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Aired May 9, 2005

The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Film Description

Their music lifted the nation's spirits during the darkest days of the Depression. Their lyrics captured the joys and tragedies of everyday life: loves won and lost, dreams attained and shattered, separations and reunions. Their original sound, first heard 75 years ago in a makeshift recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee, continues to resonate throughout America.

This hour-long documentary by Emmy Award-winning producer Kathy Conkwright explores the lives of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter, starting with their childhood in Poor Valley, Virginia, and following their story through the early 1940s, when they stopped playing and recording together. The film features rarely seen family photographs, memorabilia, and archival footage that chronicles the life and music of this famous and influential trio. Robert Duvall narrates.

"Through this film, I wanted to chronicle the amazing contributions the Carter Family made to American music," says Conkwright. "Their songs and style remain the most copied in American folk and country music, and have influenced artists across all genres." Artists Marty Stuart, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell, Ralph Stanley and Joan Baez appear in the film, together with A.P. and Sara Carter's children Janette and Joe (who died in March 2005) and granddaughter Rita Forrester.

Sara, her husband A.P., and sister-in-law Maybelle lived the poverty and heartbreak of the poor rural Americans they sang of. Through music, they brought a dignity and understanding to an often-misunderstood culture. Carter Family songs like Wildwood FlowerWill the Circle Be Unbroken and Worried Man Blues laid the foundations for country, folk and bluegrass music.

Their simple, memorable tunes revealed complex lives. A.P. and Sara's marriage was under constant strain due to A.P.'s consuming drive and ambition. Throughout the 1930s, as the Carter Family trio achieved success and popularity with songs such as Keep on the Sunny Side, A.P. scoured remote valleys and mountainsides, knocking on the doors of shacks and cabins, in search of new tunes. During his prolonged absences, Sara fell deeply in love with A.P.'s first cousin, Coy Bays. Although A.P. and Sara eventually separated, the trio continued a professional relationship.

Carter Family songs have been performed and recorded by America's best known, most popular musicians: Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt. and Sheryl Crow, among others.

"The story of The Carter Family encompasses so much more than just the history of music," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "Their songs gave a voice to women, rural America, and Depression-era families. They created the roots of American music."


Produced, Directed and Written by
Kathy Conkwright

Written and Edited by
Mary Makley

Narrated by
Robert Duvall

For Nashville Public Television
Executive Producers
Beth Curley
Steve Bass

Principal Photography
Jim Demarco

Additional Editing/Grip/Dolly Operator
Will Pedigo

Field Sound and Sound Mix
Jay Rockholt

Research Consultant
Colin Escott

Additional Photography
Chris Conder
Jim Johnson

Additional Sound
Walt Reedy

Graphic Animation
Biz Woodie

Graphic Design
Joy Holly
Susie Thiemonge

Production Assistant
Linda Wei

Dale Baker

Actors in order of appearance
Young A.P.: Isaac Salyer
Teenage A.P.: Tucker Jett
Quartet member#1: Justin Justice
Quartet member #3: Henry Schultz
Quartet member #4: Tyler Forrester
AP Carter: Eugene Wolf
Sara Carter: Teresa Williams
Maybelle Carter: Joy Lynn White
Leslie Riddle: Larry Perkins

Archive Materials provided by:
Appalshop, Sunny Side of Life
Bear Family Records
Berea College Southern Appalachian Archives
Bill Bays, personal collection
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Bryant Label, Freddie Boyd
Capitol Records/Nashville
The Carter Family Museum, Hiltons, VA
Carter Family at Newport, courtesy John Cohen/Historic Films
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Bill Crawford
Friends of the Great Smokey Mountains
Historic Films Archive, LLC
Maybelle Carter interview courtesy of Mike Seeger and the estate of Ed Kahn.
Ed Romaniak personal collection
Eric Schaal/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
RCA Record Labels
Ralph Peer interview courtesy of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Collection,
File #20000 Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Tennessee State Library and Archives

Accommodations, Props, Costumes and Locations provided by:
The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville, TN
Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites, Bristol, TN, Convention Center
Jameson Inn, Kingsport, TN
Madeline and Ronald L. Borkhuis
Tony Caldwell, Trim Salon
Doug Dorschug
Grand Antiques, Bristol, TN
Theresa Heiman
The Basement, Steve West, Nashville, TN
Ewings Chapel, Gate City, VA
Wes Taylor Interiors, Wes Taylor, Bristol, TN

Special Thanks to:
Connie and Jimmy Cowan
Kieran and Kevin Crane
Minnie Curtis
Fletcher Foster
Bill Hartley
Stan, Lennea & Mariah Hickam
Tom Hughes
Nell Kendrick
Michael Kenney
John Maeder
Rex McCarty
Stephen McRedmond
Adam Prince
Alan Stoker
Richard Weize
Bret Wolcott

The Extended Carter Family

© Nashville Public Television, Inc.
2005 All rights reserved


Post Production
Greg Shea
Glenn Fukushima

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-Line Editor
Spencer Gentry

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Mark Adler

Business Manager
John Van Hagen

Project Administration
Nancy Farrell
Vanessa Ruiz
Helen R. Russell
Rebekah Suggs

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Director, New Media
Maria Daniels

Project Coordinator, New Media
Ravi Jain

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker
Lauren Prestileo

Series Editor
Susan Bellows

Series Manager
James E. Dunford

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Producer
Sharon Grimberg

Executive Producer
Mark Samels

A Nashville Public Television Production
for American Experience

© 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved.


