July 29th, l976. A big day. We played at the Carter Store in Hiltons. Janette is getting friendlier and friendlier to us. She even cooked us dinner: fried chicken, breaded zucchini, corn, tomatoes, biscuits, chocolate cake and apple fritters!
Janette says her mother Sara is visiting from California. Sara hadn't been able to come to our concert but Janette says we can go over and meet her at the old homestead. I couldn't believe that after all this time I was finally going to get to meet one of my musical idols, though it seemed odd to be idolizing someone 50 years older than me, from another time and another culture. ("The Punjab of Poor Valley," I wrote at the time.)
Finally after various delays and telephone calls we head off for the homestead. the house that Sara and A.P. had built. Sara's oldest daughter Gladys currently occupied it. The old house was a spacious and comfortable bungalow, much nicer than many of the other homes in Poor Valley.
We walked in and there was Sara Carter, sitting in an armchair. She was much rounder and softer than I would have imagined from her pictures. (I'd remembered those grim looking pictures of her from the Newport Folk Festival, back in the sixties. She had worn sunglasses and her skin appeared so deeply yet beautifully wrinkled.) In real life she was still incredibly wrinkled but more tan and peachy-looking. ("Probably show biz makeup," I remember thinking absurdly.) Her hair was brown instead of black. She kept saying it was too short. (She pronounced short as "shart".) She was dressed in a blouse and slacks and cozy-looking bedroom slippers. She sat regally in her chair and kept tapping the armrest the way some people do. She had diamond wedding rings on her fingers, and several big turquoise jobs too. She smoked extra long brown More brand cigarettes. You could still see her youthful face even with all the wrinkles. She certainly didn't seem like she was almost 80. There was a kind of androgynous quality about her -- she was so much sturdier than I'd imagined. Her speaking voice was deep and crackly, and her manner very polite, aware, attentive, and very dignified.
A relative, Doc Addington, stopped by with his wife, whom Sara seemed particularly fond of. Doc played a few cuts from his latest album. Sara seemed somewhat displeased with the sound quality -- she complained of a lack of bass on the guitar.
The family insisted that we play a piece with the horn, as Sara had always liked the horns on Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". So we sang "Beale Street Blues" for her.
"I like your music," she said. "The horn really sets it up," she said. (She pronounced horn "harn".)
We played some fiddle tunes, and sang "Daniel Prayed" and "50 Miles of Elbow Room." I was nervous singing "50 Miles" -- I felt like maybe I sang it too much like her, but when I got into the song it seemed as if that was the only way you COULD sing it. Sara and Janette nodded in rhythm as we sang. I hoped this meant they approved, and weren't being put to sleep.
She told us that she didn't write "50 Miles", but that she learned it from "some boys in California" who also taught her "Keep on the Firing Line" and "There'll Be No Distinction". She told us that she and Maybelle were the only ones singing and playing on "Engine 143". That was the same song she had been singing the first time A.P. came to see her.
"I'd just been playing that song and my auto harp was sitting on the sewing machine," Sara remembered.
"I'll bet Daddy's heart turned a flip," Gladys added.
Then Janette asked me to sing "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone." I often sang this song as a solo and we'd just recorded it on our "Twisted Laurel" album, but I felt so intimidated at the thought of singing it for Sara. I remembered Alice (Gerrard) and Hazel (Dickens) telling me about meeting Sara at a party and singing "Hello Stranger" for her, and how nervous they'd been. I couldn't have sung "Will You Miss Me" for anybody else in the world -- but I did. Janette helped me out on the chorus. We got some decent harmony together by the last chorus. Sara told me I had a pretty voice. (I remember telling my friend Frank Freeze later on. His only comment was "she must be very kind!")
We begged Sara to sing something. She complained of everything being too high but Janette coaxed her into singing "While the Band Is Playing Dixie I'll Be Humming 'Home Sweet Home'." I remember especially the way she sang about the dying soldier "so far across the foam." She played the guitar with no picks, just beating out the rhythm with her bare fingers. When she played she'd lay her chin on the side of the guitar. It gave her a cherubic look. And she truly sounded wonderful. Watson said later that it sent chills up and down his spine. Janette played the autoharp and sang harmony. They both played and sang with faultless timing and they blended so perfectly together. When Sara would go low, her old voice would start to crack -- it had an eerie effect.
Then they started singing "Meeting in the Air." Sara had gotten through just one verse and chorus when she stopped. "Aw, there's something in my throat that won't let me sing," she chuckled. She waved off our compliments but heartily applauded everyone else's musical performances that afternoon -- ours, Janette's, Doc's.
The topic of conversation turned to record companies, as it did quite frequently with the family. Doc was talking about how record companies always got the sorriest pictures for covers.
"Yep," Sara agreed. "The sorriest pictures."
Doc said a lot of people in the music business were liars -- saying they'd do things and then never doing them. Janette said she ran her shows and booked musicians and she wasn't a liar, but she knew of a particular gentleman from Nashville was a liar "and a preacher too."
"Worst kind," Sara said.
Hearing that we were from North Carolina, Sara talked about the time the family had lived and worked at WBT in Charlotte and how beautiful it was there. She asked us if we didn't think the hills of Poor Valley were beautiful too? We agreed that it was mighty beautiful too, but Sara said she mostly preferred California for its weather.
Sara would start to say something -- memories she dredged up, people's names, old details about radio transcriptions and recordings -- and the family would talk over her. It wasn't as if they were consciously covering her up, but just that they'd probably heard those stories a hundred times and didn't think strangers would necessarily be interested. That might have been the case in some families, but certainly not the Carters!
Sara didn't stand up except when we came in and when we left. She complained of her legs hurting. She just sat in that big armchair so proudly, taking everything in, and patting her hair like a movie queen from the 30's. She seemed so bright and strong, as if she'd seen it all and knew every single thing that was going on.
Meeting her and hearing her sing and then singing for her was just about the greatest musical experience I'd ever had. I wanted to stick around that old homestead all afternoon. I sure wished somebody had brought a tape recorder or a camera. Where were those kinds of people when you really needed them? But the time soon came for us to go, so we made our good-byes. Sara stood up, shook hands with us all and said she'd see us at the Festival in a few weeks.
Back in the bus, Tommy was teasing me. He said forty years from now people would be coming up to me and asking me to sing "Washing Machine Blues" (a goofy little song I had written and sung on stage a few times). The other guys were quite amused by the idea.
"Well," I said, "I'll tell them I didn't write it. I'll tell 'em I learned it from some boys in California!"