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Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?

The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Mus

About The Book

The first major biography of the Carter Family, the musical pioneers who almost single-handedly created the sounds and traditions that grew into modern folk, country, and bluegrass music.

Meticulously researched and lovingly written, it is a look at a world and a culture that, rather than passing, has continued to exist in the music that is the legacy of the Carters—songs that have shaped and influenced generations of artists who have followed them.

Brilliant in insight and execution, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is also an in-depth study of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter, and their bittersweet story of love and fulfillment, sadness and loss. The result is more than just a biography of a family; it is also a journey into another time, almost another world, and theirs is a story that resonates today and lives on in the timeless music they created.


Chapter One: Pleasant

Five separate mountain ridges cut on a southwest diagonal through Scott County, Virginia: Powell's and Stone westernmost, out by the Kentucky border; Clinch Mountain farthest south and east, not far from the Tennessee border; and in between, the Copper Creek and Moccasin ridges. Every big valley rolls and folds into itself, forming valleys within valleys, haunts and hollows that can't be seen from even the highest perch in the county, on top of Clinch Mountain, 3,200 feet up. So you'd have to have a pretty fair knowledge of the richly filigreed landscape, of the right roadless gap to take, to make your way into the deepest hollows. That inaccessibility, with its promise of well-hid treasures, has always been the heart of the romance of the Appalachian Mountains. "A mysterious realm," the writer Horace Kephart called the southern Appalachians, "terra incognita." Kephart was a St. Louis librarian who had traveled widely in Europe and spent years cataloging a gargantuan collection of works by and about a fourteenth-century Italian poet. In 1904, with his penchant for the obscure surprisingly undiminished, Kephart moved to the America's southern mountains and began cataloging the culture of its natives.

Ten years later he brought out his book Our Southern Highlanders and introduced a people as exotic to his fellow academics as South Sea islanders or Eskimos. For a decade Kephart had plumbed the region's language, superstitions, work patterns, diet, and dentistry: "It was here I first heard of 'tooth-jumping,'" wrote Kephart. "Let one of my old neighbors tell it in his own words: 'You take a cut nail (not one o' those round wire nails) and place its squar p'int agin the ridge of the tooth, jest under the edge of the gum. Then jump the tooth out with a hammer. A man who knows how can jump a tooth without it hurtin' half as bad as pullin'. But old Uncle Neddy Cyarter went to jump one of his own teeth out, one time, and missed the nail and mashed his nose with the hammer....Some men git to be as experienced at it as tooth-dentists are at pullin'. They cut around the gum, and then put the nail at jest sich an angle, slantin' downward for an upper tooth or upwards for a lower one, and hit one lick.'

"'Will the tooth come at the first lick?'

"'Ginerally. If it didn't you might as well stick your head in a swarm o' bees and ferget who you are.'"

It's no wonder Horace got caught up in the flat-out oddness of the remotest hollows (the "back of beyond," he called it), but his seminal work in the mountains had the effect of obscuring the regal and practical breadth of Appalachian culture. By 1913, it was way too late for rural to still be thought of as synonymous with backward or isolated. At the time Kephart was doing his fieldwork, a young native of Scott County, Leonidas Reuben Dingus, educated at the free schools near Wood, Virginia, was presenting his own postdoctoral papers, to wit: "Study of Literary Tendencies in the Novellen of Theodore Storm," "A Brief on Schiller's Esthetic Philosophy," and "Beowulf Translated into Alliterative Verse -- Selections." It was with evident pride that Dingus was celebrated as "one of the ripest scholars the county has produced."

A full generation before Kephart arrived, Scott County had ninety-six public schools and two local newspapers, not counting the Toledo Blade, which arrived over the mountains by horseback in Copper Creek every two weeks. There was nobody who wasn't but a few hours' ride from a railroad station, and from there you could get to Kingsport, Nashville, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., or New York. And the railroads could deliver any of the largest or most exotic items to be found in the Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck catalogs. Usually that wasn't necessary, however, for most of what was needed could be got right in Scott County. There were forty corn and flour mills, fourteen sawmills, and two woolen mills, all powered by the creeks and rivers that ran through the valleys. Every wide place in the road, such as Fido, Osborn's Ford, and Nickelsville, had a general merchandise store that stocked everything from fine china to Cracker Jacks. Even the outlying areas were dotted with home manufacturers who could take a body from cradle to grave. You could buy a pram, a wagon, or a coffin, handmade locally.

In Hiltons, James P. Curtis was doing a fine trade in both guns and butter. He'd invented a churn that ran by the motion of a rocking chair, and a more efficient turn plow for the hundreds of dirt farmers scratching a living off of the land. But he is remembered best for his rifles. During the Civil War, Curtis had supplied nearly a thousand Kentucky rifles to the Confederate army. At the turn of the century, his long-shot rifles were still in wide use in the land disputes that had entered the American consciousness as "feuds."

More than anything else in Scott County, land counted. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, nearly four-fifths of Scott County's seventeen thousand residents farmed. Even at $2.26 an acre, no commodity was more precious than land. And it wasn't just the present value of the land that mattered, but the future value. In fact, the fastest growing trades in the county -- as in most of Appalachia -- were land agentry and lawyering. And most of the men practicing these professions were under the employ of the railroads and their subsidiaries, out on the prowl, quietly leasing mineral or timber rights from local farmers. "Inexhaustible beds of iron ore (red and brown hematite) are found in this county," boasted a local business directory in 1889, "and manganese, lead, coal, marble of various kinds, and limestone in abundance....The extension of the Narrow-Gauge road through this county from Bristol in Tennessee, will open up its mineral treasures, which now lie buried awaiting convenient and cheap transportation facilities."