Narrator: Their songs of love and lost, desperation and joy comforted a nation in the darkest days of the depression, and brought a rare dignity to rural Appalachia culture.

June Carter Cash, Maybelle and Ezra's daughter: They had so many tunes that formed a basis for our country Western Music as we know it today.

Gillian Welch, Musician: I have a very hard time picturing American music and in fact world music without the Carter Family.

Narrator: America knew them as a model of domestic bliss. But their real life story had all the making of one of their songs: betrayal, loss and death.

Narrator: More than 60 years ago this house served as the backdrop for The Carter Family as they proudly posed for the most popular weekly in the country. "Life Magazine" would feature the musical family on the cover of its next issue.

Mark Zwonitzer, Author: They were at the top of their game they were known across America, they were in people's homes day after day after day on the radio.

Narrator: Carter Family patriarch, A.P. Carter, had worked towards this moment for 15 years. It meant recognition for himself, his family and their music.

Rita Forrester, granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter: He was instrumental in everything that happened. It was his ambition, his drive, his strength that made them do what they do.

Marty Stuart, Musician: If you look at country music as if it were a musical bible, I'd say he would be in the Genesis. Where God says, "In the beginning, God created A.P Carter".

Narrator: He had assembled the most influential group in American country and roots music. With Sara's voice, Maybelle's guitar and A.P.'s arrangements, the Carter family helped form the bedrock of modern music.

Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara's daughter: They sung blues, they sung gospel, they sung old time. But anything they'd done, it had the Carter family touch to it.

Narrator: But as the demand for their music grew, so did the tensions in the A.P. Carter household.

Marty Stuart: He was tuned into another place, and it was probably aggravating for other family members sometimes, to not be able to count on consistent daily life routine. But I'm glad he listened to whatever it was that he listened to, that gave us the songs that, you know, he found or wrote. I think he was a man of vision.

Narrator: A.P. Carter's vision brought Life Magazine to his doorstep. But the moment of his greatest triumph was not what he dreamed.

Mark Zwonitzer: All the drive and all the push and all the effort that it took to make this first family of country music cost him more, you know, than he could have guessed or imagined.

Carter Family singing, Archival Film:Can the circle be unbroken, bye and bye Lord, bye and bye. There's a better home a-waiting, in the sky Lord in the sky.

Carter Family singing, Archival Film: I fear the hearts of men are failing, for these are latter days we know. The great depression now is spreading. God's words declared it would be so. I'm going where there's no depression, to the lovely land that's free from care. I'll leave this world of toil and trouble. My home's in heaven, and I'm going there.

Narrator: At the turn of the 20th century, the peaceful beauty of Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains masked the hard life of its inhabitants. In the shadow of Clinch Mountain, the people of Poor Valley, Virginia, still lived much as their ancestors before them. The Carters had worked this land since the Revolutionary War.

Mark Zwonitzer: A.P. Carter was born into a hard place. He was born into Poor Valley Virginia in 1891, which comes by its name honestly. It's farming community without great farming land, life was hard, life was difficult. People died early for no reason. There wasn't a lot of justice to the plan.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: In that bright land there will be no hunger, no orphan children crying for bread, no weeping...

Marty Stuart: Music in Poor Valley, Virginia was like a healer, I think it was a great communicator. It was a reason to get together and on being good neighbors and family. It was a reason to worship, it was a reason to hope and it was a reason to talk about hard times.

Narrator: Born into this rich musical tradition, A.P. Carter would make his life's mission to carry the songs of his remote valley to the wider world. It was his mother, Mollie Carter, who first planted the seed of ambition before he was born.

Mark Zwonitzer: She was eight months pregnant with him. She got caught in a storm and a lightning bolt comes down and plays around at her feet and she was sure that because of that lighting bolt that it sort of that baby always had that nervous energy

Janette Carter: She claimed he was marked by that lightning. She said when he was born, his hands shook; they shook all his life.

Mark Zwonitzer: A.P. was an odd, odd kid not only did he have the tremor, he had a hard time sitting still.

Janette Carter: My daddy could hardly write at all, his hands trembled, his writing was very, very bad so his mother took him out of school because children laughed at him.

Female Voice: He was very sensitive obviously and she couldn't allow that so she didn't make him stay in school.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Everybody's gotta walk that lonesome valley. They've got to walk it by theirselves. There's nobody here can walk it for them, they've gotta walk it by theirselves.

