Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Hangin’ with Johnny Cash and Mother Maybelle Carter

When I went down to Nashville one winter week late last century to produce Johnny Cash for STP, it never occurred to me that I might meet Mother Maybelle Carter, originator of Country Music’s famous Carter Family guitar-strumming style. Even further back in my mind was the possibility I might actually–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In February 1978, with Johnny no longer wanting to honor his contract to shill for a company that had just been busted for false advertising (see my blog, Writing with Johnny Cash), I went down to the Capital of Country Music to try to make nice to its unofficial mayor.

Part of my peace offering was a rare vinyl, The Carter Family on Border Radio, a private reissue of 1930’s broadcasts of the famous musical act, from XERA, then a high-wattage radio station with transmitters in Mexico. I had master-recorded the album a few years before, but the real credit goes to Norm Cohen, a UCLA folk music scholar, who headed up the project.

Anyway, I go to give the album to Johnny to give to his wife, June Carter Cash, one of Maybelle’s singing daughters, not thinking it was any big deal, but it stops Johnny cold in his tracks. He stares at the album’s stark black and white cover-art of an old radio disc center label with “Carter Family” printed on it, asks me what I’d had to do with it, takes the companion booklet out of the sleeve, puts it back, then tells me to hold onto to everything for now, that he knows what he wants to do with it.

Cut to the next day with Johnny and me in his own studio, complete with gallery-in-the-round for guests, teaching his band the music we’d written the day before. Pretty early in the session there’s a little commotion when some people came in and sit down in the gallery. At the band’s and my next cigarette break Johnny comes over to me and tells me grab my guitar and come with him. He takes me up into the raised, darkened gallery, leads me down a row of seats to where Mother Maybelle and daughter June sit.

“Country Al, here, has something for you, Mother,” he tells Maybelle, she of the huge blue eyes and high cheekbones, as well as rock-sized diamonds she wears all over herself. “Go ahead, Al,” he tells me. I hand her the album, still not believing who I’m giving it to.

“Al and his friends made this recording of you and the girls when you were at XERA, Mother, and he brought one down here for you. I don’t think you’ve ever seen it before.”

Mother Maybelle takes the album and looks at, turns it over in her hands a couple times, reads the song index on the back, looks at me.

“Where’d you get this, Art?” she says. “Thank you, but where’d you get it?” I explain about Norm putting the thing together, but tell her I didn’t know where he’d gotten the transcriptions. “Well, John’s right,” she says after a moment, “I’ve never seen this before.” She turns the album over again to look at the song line-up, asks me if I know any of them.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say, “most of them, uh, Missus…”

“Mother Maybelle,” she says.

“Mother Maybelle,” I say.

“And you play, too?” she says, looking at my guitar. It wasn’t really a question. “Do you know the Carter style?”

“Uh, well, sort of, I guess,” I say. I always seem to sparkle when I meet people that awe me.

“Play some for me,” she says.

I’m sure I went blue-white. “Oh, God, ma’am,” I stammer, “I’d-I mean I couldn’t-I mean-”
“Why’d you bring your guitar up here, then?” she says. Her eyes were laughing. I looked at Johnny.

“Go ahead, Al,” he says, “play something that’s on this album, here.”

I’m sure my eyes rolled back in my head and my Adam’s apple started dancing, like the day before, when I’d realized I was writing with the great Johnny Cash. I know my breathing went shallow, because I couldn’t take a deep breath when I tried. But I guess I must have gone on automatic pilot or something, because the next thing I knew I was sitting on the arm of the seat next to Mother Maybelle’s playing Wildwood Flower.

It’s not a hard tune to play, it’s pretty much hers and the Family’s signature piece, and she and June smiled at each other as soon as I hit the first three notes of it, E-F-G, in the key of C. I wonder if there’s anybody in all of country music who doesn’t know that song and its strange and beautiful lyrics, even the B part of the first stanza,
“…And the myrtles so bright with emerald dew
The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.”

which mother and daughter render for me, on the spot, in two part harmony.

Mother Maybelle died in October of that year, at the too-young age of 69. I have the feeling that her life as a performer was
hectic and wearing, but her importance in country music can’t
be overstated. For a lot of musicians and listeners in the 1920’s and ‘30’s the Carter Family’s was the very first multi-regional, maybe even national, branding of country music, and so strong that it’s influence stayed on in the idiom right up to today.

For me it was a literally breathtaking thrill, my moment with Mother Maybelle and June. There isn’t too much deeper into American folk music you can get than playing with the Carter Family, even decades after their heyday. But the best part of it won’t come until they write the Country Music statistics book. I’m guessing I’ll be in there as the last Jewish guitarist from a New York ad agency to play with the Mother of all country music.

One-liner Notes:”Colored man plays himself to death. White man tunes…”

“The white man tunes hisself to death. The colored man plays hisself to death.” Roscoe Holcombe, the epitome of a high lonesome banjo player, to a huge audience at the UCLA Folk Music Festival in 1964 or ’65.

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