Already, in 1891, the railroads and their affiliates were clear-cutting tens of thousands of acres of forest for crossties and square-set mining timbers. Five separate mines were in full cry, blasting coal and iron out of the ground, filling up freight cars behind the gleaming new Norfolk & Western or Virginia & Southwestern engines, all headed for the more populated and higher-paying parts of America. The railroads were not a paternal force in the valleys, not by a long shot. Neither were the timber companies or the mine owners or the quarry operators. They meant to dig out of the land whatever value it held, and Scott Countians take the hindmost. By 1891, for better or worse, the future had rumbled into the valleys.

From her little one-room log cabin on the other side of Pine Ridge, Mollie Bays Carter couldn't hear the Virginia & Southwestern engines roll through Poor Valley. Not that she didn't have her ears open to them. It was the middle of the night and she was by the fire, still in her day clothes, sitting bolt upright on a cane-backed chair. On her lap she held a shotgun.

Mollie was just nineteen and she still held her beauty, which owed in no small part to the Cherokee in her. Her great-grandfather was a half-blood, and you could see it in Mollie's high cheekbones, her dark eyes, and her straight coal-black hair. She kept her hair long ("A woman's hair is her glory," they taught her at the Friendly Grove Methodist Church). When she let it down, it would fall well below her narrow waist. But Mollie rarely let her hair down. She plaited it every day and kept it tied in a fat bun on top of her tiny head. Above all, Mollie was a Christian woman and modest in her appearance.

In the cabin that night, she was alone except for her infant son, Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, who was born just weeks before, on December 15, 1891. That's why she was up in the middle of the night. Earlier that day, Mollie had spied a panther skulking around the farm. There was no glass in the windows of her cabin; she'd just hung sackcloth over them. That might keep out the wind, but it wasn't going to keep out a hungry panther. So Mollie sat alert and awake all night long, in frightened defense of her newborn son.

Where her husband, Bob, was she couldn't have said for sure. Robert Carter was part of a long line of roaming mountain men, from Daniel Boone (who had been so constitutionally unsettled that he had, at age eighty, still searched out new trails) to the novelist Thomas Wolfe (who would occasionally, and without purpose, walk the entire circumference of Manhattan Island). Bob Carter was a far-wanderer, a gangly, long-legged man, and, truth be told, a bit flaky. He never was much for work, and there were times when Mollie would look up and Bob was just plain gone. No telling where...or for how long.

One thing he liked to do was visit the sick. Bob could sit bedside for hours, praying over the afflicted. If somebody in the Valley was dying of cancer, neighbors might help plant the corn or bring in the harvest, but most made a point to stay well outside the plagued house, reckoning any sickness could be catching. Not Robert Carter. Later, during the big influenza epidemic of 1917, he was so stalwart and so fearless that he would earn the nickname "Flu-proof Bob." Another thing Bob liked to do was inquire about local happenings. He was an enthusiastic gatherer of news; some said gossip. One neighbor lady who was a bit peeved by some of Bob's more personal reporting took to calling him by the local newspaper name. ("Well, here comes the Scott Banner," she'd say, loud enough for him to hear as he approached. "He's got all the news.") But Bob never let the taunts slow him down. Comfort and news were Bob Carter's business, and that business kept him on the move. Later in the marriage, Mollie learned to read the signs. When Bob began chopping wood and stacking it high, she knew he was about to leave. The higher the stack, the longer he'd be gone.

"Bob, are you leaving your family again?" a neighbor once admonished.

"Well, if you can take any better care of them than I can," he shot back, "go on ahead."

"Uncle Bob would be walking by our homeplace and say, 'Well, where's your dad?'" his nephew Vernon Bays remembers. "He would ask a dozen questions: 'When did he leave?' 'When's he gonna be back?' 'What'd he go there for?' and he never stopped walking. Just walking and asking questions and bringing news."

Bob might be gone from home a day, or -- say, he went to visit his cousin Amanda Groves -- he might be gone a week. Mandy Groves was a striking woman, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, with flaming red hair she kept pulled back so it didn't fly into an unruly frizz. Mandy was nosy, too, and witchlike. She never forgot anything. She could give chapter and verse on what happened on a specific day forty years before. Neighbors who had no record of their birth date would go to see Mandy, and she'd know. You were born July 6, thirty-eight years ago. That's the day they brought the wheat in over at Wolfe's. Looked like a storm all day, but never did rain. Well, there was nothing Mandy didn't know, and Bob could put his feet under her table and get all the goings-on. Besides, over by Mandy there was always some land squabble. Her own husband, Abraham, once plugged Jerry McMurray with a bullet from the silver-plated rifle Old Man Curtis had made for him. So there was plenty of interest at Mandy's house.

In later years, when Bob was on the circuit, Mollie might be able to track him by telephone. There were only a few phones in Poor Valley, or over in Little Poor Valley, but somebody would have seen him, and they'd tell him to get on home, that Mollie said it was time to strip the tobacco. But way back in 1891, on that cold, dark night, Mollie Bays Carter had no way of knowing precisely where her new husband was. Maybe Bob had walked down the Little Valley to Hiltons, and then another half dozen miles along the Appalachian Trail to the county seat, where he could alert the sheriff of the "addition to the family" and record the birth of his new son, Alvin Pleasant Carter, in the Scott County registrar's books. Or maybe he was off to visit an uncle, see about work. It was hard to know.