Mark Zwonitzer: Music to A.P. was sustenance. He needed music probably like he needed oxygen. It's really what kept him going, it's what filled his days and nights, it's what filled his quiet time alone time, which was most of the time.

Narrator: While music comforted A.P. in his isolation, it would also be his bridge to the world.

Carter Family singing, Archival Film: Something's got a hold of me...

Mark Zwonitzer: There came a stage when his voice started to change when he was a young man and the quaver in his voice that the tremor had, the tear that they called it in the valley, made it a beautiful church voice.

Carter Family singing, Archival Film: But something got a hold of me, yes something got a hold of me. I went there to fight. But on that night, there something got a hold of me.

Mark Zwonitzer: Uncle Flanders Bays shows him as a member of the exalted church quartet. That's where he really got his first recognition.

Narrator: The mark that had seemed a curse for a child, now gave A.P. Carter the ability to distinguish himself as an adult.

Mark Zwonitzer: If you spend your life growing up and your mother tells you you're marked, pretty soon you start to believe it and I think he started to believe it. He started to get it in his head that there was something special about him.

Narrator: Though music was sustenance to A.P., he knew it wouldn't put bread on the table. Farming was still the surest way to make a living in Poor Valley. To earn enough money to buy land, A.P. went north to work on the rail lines.

Mark Zwonitzer: And his trip to Richmond was a complete disaster. He came back with no money in his pocket. He came back with typhoid fever. A terrible raging case.

Narrator: As A.P. Carter rode the train back home, he wrote his first song.
Music had not only been a comfort, and a means of recognition for him, but it would one day be the answer to his mother's prophecy.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Carry me back to old Virginie, back to my Clinch Mountain home, carry me back to old Virginie, back to my old mountain home.

Narrator: Back in Poor Valley, A.P. tried his hand at a number of trades; his favorite was selling fruit trees.

Mark Zwonitzer: As A.P. tells the story, um, he was he was going to sell fruit trees across the valley. He was going to his Aunt Susie's house to try to make a sale and as he approached the house he heard a voice, a lovely singing voice.

Sara Carter Singing, Archival Film: Oh my mother she died and left me I'm alone in this world, I'm alone and my father he won't own me. Got to find me another home, got sweet heaven in my view hallelujah...

Mark Zwonitzer: Sara Carter was orphaned before she was 5 years old and she grew up knowing loss. part of the power of her voice is that you can really hear that in her. She's not going to give herself away but at the same time you can feel this pain she has that she's always trying to suppress and keep away from people.

Barry Mazor, Sr. Editor, No Depression Magazine: Sarah could just plain, flat-out sing wherever she got it from. I mean you could put her in any time and place. Um, there's something that resonates. There's something deep in her voice. She gets a hold of that lyric, she knows what she's singing and she makes it work for you, well, Sara won't let you down.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Got sweet heaven in my view hallelujah. On my journey I press on, praise the Lord for I'm bound for that holy city got sweet heaven in my view...

Rita Forrester: He said he thought it was the most beautiful voice he'd ever heard, and that she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

Mark Zwonitzer: As she first described it, she really wasn't interested in A.P., but years later she was asked, you know, what sort of melted her heart and she always said it was his singing voice, that, you know that was his saving grace she said.

Joe Carter, A.P. and Sara Carter's son: They jumped the broomstick, got married. But I really couldn't say what it is, the main thing was, but music I'd say was what done it.

Narrator: In 1915, the newlyweds loaded a wagon with Sara's worldly possessions and made the long trip across Clinch Mountain. As a new bride, Sara Carter was unaware that her voice would one day help realize her husband's vision.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: For I'm bound for that holy city, got sweet heaven in my view...

Narrator: In 1926, A.P.'s younger brother Ezra Carter married Sara's first cousin, Maybelle Addington. She had been playing music since before she could walk.

Maybelle, Archival Film: Ever since I could remember when I was a little tot I used to pull that autoharp off of the table and sit on the floor with it because I couldn't reach it there to play it.

Mark Zwonitzer: By the time she was 16, Maybelle was already a very accomplished musician and absolutely self-taught.

Narrator: Maybelle could play the banjo, the fiddle and the autoharp, but she was most intrigued by an instrument that was gaining popularity in the South.

Maybelle, Archival Film: When I started playing the guitar I didn't have nobody to play with me, so that's how I developed the style of kicking in the rhythm too, you know, and they call it the Carter Scratch, now, some of 'em do.

Gillian Welch: The most unique thing is the sort of combination of melody and chords that she played with. If I were just playing chords to sing along with and not play a melody it would sort of sound like this. OK, so that's no melody. So, what she's doing is...

Mark Zwonitzer: It was like having two guitar players in one, and it was a very driving sort of rhythm for that for that day.

Gillian Welch: She's got this really particular bounce to the scratch part of her playing. Even if they're singing the most maudlin songs about, you know, dying children and orphaned children and what not it never truly gets maudlin and part if is because of her guitar playing.

Barry Mazor: She happened to have invented the first really workable American vernacular everyday this is how we sing, this is how we play instrumental stuff we couldn't overestimate how influential it was.

