Review: The Carter Family III- Past & Present
When children of legendary musicians decide to embark on their own musical careers, they often have it tough. Many music fans will want them to simply be a tribute to what came before and will consider any breakaway from their parents’ style blasphemous. Other fans expect them to make music that is impossibly good, as if to prove that their name wasn’t all that gained them a recording contract. I hate to be the on to break it to you, but both of those lines of thought are ridiculous. It’s true that Hank never led a hardcore metal band, but he didn’t live in the 21st century either. No, Shooter is not as great as Waylon, but not many artists are. And I’m going to say something else that many here will not: Justin Townes Earle hasn’t yet reached the level of his old man and probably never will.
Regardless, John Carter Cash has it even harder than all of those mentioned above. Not only is he the son of the iconic Man in Black, but he also carries on the bloodline of the legendary Carter Family, the founders of the music we all love. You can point to his sisters (Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter) , but neither of them had to deal with the combined legacies of both families. Perhaps that’s why he has stayed in the background for the most part- producing his mother’s final albums, producing an album for Marty Stuart, helping Rick Rubin out on his father’s last records. He has released an album of his own material called Bitter Harvest, but I have never heard it (or heard of it until I began doing research for this review) and based on the number of reviews on Amazon, I’m not alone.
On Past & Present, which will be released next week, he teams up with his wife Laura Cash, a renowned fiddler who has released a few solo albums, and his cousin Dale Jett, the grandson of A.P. (who he sounds hauntingly similar to) and Sara Carter to form The Carter Family III (presumably the third incarnation following the original 1927-1941 trio and the group made up of Maybelle and daughters that lasted until her 1978 death). The irony is that none of them actually share the Carter surname, but all three are ready and willing to carry on the family’s musical traditions, which just so happen to be the musical tradition of this entire nation.
The importance of music and tradition in this family is clear throughout the album. The three competently cover several A.P. Carter tunes (sometimes with help from Norman Blake). “The Sun of the Soul,” “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “I Never Will Marry,” “Rye Cove,” “Farther On,” and my personal favorite “Sea of Galilee” are all performed wonderfully in a way that illuminates both the light and darkness of America’s folk music without modernizing them in any way. Not substitutes for the originals of course, but neither is Rosanne’s version of “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.”
But the real highlights are the originals and the newer material, beginning with “Nowhere Train,” an original by Jett that needs to be heard by anybody who thinks great folk songs aren’t still being written. The sound is pure Carter Family, although I could easily see Johnny Cash tackling a song like this with descriptions of a railway being “colder than some harlot’s heart, straight as a road to hell.”
John Carter Cash contributes two originals here: “AnnaBelle’s Song (Forever ‘cross the Sky)” which is written as advice to his daughter and “Darkly Through the Glass,” which with its dark overtones and religious theme, sounds like something his father would have done late in his career. “There are rulers in the cornfields,” he sings, “There are prophets in the mines/There are kings sleeping in the classrooms/There are saviors paying for our crimes.”
The two also wrote one tune, “In Between,” together. The song again speaks of the family’s love of music, the need for forgiveness, and tells the listener that what’s important is “the time spent in between” the dates on a tombstone. Laura adds some wonderful fiddle on this tune, as well.
“Let it Go,” by Ron Short, is another great song in the Carter/Cash tradition about spreading love and forgiveness with a strong Christian theme. “Christian, Muslim, Jewish, black and white,” Jett sings, “but in the end we all lose our life.”
“Revelation,” is the next track and it is a gospel number written by singer-songwriter A.J. Roach. The traditional arrangement underlies the dark, surreal, and ultimately hopeful gospel lyrics. This isn’t one of my favorites on the album, but the performance is great even if the song itself is somewhat less than that.
But my favorite song on the album is the opener: a track called “Maybelle’s Guitar” which wears its overt sentimentality on its sleeve but still manages to work as a great piece of music. This is the sound of a family unsubtly defending its legacy against promoters, record companies, Hollywood and others who wish to make money off of the name(s). “The music that we love, it’s fading away,” Jett begins, “After all the singers are gone, who’s gonna sing and play?/That Hollywood version’s all right in its’ own way/But if that’s all that there is, ‘O Brother’ is all I can say.” After speaking about the music that “still lives throughout these old hills,” John Carter Cash takes the lead and defiantly says, “You can sell Maybelle’s guitar and there’s nothing we can say/You can take it to the moon, but you can’t take it away.” I doubt if there’s a roots music fan alive who would disagree.
This album is a great traditional country album, although I wish they had recorded a few more originals. It’s not groundbreaking by any means and, of course, other family members have done far better in the past. That’s not the point. If you want groundbreaking, genre-bending music, check out the new Shooter Jennings album. But if you want good, old-time hillbilly music then, as the trio states on the opening track: “The music’s dead and cold down on Music Row/Bill’s mandolin is silent, Mother Maybelle’s guitar is sold/They’ve traded music’s soul for a pocket full of gold/But the heart’s still a-beatin’ down at the Carter Fold.”