From the beginning, Mollie Bays knew Bob Carter was going to be a project. She'd first seen him about 1888, not long after her family moved across Clinch Mountain and into Poor Valley so that they could be nearer the new railroad. She'd gone to a square dance, where she'd seen Bob playing the fiddle. And not only could he fiddle, but he could hit the back-step, too. He was more than six feet tall, fair-skinned, strong-jawed, and only a bit sunken in the chest. His hair was wavy and brown, shading to auburn. Whenever Mollie told the story of their meeting, she'd talk about watching him on the dance floor with his patent-leather lace-up boots with the blue bands around the tops and his "stri-ped britches." She always said he was the prettiest thing she'd ever seen and that she fell in love with him the minute she saw him.

But there were things about Robert Carter that could have given her pause. Bob had seen some of the world already, having just returned from a railroad job in Richmond, Indiana. And Mollie had pretty good reason to believe that Bob Carter had seen the business end of a whiskey bottle as well. ("Most Carters of that generation," says a family historian, "didn't hesitate to take a good sip of whiskey.") There was also the thorny question of his provenance. His Little Valley neighbors all said Bob was "base-born," a phrase, like many in the region, meant to muddy the actual meaning, a way of talking about things that kept outsiders in the dark. There were other such phrasings: If a man was "in his back," he was, in fact, drunk as a skunk; if in wartime he had gone "scoutin'," he was, in fact, hiding up on the mountain, dodging conscription. So the locals might have called him base-born, but to put it in the plain English of the day, Bob Carter was somebody's bastard son.

Bob's grandfather had been the first Carter to come over to the south side of Clinch Mountain. Dulaney Carter was the son of a well-off landowner from Rye Cove, twenty miles northwest of Poor Valley, and a descendant of one of the earliest and most esteemed settlers in Scott County. He had also married well. His bride, Rebecca Smith, was the daughter of John "Dutch" Smith, who'd got a land grant for exemplary service in the Revolutionary War. So when Dulaney arrived in Poor Valley in 1833, he was doubly staked, which was why when they spoke of him, his own children would say that Dulaney had managed to drink up two fortunes. "The bottle," says his great-grandson, "got the better of him. He had nothing when he died, and he left his children with nothing."

Dulaney's second child, Nancy Carter, had it particularly rough. She was a big-boned woman, with a streak of independence as wide as the Delaware and a weakness for pipe smoking and men. At twenty, she'd married a teenager named William Anderson Bays. They had four children together before he went off to fight for the Confederacy in the War Between the States. Billy Bays didn't return from the war for nearly a full year after Lee's surrender, and when he did come back, his wife was pregnant again. Now, Billy was no scholar, but he could do the math. He'd been gone years. On March 20, 1866, Nancy had a son, Robert, to whom she gave her maiden name. She filed for and was granted a divorce from Billy Bays, who moved to the next county and started a new family. Several years later, Nancy Carter bore another son, named Elisha "Lish" Carter. There was much speculation about the paternity of these boys. For her own part, Nancy took a put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it stance. Somebody once asked her directly who was the father of one of her children, and she replied, directly, "Law, honey, when you run through a briar patch, you don't know which one scratched you."

Bob grew up mainly with Nancy's brother, William Carter, who had five strapping children of his own (including the witchlike Mandy). But in the years after the war, working bodies were always welcome. There was almost no hard cash in the Valley at that time -- save Confederate currency, which had all the value of a two-legged mule. People lived off the land, raising table vegetables in a truck patch, hogs for meat, and corn and tobacco for bartering for other necessities. Over time, William Carter finagled his way into enough estate sales and land deals to build up a holding of nearly a thousand acres. On his death, each of his five surviving children got two hundred acres of land. Neither Bob nor Lish was written into his uncle's will.

In fact, when Robert Carter convinced Mollie Bays to marry him in 1889, he was a twenty-three-year-old farmer with next to no land, little ambition, no inclination toward hard work, no professed faith in God, and a passing acquaintance with the bottle. He was high-strung, and hardheaded to boot. It's a good thing he was fetching. And it's a good thing that Mollie Bays, at seventeen, had faith enough for the both of them. She was going to set him straight.

Mollie Bays was a God-fearing and abstemious young woman, but she was no stranger to odd men and scandalous women. Her grandfather William H. Bays was one of the most eccentric men on either side of Clinch Mountain. William H. Bays's father was heir to an early settler and well-off landowner in Scott County; his mother was said to be a full-blooded Cherokee. And this Bays never ran from either heritage. He had his father's blue eyes but his mother's jet-black hair, which he parted down the middle (he carried separate combs for each side) and wore in long plaits that fell over his shoulders. He carried his fiddle everywhere and was best known as "Fiddlin' Billy" or simply "the Entertainer." It wasn't just his music that made Fiddlin' Billy entertaining; he was born to perform, and he meant to amaze. He favored clothes that made a statement, such as long coats made of the finest and most colorful broadcloth, festooned with oversize brass buttons. Fiddlin' Billy's son said his father had a way of just appearing, almost out of thin air, then disappearing just as abruptly. And the Entertainer liked you to know that he might trust in God, but he didn't trust in banks or governments. He never had a nickel in a bank, but he never lacked for money. If there was something he wanted to buy, he'd disappear, and reappear hours later with a wad of greenbacks. It was said that Fiddlin' Billy had his money buried on some remote and thick-grown hillside, but he died without revealing to his own sons the whereabouts of his stash. If his family knew little of his finances, the local, state, and federal tax authorities knew even less. He was so stubborn about paying his taxes that one frustrated county collector finally reached across and ripped off a handful of Billy's brass buttons as payment in kind.