Narrator: By the spring of 1926, all the elements of the most influential musical group in the United States lived within the borders of a small isolated town: Maybelle's innovative guitar picking; Sara's powerful voice and scores of songs passed from generation to generation. For Sara and Maybelle Carter music was simply the fun after the day's work was done. It would take A.P.'s stubborn will to bring the Carter Family out from under the shadow of Clinch Mountain. Twelve years into to their marriage, Sara and A.P. were struggling. With two young daughters and a son on the way, there were mouths to feed. A.P. found it nearly impossible to provide the stability that his family needed and Sara craved.

Rita Forrester: My granddad had a restless spirit and I'm sure there was always a lot of nervous energy in the household.

Janette Carter: He was always so kindly lone a person... I mean he would walk up and down the railroads and walk an awful lot by his self.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: My father's got to walk that lonesome valley. He's got to walk it by himself ,there's nobody here can walk it for him.

Rita Forrester: The music was first and foremost in his mind always, ...

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: He's got to walk it by hisself...

Rita Forrester: He would be gone for long periods of time which drove my grandmother crazy, because that would leave her with the farm, the children, all the work.

Mark Zwonitzer: He had no interest in seeing a crop through. Mainly because he was always thinking about the music, he was always thinking about how he could make a living with music.

Bill Clifton, Musician and A.P. Carter's friend: Sara really was not interested in playing at all. Quite honestly she would have been quite happy to die without ever having made a recording or sung a song professionally she really did not have that drive at all.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: She's got to walk it by herself, my brother's got to walk that lonesome Valley. She's got to walk it by herself...

Narrator: In July of 1927, A.P. Carter saw an ad announcing that a talent scout from Victor Records would be in Bristol, Tennessee, auditioning all comers. A.P. had a hard time convincing Sara and Maybelle that the all day 25-mile trip would be worth the effort.

Rita Forrester: He wanted to do something that would last and he was the driving force behind having the ladies even go to Bristol for the sessions. Maybelle was 8 months pregnant, I'm sure the last thing she wanted to do was drive to Bristol in the scorching August heat.

Mark Zwonitzer: Sara says, "ain't nobody going to pay us fifty dollars to sing a song." So he was met with great skepticism. Not many people in the Valley at that time thought A.P. was a visionary.

Narrator:Despite their hesitation, The Carter trio arrived the following day at Victor's makeshift studio in an abandoned hat factory in Bristol. There they met the man whose own vision intersected with A.P. Carter's, Ralph Peer.
Mark Zwonitzer: Peer was one of the first people to figure out that there was a big listening audience out there and they didn't just want to listen to Caruso and he was going to the places where they were making the people's music.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow for the only one I love. When shall I see him, oh no never till I meet him in heaven above. Oh bury me under the weeping willow, yes under the weeping willow tree. So he may know where I am sleeping and perhaps he will weep for me.

Ralph Peer, Archival Film: As soon as I heard Sara's voice that was it. I'd done this so many times. I was trained to watch for the one point. As soon as I heard her voice, I began to build around it.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: I did not believe it was true ...

Mark Zwonitzer: Ralph Peer was in this business for one reason and that was to make money. What he wanted was material that could be copyrighted. That he could then claim as his own and what A.P.'s genius was taking these old, old songs, some of them traditional and remaking them.

Narrator: Peer found what he was looking for. In fact, his Bristol sessions would come to be known as the Big Bang of commercial country music, producing such greats as Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. But after recording six songs, the Carters and Peer, had no idea what they'd started. Months passed and the Carter family had heard nothing from Ralph Peer or Victor Records. It made A.P. more anxious and more distracted. Sara quietly went about the daily chore of life. In early 1928, Victor released Sara's haunting version of Single Girl, Married Girl on the B-side of a 78.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Single girl, single girl, she's going dressed fine. Oh, she's going dressed fine, married girl, married girl, she wears just any kind, oh, she wears just any kind.

Mark Zwonitzer: As Sara would later say that was the one that tipped it off it must have caught a wave out there. People bought that record.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film:Wear just any kind, wear just any kind...

Barry Mazor: That was pretty potent stuff then as it is now for a woman from the city let alone from the country to be singing about -By the way, this marriage thing is no bed of roses,' this was pretty incendiary stuff.

Gillian Welch: As a single woman singing it, it always seemed like a little bit of a taunt, you know a compassionate taunt, you know to be flaunting your freedom.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Oh, she goes to store and buys. Married girl, married girl, she rocks the cradle and cries oh, she rocks the cradle and cries.

Mary Bufwack, Author: Sarah didn't want to go out and sings song, Sarah didn't want to go down and record music, but it brought money into the family coffers and that was what, was her obligation was to do.

Mark Zwonitzer: Not long after that, here comes Cecil McLister bouncing down the valley road with their first royalty check and with the news that Mr. Ralph Peer wants them, wants them in Camden New Jersey right away for a brand new record session.

