Friday, September 20, 2013

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

The Carter Family today are probably best known for their association with Johnny Cash via his marriage to June Carter Cash, but they were a music group that recorded songs between 1927 and 1956, preserving and propagating American folk music traditions and influencing many musicians beyond their time. They were among the first nationally popular recording and radio artists, certainly the first big country music stars, and their sound had a huge impact on folk, bluegrass, country, and rock and roll music. Their vocal styling and guitar work are foundational. Their songs like "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Wildwood Flower," and "Can the Circle Be Unbroken" have been immortalized as standards, covered by countless others, and become part of the great American songbook.

Don't Forget This Song chronicles the career of the Carter Family, from scenes of Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter courting and marrying the beautifully singing Sara Dougherty, them scraping together a living in rural Poor Valley, Virgina, and then forming a musical group with Sara's sister Maybelle in the hope of making a few extra dollars.

Slowly, royalties from recordings and song writing credits make life somewhat easier for the families, and they make music their primary vocation. They rise to success and fame, but there also is a toll. Eventually, a grueling travel schedule, long periods away from home, a multitude of performances, different business concerns, and the demands of family life combine to create dissent, discontent, and divorce.

There is much pain, sorrow, and longing in this book, but it also is mingled with beauty in terms of creativity and discovery. The story is told via short, well paced chapters that are packed full of import, atmosphere, and emotion. The art is spare but highly expressive. I found myself drawn into the characters' plights via the simple color palette, clever use of symbolic conventions, and facial expressions. Also, there is a CD of Carter Family songs included with the book so readers can further immerse themselves in the sounds of the characters and their lives.

Creators Frank M. Young and David Lasky partially funded this book via a Kickstarter campaign. Young is a writer and editor who worked on The Comics Journal. Lasky is an alternative comics artist who has been sharing his work in various anthologies since the early 1990s. He shares his comics on this blog and shares more about his career on this other blog. The duo also collaborated on another graphic novel about a family traveling the Oregon Trail. They speak about their work on The Carter Family in this interview.

This book won an Eisner Award and was nominated for a Harvey Award for best graphic novel. It has received many positive reviews. Richard Gehr wrote that Young and Lasky "will charm the pants off you with a book full of characters who are all too human." Jason Sacks concluded, "This is an interesting book that works on several levels. As a simple biography... As a piece of comics art... And as a depiction of the older, weirder America." Michael Taube called it "a superb graphic novel."

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song is published by Abrams ComicArts. Many reviews, previews, and other tidbits are available at the book's official site.

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