Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is the first major biography of
the Carter Family, the musical pioneers who almost single-handedly
established the sounds and traditions that grew into modern
folk, country, and bluegrass music—a style celebrated
in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A. P. Carter was a restless man, seemingly in a constant state of motion.
On one of his travels across the sparsely settled mountains and valleys
that surrounded his home in southern Virginia, he met and married
a young girl named Sara Dougherty. Orphaned as a child, Sara was
remote by nature but seemed to find release in singing the
typically melancholy ballads that were a part of her home tradition.
For fun, A.P., Sara, and her cousin Maybelle (who married A.P.'s
brother "Eck" Carter) would play and sing the hymns and ballads
known in their Poor Valley community, occasionally adding
songs A.P. had collected during his travels. Then, in 1927, they
traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for a New York record
executive who was hunting "hillbilly" talent and offering
an amazing fifty dollars per song for any he recorded. These Bristol
recording sessions would become generally accepted as
the "Big Bang" of country music, producing two of its first
stars: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
By the early 1930s, the Carter Family was the most bankable
country music group in America, with total sales of more
than a million records. By the late '30s, they were appearing
regularly on high-power radio station XERA, which broadcast from
coast to coast. A whole generation of country people could
gather around the radio and hear the sound of music that
came straight from their world. Johnny Cash in Arkansas,
Waylon Jennings in Texas, Chet Atkins in Georgia,
and Tom T. Hall in Kentucky all listened to the Carter Family.
It was their formal schooling, Country Music 101.
Inside the Carter Family, however, things were hardly perfect. Though
nobody outside the family knew it, Sara had left her difficult and
quixotic husband in 1933. In 1936 she won a divorce.
Even throughout the long and painful breakup, the Carters kept
performing together singing an ever-widening range of
new songs they wrote or old songs they remade: songs of love, of betrayal,
of the death of fondest hopes. And they kept at it even after
Sara married A.P.'s cousin Coy Bays in 1939. After fulfilling a
final radio contract in 1943, Sara and Coy moved to California to settle
near his family. The original Carter Family never performed or recorded
With Sara gone, A.P. retreated home, opened a general store, and
lived out the next two decades in obscurity, the odd man out in a new
and reconfigured Carter musical clan. Meanwhile, Maybelle and
her daughters (Helen, June, and Anita) went out and got themselves
new radio contracts, working in Richmond, Virginia; Knoxville,
Tennessee; and Springfield, Missouri, before ascending
to country music's ultimate stage, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
Nearly fifty years in the business won Maybelle the
title "Mother of Country Music" and the adoration of generations
of guitar players and just plain listeners.
The story of the Carter Family is a bittersweet saga of love
and fulfillment, sadness and loss. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?
is more than just a biography of a family; it is also a journey
into another time, almost another world. But their story resonates
today and lives on in the timeless music they created.
MARK ZWONITZER is a writer-director whose work appears
nationally on public television. He is currently finishing up work on
a documentary about the creation of the transcontinental railroad and
hopes to begin work soon on a documentary about the Carter Family.
He lives in Connecticut.
CHARLES HIRSHBERG, an editor at Popular Science magazine, is
the author of Elvis and The Beatles. He lives in New York City.