Narrator: In that the moment, life changed for the Carter Family. For Sara, that's when married life really got hard.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Married girl, married girl, baby on her knee oh, baby on her knee.

Mark Zwonitzer: The great news is that Mr. Peer is going to be paying them 50 dollars a song and that's a huge amount of money. And A.P. was in a swivet out trying to get songs.

Narrator: To build a repertoire for the next recording session, A.P. relied heavily on the musical tradition of Poor Valley.

Barry Mazor: He did the subtle thing that might have been the most important. He got a hold of these songs. He found a way that would make them work cause they kind of knew what people would respond to. He changed them. He arranged them. He updated them.

Bill Clifton: And often he would say just well no, I didn't write it I just kind of fixed it up. And that was his way of talking about making an arrangement he fixed it up.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Lord I told the undertaker, "Undertaker, please drive slow, for this body you are hauling..."

Bill Clifton: When he fixed them up he fixed them up right. Everybody who sings Will the Circle Be Unbroken sings the way A.P. fixed it up. And they don't sing it the original way.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Can the circle be unbroken? By and by Lord, by and by. There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Joan Baez, Musician: There are very few songs that make it to the campfires around the world in Germany, or France in Turkey you're likely to hear a version of Will the Circle be Unbroken.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Can the circle be unbroken? By and by Lord, by and by. There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Mark Zwonitzer: In that first Camden session they did Will you Miss Me When I'm Gone. They did Wildwood Flower. They did Forsaken Love. They did Anchored In LoveJohn Hardy was a Desperate Little Man, you could say that they could have stopped right then and left a remarkable legacy.

Narrator: In 1928 and '29, The Carter Family record sales exploded; Victor released hit after hit, routinely selling over one-hundred thousand copies. The Carter Family sound was new and compelling; the lyrics timeless.

Mary Bufwack: The kind of music the Carter family did had drama to it. It was the dark side. It was often times the ugly side of our society; it was the side we don't acknowledge.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Orphan children have such a hard time in this world. Orphan children have such a hard time in this world. Sister does the best she can, but she really don't understand. Orphan children have such a hard time in this world.

Gillian Welch: The themes in it are so universal and right on the surface, you know, its pretty plain spoken even though it's a really, a very unique kind of poetry.

Narrator: The Carters were still a new act when the Great Depression began to take hold of the country. And though their sales were falling their music provided comfort for those losing a grip on what little they had.

Bill Clifton: Nobody had any money, nobody had enough to eat hardly and this was the kind of music about home, about family about stories about everyday things that really talked to people.

Rodney Crowell, Musician: And sometimes the despair in the music was deeper than the despair in their own lives. And they saw that their situation was perhaps not as bad as they thought it might be, and in that way music gave them hope.

Rita Forrester: It's hard not to listen to something that's so personal and so deeply felt and not feel part of it, and then I think it touches everyone. It's a little bit of their life story.

Ralph Stanley, Musician: They sung it just exactly the way they live it, and I think that's the way it should be sung.

Marty Stuart: It had a very unique and special power, um, it didn't come together until the three of 'em got together.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Orphan children have such a hard time in this world. Sister does the best she can, but she really don't understand. Orphan children have such a hard time in this world.

Narrator: With each new recording session, A.P. Carter widened his circles searching for new material.

Bill Clifton: He was a person who could look at a house and say, now there's a song up there and there would be a song. I mean he hardly ever made a mistake about that.

Mark Zwonitzer: He was always out searching in haunts and hollows that nobody had ever been. He scared up sheet music that was 70 years old and he recast that. He went into the, um, Black neighborhoods in Kingsport. He went into the coal mining towns and got coal-mining songs he just never stopped trying.

Gillian Welch: A.P. was really egalitarian about it and if there was a good song to be found it was fair game. It seemed to cross social and class and racial boundaries and religious and secular and everything.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: You can wash my jumper, starch my overalls. Catch the train they call a cannonball from Buffalo to Washington.

Narrator: During his travels, A.P. forged an unusual friendship with a man named Lesley Riddle.

Janette Carter: First time I heard daddy say he seen him was over on the streets in Kingsport a singing. He talked to him and went home with him.

Maybelle: He used to come to the house quite often, A.P. would bring him up and we'd sit around and play. And he really knew a lot of old songs and played a lot of good guitar.

Bill Clifton: A.P. would have to look for a place for him to stay or you know a place for him to eat or get some food somewhere. You know, I mean it was Jim Crow was in business and he had to, to really look after somebody like Leslie.

Mark Zwonitzer: Imagine you're sitting in your house one day and up walks this six foot, two inch guy, with a kind of a shake and his friend Esley Riddle with one leg. A black fellow. And they come to your house and they want to get your songs and you think what is this? What is going on here?

Mark Zwonitzer: That's the wonderful thing about American music and American popular culture. It's the mix of this stuff that makes it so wonderful and in that personal relationship they helped make a whole new kind of music.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: I'm leaving you...

Narrator: To satisfy both Ralph Peer's publishing demands and his own ambition, A.P.'s trips grew longer and more frequent.

