music. He is a deeply contemplative singer-songwriter whose sweet tenor voice lends itself to a vintage story and song. The youthfulness in his voice brings the songs of America’s First Family of Country Music to the present. Songs once heard through scratchy Victrolas now come into presence with an intimacy that is warm and haunting.

The guiding muse of this album is the primitive country music of native Virginians A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter. Together they are source of some of the first country music put to record in the early 20th Century. A.P Carter and Sara, who were husband and wife, were born in the 19th Century. It was the century of the Civil War, horse and buggies, and the Old West that has been romanticized by so many books and movies.

The original Carter Family was active from 1927 to 1956. Originally formed by A.P. Carter, aka Doc, he first fell in love with Sara Dougherty upon hearing her sing in Poor Valley, which is nestled in the Central Appalachians. A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle (Sara’s cousin), was a skilled acoustic guitar player who provided vocal harmonies that helped create the Carters’ unique vocal blend. A.P. would sometimes add a third vocal part, but often his lack of attention would cause him to drop out and wander away during performances.

The instrumental music was carried by Maybelle, who later would become Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law through his marriage to Maybelle’s daughter June. Her unique style of guitar playing became the Carters’ signature sound, which today is known as the Carter Scratch. It was the first time a country guitarist alternated lead and rhythm guitar parts, creating a one-woman-band effect. It can be heard in its purest form on Maybelle’s original song, “Wildwood Flower,” which today is among the best-loved country songs in America’s songbook.

In the days of the original Carters there were no radios, record players, or musical novelties to keep them entertained. Instead, an important part of the lifestyle in Virginia and throughout the American South was self-made music, dancing, and storytelling. Local saloons were not regarded as morally suitable for respected families like the Carters. So, it was natural for A.P., Sara, and Maybelle to come together with guitars to sing the songs they had heard throughout their lives. Many of these songs can be traced to the British Isles brought to this country by past ancestors. With catalogs of folk songs, in addition to the original songs by A.P., the Carter Family presided over a treasury of American folk songs that would later become known as country music.

Soon, A.P. became so passionate about the songs he heard, he began taking walking tours around the countryside collecting songs from other families. Today we know that much of the Carter archive consists of these songs even though the authorship and publishing rights went to A.P. Carter.

In of August of 1927, music entrepreneur Ralph Peer, after years of carrying his recording equipment deep into the South to capture the music of African-American field workers and blues singers, decided to record the music of the hill people who lived deep in the Appalachian mountain chain in Virginia. The result was electrifying as during one visit to Bristol, Virginia, he recorded the legendary father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers in addition to the Carter Family.

A.P., Sara, and Maybelle received $50 per recording and a half-cent royalty for the songs known today as the Bristol Sessions. It was a lucrative arrangement for the lower-middle class Carters that served to change their lifestyle from near impoverishment to wealth that had not imagined during the days of the Great Depression.

During the early 1930s, A.P. expanded his song-hunting trips throughout southwestern Virginia. During this time he became friends with an African-Amerian guitarist named Esley Riddle, who would accompany A.P. on his trips. He is credited with influencing the Carter’s leaning toward blues songs like “Bear Creek,” “Motherless Children,” and “Carter’s Blues.”

Over the next 25 years despite financial hardships, turmoil within the family, and a divorce between A.P. and Sara, the original Carter Family endured to become a national treasure of authentic country music that told the truth about life with only rare glimpses of sentimentality, but always filled with hope.

They identified and embodied what good country music is all about as they sang from their deepest core. While so many country stars sing of first love, hardship, family, wayward love, betrayal, and longing, the Carter Family lived inside of these experiences and still managed to sing with faith and hope with their song “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.”

If the Carter Family is a source of pure country music like a new-found spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains, then Tom Brosseau and producer Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek, Watkins Family Hour), has found those unpolluted waters in the rare and sometimes obscure early songs in this collection, simply titled, In the Shadow of the Hill: Songs from the Carter Family Catalogue, Vol I. At the heart of the album is a union between the voices of the Carters and the warm, compassion of singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau. Deep within the valley of songs there is a sense of faith and trust in the simplicity of the music. On first hearing the vintage nature of the recordings comes across, but with continued listening, a sense of universality and integrity emerges.

According to Brosseau, discovering this came from something equally unique in the process. “You know everyone has favorite artists. I love so many of Americana musicians. But what is different for me about the Carter Family is when I hear them, I don’t feel alone anymore. I hear something that is common, something we all go through every day.”

With a song selection that dates between 1890 to original songs written by Joe and Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s children whose participation in the group is documented between the 1940s up to the 1950s, the gems found on this album are indeed rare adventures into the epic musical saga of America’s First Family of Country Music. But, with this album Brosseau has made them something new, vital and immediate.

If in his childhood Tom Brosseau found comfort and connection by surveying materials in the ancient attics of his grandmother Lill, then In the Shadow of the Hill: Songs from the Carter Family Catalogue, Vol I brings the same comfort and connection to us as he leads us through America’s musical attics and finds the great American music of one of our country’s founding fathers and mothers, A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, known to us today as The Carter Family.

On Friday October 11, Tom Brosseau brings his friends together for a very special evening of Carter Family songs from the album. Tom will be joined by Sean Watkins, John C. Reilly, Gregory Page, and Lou Curtiss’ widow, Virginia. Sponsored by San Diego Folk Heritage, the concert takes place at Templar’s Hall in Old Poway Park, 14134 Midland Rd., Poway, starting at 7:30pm.

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