Fiddlin' Billy's wife was his equal. Eliza Morgan Bays would race her stud horse alongside Moccasin Creek, bareback...and she didn't ride sidesaddle, and she didn't always ride sober. When a group of marauders came across the Tennessee border to prey on the women, children, and old men left behind during the Civil War, Eliza -- it was believed -- was one of the women who tracked the nine men to their camp one night and bludgeoned them to death with hickory sticks. Eliza was evidently a fiercely independent woman, perhaps too independent for Fiddlin' Billy. In 1870, after twenty-six years of marriage, there was, according to court records, "a devorsement of the parties." By that time the couple's eldest daughter had already given birth to four children, all base-born. So Bob Carter's personal and family history held no terror for Mollie Bays. In fact, there wasn't much at all that could scare Mollie.

They were -- and are -- ferocious doers, the women of Poor Valley, and if they grew up in the long years of want after the Civil War, as Mollie had, they put their faith in God, and in themselves. In those years even the grandest farm in Scott County -- the Jett place -- operated by the power of man and beast. The scythes were operated by hand, and the turn plows pulled by mule. But what the Valley lacked in machinery, it made up for in women. Women kept the Valley humming. For staying power, efficiency, and capacity, no combustible engine was their equal. The women in the Valley could work all day and all night. Most did so without complaint, save for an occasional sigh ("Law") or an aside meant for all to hear ("A man's work is sun to sun; a woman's work is never done").

To make a go of life in the Valley, a woman had to be able to make corn bread, worm tobacco, teach her children Christian prayers, plow a straight row, put up kraut and beans for winter, sew a proper school dress, tan hides, keep a house clean and a cornfield free of weeds. Above all, they had to know how to stretch what life gave them; they wasted nothing.

Take for instance the hog killing. There are women in the Valley yet who light up at the memory of that splendid tradition. Just put them in the living room and let them talk:

"It'd take several days to butcher a hog and get everything cut up and put away."

"It wasn't like it is today. I heard somebody say just the other day they threw away the liver! We never threw away a thing. We ate tongue. We'd boil them and peel them off. And the heart. I always liked the heart so good. Some fellow said he didn't like to put the head in sausage, so he threw it away. But you could salt that down, and my aunt Rosie could fry that stuff and roll it in buttermilk and flour. Granny made her mincemeat out of the head."

"What I like is the cracklin'. Render the lard and cook it down and make cracklin' bread."

"We always fed the ears to the dog."

"My grandmother pulled out the intestines and made soap with it."

"The bladder? They'd blow that up for a balloon for the kids."

"Honey, they used everything but the squeal."

Mollie Carter didn't have an electric icebox, or even a smokehouse, and meat had to keep. So she'd cure it with salt, black pepper, brown sugar, and molasses siphoned from wildwood pines. Even so, there was never enough ham or bacon or sausage to make it more than a side dish. At the heart of the table were the vegetables from the summer garden: kraut and beans Mollie put up to last through the longest winter. If all else ran out, there was always corn bread, and Mollie could always walk out her front door and wring a chicken's neck.

The Bob Carters never had enough land to reap cash. Mollie's dad had deeded them a farm in the Little Valley; it might have been forty acres, but so much of it was wildwood running up into the foothills that there wasn't room enough for a big corn or tobacco crop. They might have planted a pretty fair orchard on the side of those hills, where, according to the deed, the land "meanders to the top of the Poor Valley knob, thence west with the top of said knob." But with just Bob and the mules (and even later when his sons came of age), they never had the brute force required to clear the land. So they made do with small harvests, a milk cow, chickens, and a hog a year. Mollie could take milk and eggs through Jett Gap to Neal's (a general store that also served as the Maces Springs railroad depot and post office) to trade for what else they needed: coffee and sugar, soup beans and rice, fabric for clothes. In the leanest times, John Neal would even let Mollie and her neighbors buy on credit. With so many people in the Valley in the same harness, nobody had more riding on the annual harvest than John Neal. When the family was down to nothing but debt, Bob Carter would have to cut timber and drag it off the mountain by mule to sell to the railroad. The railroad was always in need of timber for ties, and Neal could act as an agent for the transaction and put it right on the train.

To her credit, nobody went hungry in Mollie's house, and nobody saw her struggle. Her method was making do, but her real genius was adding flavor to a meal. Every circuit-riding Methodist preacher in the area knew where to go for Sunday dinner; they'd even come scratching around Mollie Carter's door on weekdays, right around noon. When a preacher put his feet under Mollie Carter's table, he wasn't disappointed. She always set aside something special for the man of God. On Sundays, she made sure there was icing on her cakes.

Mollie wanted everything to be just so. If she turned out a corn bread that wasn't to her standards, she'd start over. Not that it went to waste! She'd open her door and fling it into the yard, "The chickens can have that." She never could get her biscuits to rise just right, so she stopped trying. But for blackberry jam, molasses cake, or apple butter, nobody could match her.

And it wasn't only the table that benefited from her care. She kept her yard swept and flowering, with the glorious aid of her chicken litter. All around her house were gladiolus, lilies, sunflowers, baby-rose bushes, elephant ears, and dahlias. She even talked Bob into building diamond-shaped beds to hold her most precious flowers and plants. Mollie's granddaughters, great-granddaughters, and great-great-granddaughters still have portions of a Christmas cactus she started more than a century ago, and to this day, that plant blooms in houses up and down Poor Valley.

