Are you are getting the recognition you deserve in your work? Does your work feel like a calling? Do you leave at the end of the day fulfilled? Do you ever feel you are not getting a fair shake?
For some perspective, let’s look at the Carter Family, not these Carters, I’m talking about the first family of country music. As much as any classic rocker is going to know the Chicago blues players, Elvis and the Beatles, the stars from Nashville all pay homage to AP, Sara and Maybelle Carter. So, being legends, they received their due, just like Elvis and the Beatles, traveled in the lap of luxury and made millions off the more than 400 songs they recorded in a career that began in the ‘20s. Well, it didn't quite work out that way. After their first recording sessions with a man from RCA, to which they drove for 18 hours in a borrowed car, they went back to work their land in the Clinch Mountains in Virginia.
Their records eventually came out and they started making some money but the ‘30s were a time when pop music was just becoming recognized and the term “country music” wasn't even used yet. While the Carter’s developed a huge group of fans, and were able to make a living, mostly playing on Mexican radio beamed back into America, they were never far from their Virginia roots.
It has been said the Carters were Fleetwood Mac before Fleetwood Mac. AP married Sara when she was 16. Maybelle married AP’s cousin Ezra. While Sara was deeply unhappy in her marriage she stayed in the group while they were being paid to play on the radio. After AP and Sara split for good, AP once again gave up music and went on to run a general store. Maybelle became Mother Maybelle and toured with her three daughters June, Anita and Helen. They stayed well-known through the 1950’s becoming regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. Once again, as their popularity waned, the little money they made led Maybelle to take a job as a nurses aide.
After seeing the lovely documentary, The Winding Stream, it would be too easy to attribute good ‘ol country grit to what kept the Carters going through all their ups and down. What became clearer was their love for the music and their willingness to put in the work needed to get in front of an audience and give them the gift of their music.
It took Johnny Cash to bring the family back out on tour. In the early ‘60s, he fell in love with June. The Carters helped save Johnny from his drug addiction, . Back on stage, Mother Maybelle would find her rightful place as the matriarch of the founding family of the modern sounds of country music.
Johnny recounted, “People treated Mother Maybelle like the patron saint. She was the most VIP VIP we ever had, and I’ve had them all….all of them. She was the greatest star I’ve ever known, without being a star; without wanting to be a star without even trying to be a star”
One of the sweetest moments in the film was seeing a reunion of Maybelle and sister Sara singing together in the ‘60s. Sara was singing lead like she did back in the ‘20s and Maybelle followed her on guitar. And the look of love in their eyes was like none I have ever seen. Those glances summed up a family's life in music, now in it’s fifth generation.
That may be enough to tell the story of how a simple yet strong love of the music, not vast wealth nor fame, guided this family to their own brand of success.
But there is a lovely coda of how the music spread, even to the Carters who weren't as blessed with the gift of music as the originals. AP ended his life by the side of his daughter Jeanette. On his deathbed he made her promise, "Keep the family music alive!" She admitted to him that, as a school cook, she had no idea how she would do that.
His wish percolated in Jeanette from his death in 1960 to a day in the ‘80s when she had the notion to turn AP’s store into a music hall and open the doors to the community to hear people play the music AP pleaded to keep alive. She had no idea if anyone would show. Well they did and the Carter Family Fold still happens in the land that all started with AJ, Sara and Maybelle.
Call it the power of an idea, of persistence, of pure creativity. They didn't pick up their instruments or step up to the mic with the intent of being recognized. They were driven by the power of the music in their heart. I believe it was that power that ultimately placed the Carters at the top of the Country Music family tree. There were 19 acts recorded in Bristol in 1927. The only other we still remember is Jimmy Rogers. Popular back in his time, but it’s the Carter’s songs that get discovered and played by each new generation. 3rd generation Carlene Carter captures this family energy, “Some of the time in life I don't know where I’m at, but when Im on stage I know exactly where I am.”
Believe in what you do. Know why you are doing it. When your work doesn't feel like a calling, yet you are putting a roof over your family’s head, perform as if it were - try, like Carlene, to know exactly where you are. You will be rewarded for your best effort and the carry the dignity of making a genuine contribution.