Rita Forrester: It was not uncommon for him to leave and not come back for two or three weeks at a time and I don't think he saw anything wrong with that, that's just what he was doing.

Mark Zwonitzer: And when he was home he was distracted, he was worried, he was trying to write songs. He was very jealous of his time and very jealous of his quiet time. And you just couldn't penetrate, you couldn't penetrate A.P. Carter.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Do not disturb my waking dream, the splendor of that winding stream...

Narrator: For Sara, A.P.'s dream became just another chore.

Joe: The bright lights didn't interest her at all, it was just scratching out a little money to help feed the kids.

Mark Zwonitzer: She always loved the music there's no question about that, but, um, it, after a while, it became more about the recording dates and the travel and A.P.'s agitating to go out and do entertainments so it became the music sort of representative of all the things that were difficult in her life.

Narrator: In A.P.'s absence, Sara grew more independent often defying society's conventions.

Rita Forrester: She liked to wear slacks, she would go hunting, um, she smoked cigarettes, which most women didn't do in that day and time. She liked to have fun.

Mark Zwonitzer: You know, she felt she earned the right to do as she pleased, and this is not an idea she got out of some magazine. This was just her life. And so, she took what she believed to be due her.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Do not disturb my waking dream, the splendor of that winding stream...

Narrator: By 1933, Sara reached a breaking point in her marriage. A.P.'s overwhelming ambitions left her own in shambles.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film:Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me I say? Are you sorry we drifted apart?

Mark Zwonitzer: She basically fell for a fellow in the Valley named Coy Bays, who was a cousin of A.P.'s and they started what became, you know, a quiet but relatively public love affair and it was you know you can imagine it tore the family up. Coy's parents hatched a plan with A.P.'s parents that they would get Coy out of the valley and so as a family, Coy and his parents and his siblings picked up and headed west to California to make a new life.

Narrator:When Coy left, so did Sara.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Sad was the day when you went away.
You broke my heart in the month of May. That little ring I gave to you was to show you dear, my love was true.

Joe Carter: My mother left, went back to her people. We knew it was bad, but there wasn't nothing we could do about it to make it any better.

Janette Carter: she would come back to the valley. Why she would usually go up at Maybelle's, but if one of us was sick, she'd come to the house and stay until we got better.

Narrator: Sara never discussed her reasons for leaving, even with her own children. But she later testified that A.P.'s temper left her little choice.

Joe Carter: I reckon it just got to where they couldn't bear it the way it was, and they had to have relief somewhere, and it hurt my dad, I know it did bad, but he done what he thought he was supposed to, and we had to suffer along with him.

Mark Zwonitzer: It was an awful decision that Sara had to make to leave and to leave behind her children and she did not do it lightly, but it was really an untenable situation in the house and she understood that, um, the entire support system for those kids was in Maces Springs and in Poor Valley.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film:You denied your love but you proved it so. You came to see me when the sun was low. You broke my heart but you were kind. When you said oh dear you'll never be mine.

Bill Clifton: A.P. was a very lonely man. He became very lonely. I would even say lovesick.

Narrator: Soon after Sara left, Peer summoned The Carter Family to record again. From the other side of Clinch Mountain, Sara said she'd pass.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Oh let me tell you what love will do. If you love a boy that don't love you. They'll break your heart, they'll leave you alone, they'll roam the west so far from home...
Narrator: For the first time, A.P.'s will and drive was not enough to keep the Carter Family together. The fate of the trio now lay in Sara's hands.

Mark Zwonitzer: I think the argument that really got traction with Sara was that there was still money to be made. If Sara could do nothing else for the kids she could still make sure they had money in the bank.

Narrator: Sara eventually agreed to the awkward proposition of making music with her estranged husband. Through weeks of rehearsal and days of recording, the couple rarely talked of their divided relationship.

Sara Carter singing, Archival Film: Now I know what it means to be lonesome and I know what it means to be blue.

Rita Forrester: And the things that maybe they couldn't say, that they couldn't express, they could do that in music, and it was ok. And maybe it didn't hurt quite so much if they did it in music.

A.P. Carter Singing, Archival Film: Caused I've sighed and I've cried since we parted. There is no one knows what I've gone through, I'd give all that I own, just to have you back home, cause I'm lonesome, lonesome for you...

Narrator: Sara's absence forced A.P. to remain home and rely on his own songwriting skills, his broken heart provided ample inspiration.

Sara Carter singing, Archival Film: My darling...Did you mean those words you said. That has made me your forever, since the way we were wed.

Narrator: Approaching forty, Sara Carter was more alone than ever. She lived a day's journey from her children and after three years of trying to reconcile with her husband, she finally gave up.

Mark Zwonitzer: A.P. was not very forgiving and a stubborn man and hurt, and so he was not anxious to remake the marriage. But, he was shocked at the same time when they served the divorce papers he never thought that this was really the end.

Narrator: Sara divorced A.P. in the fall of 1936, but the trio continued to record.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Are you tired of me my darling, answer only with your eyes...