Besides her gardening, Mollie loved music. Her grandfather, after all, had been Fiddlin' Billy Bays, and her brother Charlie Bays could saw a few tunes, too. "He played his fiddle around the house," remembers one family member. "He'd go hunting for a note to get it to sound just right. Sounded like a chicken plucking on that neck. He played 'Hog Molly,' a hoedown tune, and he played 'The Eighth of January,' which was the fiddle tune for the Battle of New Orleans. A lot of that music came out of Ireland. It was jig music." Mollie had seen jig music promote some un-Christian behavior at many a dance, so she was wary of the fiddle. But while she went about her daily chores, Mollie Carter would sing the hymns she loved best: "The Land of the Uncloudy Day," "Amazing Grace," or "The Gospel Ship." But she also sang traditional ballads, known as "English" songs, because the form -- if not the songs themselves -- had crossed the Atlantic with the English and Scotch-Irish who settled the southern mountains. These were story songs, hemmed and tucked and remade to fit each new generation, like the story of the Scotsman who met his beautiful Cherokee bride at the river and ended up with a slew of children. "White man wishing he'd never gone fishing...still, you are my pretty little Naponee." "The Wife of Ushers Well," Mollie would sing, or "Brown Girl," or one that was particularly close to home:

Single girl, single girl

She goes to the store and buys

Oh, she goes to the store and buys

Married girl, married girl

She rocks the cradle and cries

Oh, rocks the cradle and cries.

Single girl, single girl

She's going where she please

Oh, she's going where she please

Married girl, married girl

Baby on her knee

Oh, baby on her knee.

For nearly twenty years -- and without respite -- Mollie Carter had a baby to contend with. Alvin Pleasant Carter was born in 1891, then came Jim (1893), the twins, Ezra and Virgie (1898), Grant (1900), Ettaleen (1901), Ermine (1906), and Sylvia (1908).

After a while, there wasn't much room in the Carters' little one-room cabin for anything but four beds (they slept two and three to a bed) and the supper table. Another family with five strong boys might have been in the money. But taken as a whole, the growing Carter boys were a net loss. Maybe after a while, Grant held his own; he learned to work. But only Ermine inherited his mother's willingness. From the beginning he could put his head down and work like a mule. Once, before he was even a teenager, Ermine raised a potato patch that kept the family going an entire winter. As for the rest of the Carter brood, they kindly resembled Bob.

There were, however, two Carter boys who had ambition, if not focus. Those sons seemed to understand that the old mountain ways were about to be overrun, and some folks were going to get run over, and some were going to hop on the train. Those boys were Mollie's oldest, who was called Pleasant; and Ezra, called Eck. Eck was shy; he didn't speak a word until he was three, and not many more after. But from the jump, he had a gift for invention. "Oh, Lord," says his niece, Lois Hensley, "Ezra had a busy mind."

Eck was also a quiet, sneaky prankster, and his mischief might have gone entirely undetected if it weren't for his twin sister. Eck and Virgie had divided their father's personality right down the middle. Eck was restless, another wanderer. Virgie could sit still for hours, gathering news and gossip. In fact, Virgie took particular pleasure in keeping everybody up to date on Eck's high jinks. Sometimes, when Virgie would claim to be the older of the twins, Eck would counter, "Yeah, you got out first so you could tell everyone else I was coming."

Growing up, Eck seemed to be always looking for a way out of Poor Valley. Among the Carter children, only Eck finished high school -- and that took some doing. The only school in the Valley was down through Jett Gap, on the way to Neal's Store. It was a two-story log building that doubled as the Friendly Grove Methodist Church, so during the big revival time, school would shut down for a week or more. And during the harvest season, attendance was sparse. Worse yet, the school went through only eighth grade. So when he graduated there, Eck was forced to walk up the Valley -- four miles each way, every day -- to attend high school in Hiltons.

His mother was the only person who really understood what Eck was aiming for. One day he was with Mollie at Neal's when the train went through. People were always milling around Neal's place, trading, getting the news, having a coffee, playing cards by the big potbellied stove, or just plain "meeting the train." Waiting for the train in the Valley was like waiting for the big paddle-wheel steamer to come rolling into port in young Sam Clemens's Hannibal. The buzz in the store always increased as the posted arrival time neared. Even if it was only a few people getting off, anybody at Neal's would be the first to know that the Hensleys had a cousin visiting from Roanoke, or that Mandy Groves just got something called a "player piano." There was no telling what treasures were inside those canvas pouches stamped u.s. mail. Disappointment was palpable when the train edged past Neal's Store, slowing but not stopping. If there were no passengers for Maces Springs, the railway mail clerk would make his pass on the move, tossing off a mail pouch and grabbing the outgoing mail from a swinging metal arm. The train would just keep on toward Bristol and Roanoke, then up to the state capital in Richmond and the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Eck knew about those places; he'd read about them all. "Someday," Eck quietly told his mother as the train pulled through the station, "I'm going to put mail off that train."

The strangest case of the entire Carter brood was the firstborn, Alvin Pleasant Carter. Pleasant shook, all the time. From the day he was born until the day he died, he was possessed of a slight tremor, most noticeable in his hands. The family named it "palsy" and never saw cause to better Mollie's own theory. Like most mountain women, Mollie turned for answers to God and nature. Whenever anybody asked about this odd, shaky child, she would tell them about the day when she was pregnant with Pleasant and got caught outside in a thunderstorm while gathering apples fallen from a tree. A crack of lightning hit the tree she stood beneath and traveled like wildfire along the ground all around her and, as she reckoned, shot such a bolt of fright into her swollen belly that the baby inside would be afflicted with that very nervous energy for each and all of his days. Sometimes Mollie would say her eldest son had been marked. What that meant nobody was quite sure, but it must have given some comfort to a little boy with a difficult row to hoe.

