Truth is stranger than fiction for The Carter Family who prove to be a true All-American story: unassuming, proud, and innocent. Much like one of those trite dime store novels by Horatio Alger, this family succeeds by luck and pluck. Thankfully, however, the story of one of America’s great country music families is told with grace and wit in the graphic novel, “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,” coauthored by Frank M. Young and David Lasky, and published by Abrams ComicArts. Mr. Young primarily writes and Mr. Lasky primarily handles the artwork in his unmistakable style. All said and done, after a number of years of work on this project, the book looks and feels like it was meant to be. The fact that this story is not only a graphic novel but presented as if it were a series of old-time Sunday funnies is a perfect fit with such a natural and easygoing narrative.
The driving force behind how this early 20th Century Virginia clan gained notoriety rests with Alvin Pleasant Carter and Sara Dougherty Carter. If not for A.P. Carter’s magic touch with crafting songs and Sara’s haunting vocals, there would not have been a Carter Family to begin with. The luck and pluck part comes into play in a myriad of ways. To start with, A.P. and Sara were an unlikely pair to begin with. He was shy and awkward. She was stubborn and impetuous. They both had their own ideas of what they wanted and preferred to be left to their own devices. Once it clicks that they, and their family, actually do have talent, that is when the prospect of good fortune ironically leads everyone down a precarious path. A.P. is prone to disappear to maintain his quota of songs to sell while Sara’s mood swings add to mounting instability.
Titles of songs and lyrics are intertwined into the narrative to bring out the bittersweet. Each chapter heading is the title of a song, like “Meet Me by the Moonlight Alone,” which features young Alvin courting Sara, or “Look How the World Has Made a Change,” a chapter towards the end when personal dreams have been broken but technological progress presses on. The songs have their own eerie irony and enhance the pleasing ambiguity of the book’s storytelling. The characters themselves often have poker faces but not always. The tension is contemporary but subtle. Things move slowly here, but not without intention.
As much history lesson as satisfying character drama, “The Carter Family” balances out what the world was like then and choices that were made along the way. When A.P. Carter would wander away to collect new songs, it wasn’t like he was out with a net capturing butterflies. The songs had to come from somewhere. To his credit, he was a songwriter in his own right and had the poet’s ear for good lyrics. He was also innocent to what intellectual property means to us today. In his time, people collected songs in the old oral tradition. If something sounded good, someone took it upon themselves to memorize it, not bothering as to where it came from. It was an easy enough system until A.P. meets Lesley Riddle, an African-American who shares with him an unusually good song, “The Cannonball.” In this case, it seems that Mr. Riddle crafted something from another source, in the same manner as A.P. was in the habit of doing. So, does Mr. Riddle get any credit? Mr. Carter tries to do just that. However, his manager/producer/song publisher, Ralph Peer, who should know better, denies Mr. Carter’s request.
As any good country song will tell you, life is not fair. This is something the Carters must learn over and over again just like any rock star today has to be ready to take the good with the bad. Even in their low-key manner, this Carter family is full of drama and we’re the richer for it. That said, the story is told in such a poetic and hypnotic way that, like any good country song, it will leave you with a satisfying melancholy.
“The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song” is published by Abrams ComicArts. This is a 192-page hardcover book in full color with a CD of Carter Family songs. Visit the Abrams ComicArts site.