OPINION: The whole range of human sentiment is present in Carters’ harmonies

Mindless rejection of change is self-defeating, but I must admit to Luddite sentiment when I behold the vast array of gadgetry that fills our homes. Many changes are not only disagreeable, but unnecessary.
Those old rotary phones lasted forever, and you could use the handset for a hammer in a pinch. “Little Golden Books” entertained the young splendidly without batteries or microchips. Little boys instinctively provide their own sound effects for toy cars – and can do quite well with a snuff bottle for a car, thank you. I despise air conditioning, and regard cell phones with the same disdain as I do body piercing and i-Pods. When my sons installed a 10-disc changer and CD player in my pickup for X-mas, I was skeptical, but after a road trip in the company of the Carter Family and Hank Williams, I must admit: This technology stuff ain’t all bad.
The quality of sound is much better than I remember from the vinyl recordings of the 50’s and 60’s. Despite my hearing loss, the beautiful harmonies and Maybelle’s incomparable guitar licks sound better and more distinct than when my ears were good and the medium was vinyl. These tracks were cut on wax discs in a single take; what you hear is what was done – no dubbing or multiple tracks. The engineers have tweaked sound quality so that we may experience the music as performed.
The Carters remind me of people I knew in the early 50’s – especially while sitting at the end of the porch and listening to the “old folks” talk. Some of the people I loved best had phrasing and vocabularies similar to Sarah Carter’s lyrics. Their poetry transcends time and media, linking folk ballads from Erie, Ulster, and Wales to modern commercial popular music – “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” some call it. That’s a stretch – nobody is comparable to the Bard, but this material is timeless. The whole range of human sentiment is present – youthful flirtations, dirges, spirituality, and reflections on love and life. There is blues-style regret – as when A.P. laments that “one little word” left unspoken could have saved his marriage and reminds us of the lamentable role of human pride, and the tragedy of being unwilling to forgive and unable to forget. Heart-ache, playfulness, abiding love, and tragedy…their range is Faulknerian… “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
From the Appalachians to the piney woods of South Alabama is a long way geographically, but the cultural continuity of the Celtic hinterlands is obvious as the disc changes and the unmistakable, full-throated, ears-laid-back styling of Hank Williams fills the cab. Here was a man going for the gusto, packing a lot of living into twenty-nine short years. Those of us who grew up on the rural fringes of society resonate to the inherent boastfulness and veneer of self-confidence that mask the defensiveness and insecurity of the white-trash boy from Chapman. He was a radio hero when I was five years old, and my enjoyment of him has grown over the ensuing decades. His faults are well chronicled, but mean spiritedness, intolerance, and parsimony were not among them.
Jerry Rivers’ fiddle and Don Helms’steel guitar evoke the mystical charm of the wail of bagpipes, and Hank’s “tear your heart out and stomp the sucker flat” lyrics are the perfect accompaniment for late night bouts with insomnia. As Ricky Bragg put it, though he sang about “loss…grief…funerals…instead of making us sad, it was as if he pounded out all that agony, grief, and sadness…making it thin enough to where you could stand it.”

Columnist Sonny Scott lives in the Sparta community in Chickasaw County. Contact him at sonnyscott@yahoo.com.

Sonny Scott

Click video to hear audio