Like the cause, the consequences of this affliction were not altogether worked out. There were some things about Pleasant that were laid squarely at the feet of this encounter with the lightning. He was odd. Even when he was a child, it seemed like Pleasant was always humming, or giggling quietly to himself in contemplation of some private joke. He wasn't much good in school, easily distracted, self-conscious about his shaky handwriting. In the classroom, the other kids did the giggling -- constantly -- at Pleasant's strange ways and shortcomings. By the time he was ten, Mollie had relieved her emotionally bruised son of the chore of going to school.

Another thing people put down to the lightning was how Pleasant appeared to be hooked up to some source of energy from which he couldn't unplug himself. The boy never could sit still. Even after he grew to his full height of six foot two, lanky and gaunt, all joints and Adam's apple, he could still unfold himself and raise up from a chair faster than a man half his size. He never stayed in one spot long; he'd jump off the porch, head out past Neal's, and down the trace, perambulating alongside the railroad tracks. In those days, most folks walked wherever they needed to go. And, like Eck, they might walk miles every day just to get where they had to be. But Pleasant Carter never appeared to be heading anywhere in particular. Neighbors would see him walking up and down those tracks, bent slightly forward as if walking into the wind, his hands folded behind his back, his long, thin legs taking the railroad ties two or three at a time and his jug-eared head bouncing atop his skinny neck.

It was matter of wide speculation whether his head bobbed from the act of walking or the act of thinking. Pleasant took so many notions that they tumbled over one another and fought for space at the front of his mind; he had a hard time ever keeping a single idea front and center and rarely saw one through to completion. He was forever leaving chores undone. As a grown man he would practice a variety of trades: farmer, sawyer, fruit-tree salesman, choir leader, carpenter, music-recording professional, and proprietor of a general store whose hours were neither regular nor predictable. He never did seem to care much about his income. When he found himself in some personal bonanza, he'd buy more land, or a sawmill. Forty years after his death, his family still doesn't have a definite inventory of the sawmills he owned. "A.P. was always a step out in left field," one of his nephews remembers. "Wifty" is how one niece describes him.

Finally, and most notably, the ever-present tremble gave A.P.'s voice a slight quaver, so that when he spoke, it was like a ripple on a pond, and when he sang, it was faster, like the shimmering rush of a mountain creek over mossy rocks below. All these things, everyone in the Valley agreed, were on account of the lightning.

Then, too, there were things about Pleasant that were not so clearly consequences of the thunderbolt but seemed, unlike the tremor, to come from the deepest part of him and simply were him and would have been there regardless. First there was his stubbornness, which could flare into real, and occasionally frightening, fits of temper. Then there was his need to see things of the world out beyond his ancestral valley, and to make himself known in that wider world. And, on the other side of that very ledger, there was his fear of leaving and not being able to double back home. Those conflicting impulses fused over time into a single inchoate longing that takes hold of boys and girls in the most isolated parts of this country, a longing for something they cannot put a name on, or that has yet to be named, or whose name simply hasn't reached their valleys. The longer Pleasant lived without knowing what to call that longing or how to act on it, the more enervated and absentminded he became. Even as he passed into adulthood, even when he had been up on the sill a good while and ought to have mellowed, Pleasant Carter, it was agreed, was strung a hair too tight.

The other thing Pleasant seemed to have deep within him was music -- and it was music that brought him his first notice. Bob had quit playing dances at Mollie's request, but he'd still occasionally scrape out a tune around home. And when they were just boys, Pleasant and Jim got a fiddle to share between them. Jim practiced obsessively, but the only song he really mastered was "Johnny Get Your Hair Cut Short." So it wasn't long before everybody in the tiny cabin was sick of that tune. Pleasant showed a more supple feeling for the instrument and seemed to have a real ear for music. If he heard a new song, he could generally chord it out on the fiddle by the end of the day. But Pleasant's tremor continued to vex; he could barely keep his bow steady. It was his singing that got him recognized. When he became a teenager, his voice ripened into a deep, rich bass, and the tremor gave him what the locals call a "tear," embroidering his singing with an almost otherworldly tenderness. It was one mighty fine church voice -- and that's where he had his first triumphs.

The church was the most important institution in Poor Valley. It served as a family of families and helped that larger family push back against the uglier potencies of nature: weather, disease, death, and the darkness in one's own heart. For Mollie Carter, it was the rock that held fast. Mollie had figured out early in the marriage that she wasn't going to inject any real drive into her husband, or take the edge off his stubbornness. But she did carry him to church and bring him into the larger community. First they attended the Friendly Grove Methodist Church with Mollie's own family: her sister Martha (who married Bob's half brother Lish Carter) and her brothers Charlie, Will, and Flanders Bays. In March of 1904, one of Mollie's uncles donated land for a new church building and a cemetery behind. Bob Carter and the other Sunday-school men felled trees and hewed out logs on Clinch Mountain. Pleasant and his uncle Charlie Bays ran teams of horses and mules, skidding the logs off the mountain and up a hillside to the building site. It took four horses to drag the colossal tree chosen for the church seal, and Mollie was in her glory: The chosen tree came from her farm.

In the spring of 1907, fifty-plus members climbed onto the hilltop overlooking the old Friendly Grove church and schoolhouse, and dedicated Mount Vernon Methodist Church and its cemetery. At Mount Vernon they continued a traditional worship, with the complicated, Old World King James Bible as text. Religion on the hilltop church was still practiced as a stalwart barrier against the forces of nature. One Sunday at Mount Vernon, in the middle of a crop-choking drought, an old farmer stood up and beseeched his maker: "Oh, Lord God, please send us a good clod-soaker. But oh, Lord God, don't send us no damned gully-washer!"

