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Various Artists (including Johnny and June Carter Cash, The Whites and Willie Nelson): The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage Of The Carter Family

Label: Dualtone
Genre: traditional, mountain-style country tribute record

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- In the days before the flood of radios, recordings and personal stereos made popular music a taken-for-granted commodity, American folk songs proliferated as a matter of family and community tradition, passed down through the generations. When country music’s first lady Mother Maybelle Carter sang "will the circle be unbroken," it likely referred as much to the question of keeping family tradition intact as it did to the better world a-waiting in the sky. Though Carter’s historical significance is largely lost on the average listener in today’s rhinestone-encrusted country music world, the widespread influence of The Carter Family on popular music can hardly be overstated. The current surge of interest in country and folk roots, bluegrass and Appalachian music spearheaded by the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon makes this an ideal time to revisit as well as honor the progenitors of these styles, which is the concept behind The Unbroken Circle.

The tribute record, produced by family legacy John Carter Cash, gathers Carter kin and special guests, all of whom pay their respects to the North Carolina clan that harvested country music’s first crop of recorded song. Multi-artist compilations such as this have become commonplace, released at the rate of roughly one every several nanoseconds. What makes this one notable, besides its unquestionable historical importance, is the air of reverence conveyed by the featured performers. Larger-than-life legends like George Jones and Willie Nelson leave their star personas at the door to offer straightforward readings that point to the pure, simple perfection of the Carters’ repertoire. Jones’ "Worried Man Blues," gussied up nicely with steel guitar and a plucky rockabilly flavor, is one of the few cuts to feature electric instruments or the slightest stylistic alteration. Contemporary artists such as Shawn Colvin and Sheryl Crow show up gloss-free, and even Crow’s slightly contrived twang on "No Depression In Heaven" works in context. Those whose styles are drawn from folk and country roots such as Emmylou Harris, The Whites and Marty Stuart fit in naturally, but everyone involved seems in agreement that the songs and their creators are the only stars at this affair.

In the first half of the 20th century, groups like The Carter Family didn’t have to identify themselves as Christian musicians; the foundation of faith in their music was readily evident. As a result, inspirational numbers like "On The Sea Of Galilee" and "Hold Fast To The Right" sidle up alongside songs both lighthearted ("Single Girl, Married Girl") and tragic ("Never Let The Devil Get The Upper Hand Of You"). An original collection of Carter Family recordings is essential for any follower of traditional country and mountain music, but the superior sound quality of these modern remakes, coupled with the disc’s reverential approach, makes The Unbroken Circle a fine place to start.

Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.



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