Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mother Maybelle and me

Back in early December, I was checking the results of a TiVo “wishlist” search for one of my favorite actors, Robert Duvall. To my surprise, one of the results was for a show that aired on MPT December 19th. The American Experience program’s title was The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. TiVo is great for finding programming like this. After looking at the program description, I saw that Robert Duvall was the narrator! I thought this might be pretty good, so I set it up to record.

Now, I’m just a country boy at heart and even though I was raised on late 60s and 70s heavy metal, through the years I’ve somehow developed an affinity for old-time country music, folk and bluegrass. Sometimes my wife calls me a hick or a hillbilly. Maybe she’s right. But these types of music truly speak of the human condition, running the entire gamut of emotion. They tell stories of sorrow, grief, and depression, but also of hope, prosperity and love. They also tell stories of our history, and people that passed before us. But above all, this music just makes us feel good. I once heard an old bluegrass musician say that you could take the most depressing theme for a song, play it ninety miles-per-hour on a banjo and people would start clapping and tapping their feet.

The Carter family was no exception in that respect. I knew a little bit about their history, but the American Experience program filled in the gaps. Springing from the mountains of southwest Virginia, three brilliant musical talents came together to truly become “The First Family of Country Music.” There was A.P. Carter, whose drive, ambition and ability to find and pull songs out of those mountains (and then arrange them), which laid the solid foundation for the group. His wife, Sara, lent her powerful, haunting voice, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle—with her innovative “scratch” guitar style—became what was perhaps the backbone of the group.

They rose to prominence in the 1920s and continued to record and play through the early 1940s. As the American Experience website says, “The Carter Family sang of love and loss, desperation and joy, and their music captured the attention of a nation entering the darkest days of the depression.” The Carter Family’s music helped people through that depression and gave them hope for the future. They truly became a big part of our musical heritage.

I must admit that I’m a very frustrated guitarist. A few days after the show aired, I did some web searches for the “Carter scratch guitar style.” One link took me to a website selling a CD for learning the “Maybelle Carter Guitar Style.” I figured that for $17.50 it might be worth it. It arrived the other day, and I think I can learn some things from it. So maybe if I practice everyday until my fingers bleed, six months from now I might be able to play “Wildwood Flower” and sound somewhat like “Mother Maybelle”! That would be quite an accomplishment for me—and I could thank MPT, PBS, TiVo and Robert Duvall!

Mike Shriver
Computer Network Systems Administrator

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