Narrator: Between 1936 and 1937 The Carter Family proved to be consummate professionals recording nearly sixty songs.

Joan Baez: They would just fall into a song and, and do it. I don't know what their lives were like; maybe they couldn't stand each other. But when they sang together, it was really, sort of, a unifying feeling.

Barry Mazor: And everybody kind of remembers them as the artists of "keep on the sunny side" and domestic bliss. They understood that that's what people wanted them to be and how they were thought of.

Mark Zwonitzer: Mr. Peer made it be known to them that if people did know they were split up that it would have a serious effect on sales and on their career and I don't think they could afford to let that go.

Narrator: Aside from financial concerns, the Carters had other reasons for controlling their public persona.

Marty Stuart: These women were dressed to nines. A.P. was dressed, I mean he looked like he stepped off the cover of GQ and the ladies looked like they stepped off the cover of Elle or something I mean they had those hats, those fur collars.

Mark Zwonitzer: They weren't playing hillbillies and they weren't playing hayseeds Rural people, people in those mountains they responded to the fact that the Carters represented them with such dignity and with such grace.

Barry Mazor: One of the modern things about them is the very disconnect between some of what we know about who they were and who the act seems to be and how it was sold which makes them like all modern pop artists.

Narrator: Ralph Peer's marketing had worked well but now trapped Sara, Maybelle and A.P. into an image of family and domesticity at odds with the truth of their lives. Despite the private family divide, The Carter Family grew more popular. In 1938, they got a chance to bring their music to an even wider audience.

Maybelle, Archival Film: We went to Texas to work for Consolidated Drug company on XERA- it used to be that blasted all over the world.

Narrator: XERA, the most powerful of the Border Radio stations, was unlike anything in history. The station built its five hundred thousand-watt transmitter in Mexico to evade US law restricting broadcast range.

Radio Announcer, Archival Film: In other words this is station XET Monterey down Mexico way, and now here is that well known and better loved family of radio, The Carter Family, A.P. Sara, Maybelle Janette, Helen June and Anita ... and it looks like we're on the sunny side.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life. It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way, if you keep on the sunny side of life.

Narrator: The sounds of the Carter Family could now be heard from New York to California and even into northern Canada.

Mary Bufwack: I think the real turning point in the Carter Family comes with the move to, um, Border Radio. It was a wonderful opportunity for them because it was money coming in constantly but it also really exposed them to just a tremendous audience and of course brought them into what we would consider, them, more commercial country music at the time.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: The sun again will shine bright and clear, keep on the sunny side of life. Always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side...

Mark Zwonitzer: People were very, very deeply affected by their music. They got letters from people that were just amazing. You know, I hope to meet you in heaven someday and I'm just a poor uneducated person and not good with words, but I want to tell you how much you've meant to me.

Maybelle, Archival Film: Um, mercy, I never saw as much mail in my life, and everyday of the world we'd get mail from every state in the union and when we left and came home we had over 5,000 letters in a box that came in.

Narrator: The power of radio was not lost on Sara Carter.

Mark Zwonitzer: Nobody quite knows why she did it but one night on the radio, she announced that she'd like to dedicate a song to Coy Bays, her friend in California and she sang I'm Thinking Tonight of My blue Eyes.

Sara Carter Singing, Archival Film: Oh you told me once dear that you loved me, you said that we never would part. But a link in the chain has been broken, leaves me with a sad and aching heart. Oh I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes who is.

Narrator: For six years Sara had tried to forget her love for Coy. She thought the relationship was over when he stopped responding to her letters. But her letters had not been ignored. Coy had never seen them.

Mark Zwonitzer: Coy was listening with his family and he turned to his mom and said I'm going to go get her. And his mom who's the one who had been intercepting these letters, said, well, I guess maybe you better.

Narrator: Coy drove all night to find Sara in Texas. Within three weeks they were married.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Oh I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes and I wonder if he ever thinks of me...

Rita Forrester: I know that my granddad on the day he died loved her every bit as much as he did when he first met her, and that it was always a source of great sadness for him they were apart.

A.P. Carter Singing, Archival Film: One little word could have changed my future life, one little word could have made her my wife. Too late, too late, now my fondest hopes are dead.

Narrator: After their first radio session, Sara said goodbye to her family and left for California with her new husband. For the next few years, recording dates were all that united the Carter Family.

Radio announcer, Archival Film: That was A.P. playing and singing One Little Word for You.

Narrator: In the fall of 1941, Life magazine sent a photographer to Poor Valley, Virginia. The Carter family photos would grace the cover of the first December issue.

Mark Zwonitzer: A.P. had reached a point that he couldn't even in his wildest imaginings, this was better, this was better, and suddenly they were gonna be on coffee tables all over America.

Narrator: But when the photographer snapped pictures of America's symbol of family and domesticity, the film captured a scene only as deep as the emulsion.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film:As through this weary world I wander. My thoughts alone will be of you. In memory I will see you ever I loved you better than you knew.