They talked to God, together, in that church. First they'd testify to faith in their personal savior, Jesus Christ, and to the glory of the Father. Then they'd plead for Him to walk with them in their daily struggles, to deliver them from the pain -- and not just in the peace of the hereafter, but right now, on this earth, in this minute. They'd beg for His healing power. And from the start Bob Carter proved himself a prodigious voice in that church; his prayers were pleading and, in extremis, emotional to the point of weeping. Ruby Parker, who grew up in the church, still remembers: "Bob Carter just said a good old humble prayer -- and he didn't leave nobody out," she says. "The saved, the sinner, sick, afflicted, everybody. Especially the sick. He always remembered them in prayer." One of his own granddaughters thought Bob's longer perorations timed out at about an hour, but Ruby would only offer that Bob "could pray on and on."

Prayer might have given Mount Vernon foundation, but music gave the church lift. The congregation rang in the service with song, and rang it out with song. So while Bob's solemn prayers were Mollie Carter's personal comfort, the songs were her joy. When the congregation sang her favorites, Mollie belted them out. Her granddaughter June Carter Cash once claimed that when Mount Vernon broke into "The Land of an Uncloudy Day" (and the wind was just right), you could hear Ma Carter at Neal's Store, nearly a half mile down the road.

So Mollie's face must have betrayed her motherly (if not altogether Christian) pride when her own son Pleasant showed himself to be the finest bass in the entire church and ready for the exalted church quartet. He'd been handpicked for that quartet by Mollie's brother Flanders Bays, who served the church as musical director. But nobody in the congregation thought to call it favoritism. Pleasant's talent was unquestionable.

Pleasant heeded his uncle's direction -- and not just in the church. In fact, Flanders Bays proved to be the lodestar for Pleasant Carter. Fland was just nine years older than his nephew; he was of the Valley but somehow above it, too. Fland was a solid citizen in Maces Springs; he would also sit with the sick and dying, though he'd often put a dab of turpentine on the tip of his tongue to ward off germs. Like most people in the Valley, he worked a small farm, but he maintained a seigneur's dignity. He was nearing six feet, with dark hair and a patrician nose, and he wielded a wheat cradle (which was something like a scythe) with practiced precision. His sons claim that nobody in the Valley could work one faster, even while he sternly counseled them on method: "Keep your right elbow locked, or you'll really feel it in your arm." But it wasn't his uncle's handiwork with farm implements that fascinated Pleasant. It was the simple, stark fact that Flanders Bays was the first person he'd ever seen who could make a living away from the farm -- and with music. Flanders had learned shape notes from a singing master at a normal school in Nottingham, Virginia. Based on a four-note scheme (diamond, square, triangle, heart), which made it easier for congregants to follow along, shape-note singing began in New England churches in the eighteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, shape-note singing had died out in New England, but in the South, it had evolved into a slightly more elaborate seven-note format taught at singing schools sponsored or encouraged by the South's efflorescent gospel publishing industry.

By the time Pleasant was twenty, Flanders Bays was teaching singing schools all over southwestern Virginia. Uncle Fland was much under the spell of James D. Vaughan, a publisher whose close-harmonizing gospel quartets were the new musical sensation of southern choirs. Four or five times a year, new gospel composition books would arrive at the Bays home from Vaughan's publishing house in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Then Fland would load up his horse with dozens of fresh new songbooks -- Crowning Praise was a favorite -- and head out through Hamilton Gap to the other side of Clinch Mountain, or farther out to Washington County or Russell.

"He had a burning desire for music, and to see people saved," says Fland's son Vernon. "He'd always open his schools with prayer and with a short Bible reading. And he closed it with prayer. It was a devotional, religious service."

Next to the annual revival, Fland Bays's dollar-a-day singing school was the biggest event of the year in hidden-away hamlets all over that pinched corner of Virginia. On the north side of Clinch Mountain, in Copper Creek, there might be thirty or more people who'd sign up for the school. They'd sometimes travel from neighboring towns and bed down with relatives for the chance to cram into the Saratoga schoolhouse every day for four or five hours, ten days straight, learning how to read shape notes, how to master their voices, and, as they advanced, how to use those voices in the close harmonies of southern gospel. "Everybody would go," says Daphne Kilgore Stapleton, who went with her girlfriend Maybelle Addington (later Carter). "All the young people would go to learn the notes and to sing up the scale and back down."

Fland Bays wasn't one to put on airs; he often presided over the school in his denim overalls. But he was never lax about the music. "He always taught us to be able to read three notes ahead," says Ruby Parker. "You would be singing notes to music, do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do, eight notes. And Flanders Bays would stand right over you and just listen, and when you missed a note he'd stop you, that quick. He could catch a sound as quick as anything. He knowed his stuff, buddy."

Sometimes, if Pleasant could get free of his farm chores, he'd go to his uncle's singing schools to help out. He'd willingly walk down the Valley toward Hiltons, then over Clinch Mountain, across Moccasin Valley, over Moccasin Creek, and across Moccasin Ridge to Copper Creek. That would be a difficult daylong trip, but once Pleasant was there, he could stay as long as he wanted. Mollie Carter had been born on that side of the mountain, and she had family there yet. Besides, travel suited him. He could walk all day in solitary contemplation, never minded being alone, and loved seeing what was around the next bend in the trail.

