An apple tree grows like original sin at the center of artist David Lasky and writer Frank M. Young’s charming, faithful, and resonant biography of the most influential trio in the history of American roots music. It’s the tree planted by singer and song catcher A. P. Carter to memorialize meeting his future (and future ex-) wife; but it’s also the apple tree struck by lightning, as depicted in the book’s front endpapers, that terrified his pregnant mother and perhaps caused A.P.’s lifelong case of the shakes. Music remains in many ways the devil’s work in Young and Lasky’s moving chronicle – and who’s to say it isn’t?
Thoroughly researched enough to belie its “graphic novel” self-descriptor, The Carter Family is also an ill-fated love story set mostly in the southern United States during the years leading up to and following the Great Depression. Its subtitle – Don’t Forget This Song – bears witness to the rich, ever-changing river of folk culture in which its principals – not to mention its creators themselves – flourished.
The Carter Family consisted of A. P. (Alvin “Pleasant”) Carter (1891-1960), his singer/autoharpist wife Sara, and her guitarist cousin Maybelle. Lasky and Young depict their quietly epic artistic rise and fall over the course of forty-three short chapters titled after the tunes they immortalized. (The eighteen-minute CD of Carter Family tunes included with the book almost feels like a relic itself.) Young, a former Comics Journal managing editor, and Lasky have extensive experience with graphic history, both in the pages of Tower Records’ Pulse magazine and as co-creators of Oregon Trail: The Road to Destiny (2010). Their pacing is impeccable, as each succeeding vignette contributes to a single stirring portrait of an exceedingly humble cultural comet. The effect is biblical. The first crowded panel of “Carter’s Blues,” for example, finds A.P. standing amid his pigs in 1927, anxiously awaiting word about the Carter’s first Victor recoding session, while the last, fourteen panels later, is a revelatory full-page image of the family’s home in the spacious Appalachian hills, the lyrics of “The Wandering Boy” floating above it like a heavenly portent – with a little subtle foreshadowing (“Out in the cold world and far away from home / Somebody’s boy is wandering alone”).
Lasky’s visuals are flat, solid, simply yet elegantly composed, and deceptively static considering the amount of emotional information and actual velocity they convey. (At two points in the book the pair move the story forward with palette-cleansing segments in the style of contemporary comic strips.) The Carters seemed to be constantly in motion, whether walking miles down Virginia country roads to visit family (Lasky’s autumnal colors may be the finest in all comicdom); taking a horse and carriage to Bristol, Tennessee, for A.P. and Sara’s seminal recording session; hitting the road in a broken-down car as a constantly exhausted traveling act; driving to New Jersey for yet more recording sessions; or commuting to southern Texas for months-long stints as regulars on powerful Mexican radio station XERA. The cause of A.P. and Sara’s eventual divorce is the hapless bandleader’s devotion to “song catching,” i.e., combing the country, often accompanied by his African-American sidekick Lesley Riddle, in search of material: the old and nearly forgotten folk songs he transcribed, rearranged, recorded, and sometimes rewrote in order to reclaim them as his own. What more elegant songwriting credit has anyone taken than the verse A.P. added to the song whose title serves as this book’s subtitle: “But now I’m upon my scaffold / My time’s not very long / You may forget the singer / But don’t forget this song.” The Carters’ saga is also the story of evolving recording and playback technology, and Lasky lovingly depicts cars, instruments, microphones, disks, Victor Talking Machines, and the always-impressive Orthophonic Credenza record player – the latter a gift from the trio’s somewhat larcenous mentor-manager.
The Carter’s story takes a melancholic twist when Sara falls in love with another man. And its most poignant panel may well be Lasky’s translation of Life photographer Eric Schaal’s iconic image of the extended Carter clan in 1942, with A.P. standing slightly apart from brother Eck and the rest. As often as Lasky’s art inevitably reminds one of R. Crumb light, he conveys a sadness and delicacy of mood the master might envy. Graphic biographies from Tezuka’s Buddha to Spain Rodriguez’s Che tend to transform their subjects into superheroes. Frank Young and David Lasky, on the other hand, will charm the pants off you with a book full of characters who are all too human.