Without The Carter Family, it's impossible to imagine the course of country music. As if spreading the Anglo/Appalachian folk tradition that had been developing since the colonial era weren't enough, the group also popularized the guitar style that would become synonymous with country. But, like musical pioneers from Charley Patton through the Fugs, The Carter Family remains more often read about than heard. As usual, that's an oversight worth correcting, and Can The Circle Be Unbroken, a new collection of Carter recordings, should help. Made up of husband and wife A.P. and Sara Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle, The Carter Family began its recording career after being discovered in the same 1927 talent call that turned up Jimmie Rodgers. The group sought out and recorded a wide variety of material floating around rural America, but its acts of preservation wouldn't have mattered nearly as much had the Carters not found a way to connect with their audience through timeless material, remarkable performances, and evocative singing. In addition to their justly famous harmonizing, the Carters found in Sara a remarkable singer whose low, flat, unadorned vocals make no distinction separating the sacred, comic, and romantic, allowing listeners to fill in the emotional gaps themselves. Drawn almost entirely from a handful of 1935 sessions, Circle falls far short of providing a comprehensive overview of the Carters' career—for that, see Rounder's series of Carter sessions—but it's a first-rate introduction. By bringing unadulterated country to the airwaves through appearances on absurdly powerful Mexican radio stations, the Carters helped narrow the perceived divide between urban sophistication and country simplicity. Willie Nelson's output in the '70s helped bring those two points even closer. Not only did Nelson release a wonderful album that found common ground between his outlaw country and the pop standards of Gershwin, Carmichael, and Ellington (1978's Stardust), but he also took one of rock's most dubious phenomena—the concept album—and created an unforgettable song cycle of romantic dissolution, pain, and redemption set in the closing days of the West. Now reissued with bonus tracks as part of Columbia's "American Milestones" series (alongside the Carter collection, an expanded version of Johnny Cash At San Quentin, George Jones' 1980 comeback I Am What I Am, and The Spectacular Johnny Horton), Red Headed Stranger became a hit thanks to Nelson's version of the oft-covered "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain." The song's spare sound and emotional directness nicely captured the album's tone, and while Red Headed Stranger isn't a triumph of effective storytelling, it remains a triumph of mood, the haunting "Time Of The Preacher" blending seamlessly with unimpeachably chosen, thematically linked covers. Possibly the best album of Nelson's long career, it has the feel of an heirloom passed down through The Carter Family from the ages.
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