Mark Zwonitzer: You see A.P. Carter standing a little bit off from the family even in this moment of great triumph, there was also a little bit of sadness that you can almost read in this lone figure standing apart from the rest of the family. I don't think it felt to him like he thought it should.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: You ask and freely I'll forgive you. The happy past I must forget. And while I wander alone in silence. I hope that you'll be happy yet.

Pearl Harbor narrator, Archival Film: At 7:55 am hell broke lose ... man made hell. Made in Japan.

Narrator: Four days before the Carter Family feature was to be released, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Carter Family story was pre-empted by war.

Bill Clifton: Now had the Japanese waited till January, the Carter Family would have been the talk of every family in America. What would have happened to their records sales? What would have happened to personal appearances? I have no doubt that it would have completely changed the history of Carter Family Music.

Narrator: Without the exposure Life magazine offered, the picture of the Carter Family was unclear. Sara, would again determine their fate.

Mark Zwonitzer: While she always loved the music she couldn't stand all the folderol, as she put it, she couldn't stand the celebrity. She couldn't stand the demands, after awhile it was too much for her.

Narrator: In the spring of 1943, Sara sang her last song with the Original Carter Family. The trio never performed or recorded together again.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: And through this weary world I wander, my thoughts alone will be of you. In memory, I will see you ever. I loved you better than you knew.

Narrator: Sara lived out the rest of her life in the simplicity and domesticity the Carter Family had come to represent. Maybelle pursued her own vision starting a new act with her daughters, Helen, June and Anita. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters toured worldwide with greats like Chet Atkins and June Carter's husband, Johnny Cash. After nearly fifty years in the business Maybelle Carter would come to be regarded as the "Queen Mother of Country Music."

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Everybody's got to walk that lonesome Valley They've got to walk it by theirselves There's nobody here...

Narrator: A.P. Carter returned to Poor Valley alone. His genius and drive had saved the most significant catalog of music in American history. But his ambition also cost him everything he loved, most notably, the voice of his vision, Sara.

Bill Clifton: He always dreamed that one day she'd walk back in. She never did. And that was the saddest part. It wasn't just the music, it was the loss of her and the music. The two of them were overpowering.

Mark Zwonitzer: A.P. Carter was the man who picked up this family put them on his back and he hauled them to renown, and the sad thing was for him that everybody got what they wanted in the end except for A.P. Carter.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Will you miss me when I'm gone? Will you miss me when I'm gone? Will you miss me when I'm gone? Will you miss me when I'm gone?

Rita Forrester: There was some sadness on his part that maybe the music didn't do everything he wanted it to do in his lifetime. But, I believe he knew that after he was gone that it would continue.

Mark Zwonitzer: When A.P. carter died in 1960 he was something of a forgotten man, if you can believe this one of the local newspapers didn't even run an obituary of this incredibly important cultural figure, but he was a guy who was always had faith, he always believed that he would be remembered.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Will you miss me when I'm gone? Will you miss me when I'm gone?

Narrator: This time it was A.P. Carter's prophecy that was fulfilled.

Janette Carter: He asked me to keep his music going, to try to do his, to keep his music going. It took me a few years to start.

Janette Carter singing: Used to live in the country, now I live in town. Lord how in a big hotel, my name is Jimmy Brown.

Mark Zwonitzer: The Carter Family music is everywhere and somewhere on the stage tonight, somebody's going to get up and do a Carter Family song.

Various Country Artists, Archival Film: Will the circle be unbroken, will the circle be unbroken, will the circle be unbroken bye and by Lord, bye and bye...

Gillian Welch: I have a very hard time picturing American music and in fact world music without The Carter Family.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Lord I told you...
Gillian Welch: Modern music starts crumbling if you start taking away all the people who were so deeply influenced by the Carters.

Vince Gill: Drive slow ... for that body that you are holding, Lord I hate to see her go ... Will the circle be unbroken.

June Carter Cash: They had so many tunes that formed a basis for Country Western music as we know it today. And when people didn't know what kind of melody to use, they just went back and grabbed that old Carter Family melody and hung on to that.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: In the sky lord, in the sky ...

Marty Stuart: I was coming home, And the Ernest Tubbs Record shop was on and out of nowhere here comes a Carter Family record. It was like ghosts were in the car with me. That's how much power their records have. That's how much I think they're anointed, is the word. They' re heaven sent.

Various Country Artists, Archival Film: ... will the circle be unbroken by and by lord, by and by, there's a better home a waitin' in the sky lord, in the sky ...

Text: Sara and Maybelle reunited briefly during the folk revival movement of the 1960's. Maybelle Carter died in 1978. She is buried outside of Nashville Tennessee. Sara Carter Bays died in 1979. She is buried in Poor Valley, Virginia. Hundreds of people from all over the world visit the Carter Fold and A.P. Carter's grave every weekend. The songs that earned only a few hundred dollars a year in royalties at the time of A.P.'s death, are now among the most valuable copyrights in all American music.