Despite A.P.'s talents, farming was still the surest way to make a living in the Valley, and that meant he needed a piece of land all his own. So in 1911 Pleasant followed his father's path to Richmond, Indiana, to take a temporary job as a carpenter on the railroad. More than twenty years earlier, a Bays in-law named John Smith had married an Indiana girl, moved up north, and found work on the railroad. Since that time, the Smiths had provided a pipeline from Clinch Mountain to Richmond. Young men from the Valley were always going to Richmond for high-paying work on the railroad. Like the rest, Pleasant figured that in a year or two he could raise enough money to buy a farm in the Valley, or maybe a sawmill. But Pleasant Carter didn't last long in Indiana. His first expedition outside Virginia was a bust. He returned home with a blazing case of typhoid fever and memories of gnawing homesickness. According to his sister Virgie, Pleasant also returned with his first song in his pocket:

She clung to me and trembled

When I told her we must part

She said don't go, my darling

It almost breaks my heart

To think of you so far apart

Carry me back to old Virginia

Back to my Clinch Mountain home

Carry me back to old Virginia

Back to my old mountain home

My mother's old and feeble,

My father's getting gray

I'm going back to old Virginia

And I expect to stay

At my old Clinch Mountain home

Back home at Clinch Mountain, Pleasant's fever was so intense that they shaved his head to keep him cool. Mollie nursed her oldest boy back to health, and he not only recovered but grew back a head of hair his sister-in-law Theda claimed was more lush and wavy than ever.

Still, Pleasant had failed in his bid to stake himself. He tried to raise money doing farmwork for his uncle Lish Carter, but it must have been slow going on his uncle's wages. Lish was one of the workingest men in the Valley, and he expected hard work from his farmhands. He was also tight as bark on a tree. "Lish wouldn't give up a nickel for nothing," one niece says.

It was his musical uncle who rescued Pleasant. Flanders was acting as an agent for the Larkey nursery, selling fruit trees and house shrubs around Maces Springs. So pretty soon, he had his eldest nephew selling for the nursery, too -- but Pleasant wasn't content with the trade in Poor Valley. One day in 1914, with his leather side-pouch, his subscription booklet, and a color catalog of handpainted pictures of fruit and flowering trees, Pleasant Carter walked over Clinch Mountain to try for some sales by Copper Creek. Somebody had suggested he try his mother's cousin Milburn Nickels, and Mil's mother, Aunt Susie Nickels.

The Nickels' homes were even farther than the Saratoga school, but Pleasant must have thought it would be worth the extra effort. It's a long, muscle-searing walk over Clinch Mountain, and the trip to Copper Creek probably took a few days, but as he crested the last little hill, where he could just see Aunt Susie's house, Pleasant Carter heard singing coming from inside it. The way he'd tell the story later, the music quickened his weary step. It was deep for a woman's voice, but a woman's voice for sure. "Aunt Susie had one of these tall, old-fashioned sewing machines, and I was standing beside it and my autoharp was on top of it, and I was just kind of playing around with it," the owner of that voice would recall many years later. "I remember I was singing 'Engine 143,' an old song I learned as a little girl, and this fellow knocked on the door."

Pleasant motioned for her to go on singing, and then stood very nearly still in Susie Nickels's front room, watching the young woman. Sara Dougherty was only sixteen and still wore her long brown hair down over her shoulders. While it was Sara's voice that first drew him, Pleasant always said it was the way her dark eyes held a constant play of sparking light that transfixed him. He listened to the entire song, a ballad about a train engineer burned to death in a bloody train wreck while trying to make up lost time. The engineer, it seems, hadn't listened to his mother's caution. And he ended up in a lonesome grave, pining for the engine he loved.

"I remember that he stood there while I sang," recalled Sara, "and then he said something like, 'Ma'am, that was mighty pretty playing and singing, and I sure would like you to play that over again for me,' and so I did."

Whether Susie or Mil Nickels bought a single tree or shrub from Pleasant Carter is lost in time. But the girl in the front room, Sara Dougherty, did manage to sell Pleasant a set of dishes out of her own subscription booklet. Pleasant and Sara's first child claimed the inventory included a set of glasses, a clear pitcher with a cranberry design, a berry set, six dessert dishes, a three-legged fruit bowl, and a vegetable boat.

Even Sara must have known that no bachelor traveling salesman needed six dessert dishes and a vegetable boat, but she made the sale just the same. For Pleasant, he liked to quote himself when he told the story. "I said to Sary, 'If I thought I had a chance with you, I'd take the whole book.'"

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Zwonitzer

About The Authors

Mark Zwonitzer is a writer and 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 working on a documentary about the Carter Family soon. He lives in Connecticut.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 14, 2014)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439127445

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Raves and Reviews

Fort Worth Star-Telegram A gem of a of the best works of nonfiction in 2002.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Once in a blue moon you read a riveting biography built of new information more humanizing than scandalizing, rich with detail, not dirt. That's the case with this fresh story of...the original Carter Family. Anyone who cares about country music will love this account of its humble beginnings....It is the utter guilelessness of the subjects, plus the honest approach of the biographer, that makes this a terrific tale.

The Christian Science Monitor In the heart of the Depression, radio listeners across North America thought of the Carters as family....But off the air, these pioneers of modern folk, country, and bluegrass music were intensely private people who left behind almost none of the paper clues on which biographies can rise. How much more of a triumph, then, is Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?, the first major biography of the Carter Family. Drawing on the recollections of relatives, neighbors, listeners, and scholars, Mark Zwonitzer, with Charles Hirshberg, achieves an elegant story of a cast of characters more complex than their fans would believe, or their melodies suggest.

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