“Well You Miss Me When
I’m Gone” is a long overdue book about the most important family in
America musical history. The Carter Family are our collective link to the past,
not simply to the southern past, either, but to the enormous
antithetically mixed culture that would finally produce the most creative
and interesting nation on earth. In some ways this is a sad book, but
it’s an indispensable one for the person who wants to learn about
origins of American music. I don’t think anyone who reads this book will
forget its portrayal of the mist-shrouded southern mountains and of the
travail and spiritual strength that was characteristic of its people.
James Lee Burke
Mark Zwonitzer is a
writer-director whose work appears nationally on public television. He is
currently finishing up work on a documentary about the creation or the
transcontinental about the creation of the transcontinental railroad and
hopes to begin work soon on a documentary about the Carter Family
Mother Maybelle &
Sara At The Carter Fold
Family bio-musical has real chance to shine
ABINGDON, Va. —
The Carter Family is alive again in the southern Appalachians
, and they're all but
certain to be coming to a theater near you.
great mountain trio, one of the key wellsprings of country music, is the
subject of Keep on the Sunny Side: The Songs and Story of the Carter
Family, a new bio-musical at Barter Theatre, just a holler or two away
, where A.P., Sara and
Maybelle Carter made their first recordings of mountain ballads in 1927.
musical, conceived and written by Douglas Pote (a physician, neophyte
playwright and expert on the history of the Carters) and directed by
Barter's artistic director, Richard Rose, is still in gestation at the
theater, but it is already drawing sellout crowds.
handful of Carter relatives — including Jan
ette Carter, who is
the daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter and is depicted as a teenager in the
show — have seen and approved. Country legends Johnny Cash and his wife,
June Carter Cash, also have shown interest and are expected at a
performance any day now.
on the Sunny Side
concludes its run at Barter's second stage Sept. 22 and will move to a
theater in Roanoke
, , before returning to
Barter's main stage early next year. Rose tells me that he and Pote will
continue to work on the piece, strengthening its dramatic and musical
aspects, and they fully expect it to grow into a touring production with
wide — at least regional and possibly national — circulation.
definitely going to have a life beyond here,'' says Rose, who has done a
lovely job so far on the work. ''The music is strong, the story is
interesting and the revival of interest in the Carter Family has helped a
lot. We think it's going to go far.''
agree. Keep on the Sunny Side, which the theater commissioned, has
the potential to be for Barter what A Chorus Line was for the
Public Theatre in New York
: a critically
acclaimed theatrical franchise that takes this small but respected theater
to the next level of national prominence.
though, several issues need to be addressed. Like most bio-musicals —
including Stand by Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story, which opens
this week at Ryman Auditorium in a return engagement — Keep on the
Sunny Side suffers from an episodic structure that tries to cover too
much ground, leaving precious little time for the narrative core.
core, in this case, is the relationship between A.P. and Sara Carter.
Their initial romantic and musical partnership is evoked beautifully, but
their subsequent conflicts are touched upon far too sketchily for the
story to work as drama.
is, for example, a strong suggestion that Sara, in her isolation while A.P.
was spending too much time away from home collecting songs and drumming up
business for the trio, had a romantic liaison with the neighbor whom she
later married. (As the onstage character of Jan
ette puts it
delicately, ''Her head was turned.'')
this is never adequately dramatized, and neither is the tension between
the pair during the years when they continued to work together as
musicians long after they were no longer living together as husband and
wife. When Sara marries her new love and leaves for California
dissolving the Carter Family as a trio, the moment passes almost as an
afterthought. And a scene evoking the late years of A.P. — who never
remarried and, it seems, continued to pine for Sara until his death — is
never properly tied back to the love story, making the ending of the show
true, too, that the Carter Family's music is not inherently dramatic. It
needs to be clearly yoked to the story — as it is, most effectively, in
the first-act closer, A.P.'s plaintive Are You Tired of Me, My Darling
— but at this point that happens all too infrequently.
now, then, Keep on the Sunny Side hovers uneasily between a revue
and a true musical. If Rose and Pote continue to push it toward the
latter, the piece stands an excellent chance of becoming an important new
addition not only to the cultural heritage of the region, but also to the
American musical theater. If you'd like to catch the show at Barter this
week, call the box office at (276) 628-3991 or visit www.bartertheatre.com
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