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Profile: Janette Carter, Country Musician with Fabled Roots

Jan 16, 2003 12:29 PM EST

UMC.org, the official Web site of the United Methodist Church, is spotlighting the spiritual journey of Janette Carter, daughter of country music legends A.P. and Sara Carter, in this month's "UMC.org Profiles" audio-feature. Often called the "First Family of Country Music," the Carter Family's early recordings helped forge the foundation of today's country music. Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions, the family's first recording sessions. In 1974, Janette Carter started the Carter Family Memorial Music Center as a way to celebrate her family's music and preserve the music of Appalachia. Now 80, she lives in southwest Virginia and attends Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Hiltons. Her brother, Joe, and daughter, Rita Forrester, joined in the interview with writer Bill Friskics-Warren of Nashville, Tenn.

Q: How long have you been putting on weekly Saturday night shows?

Janette: I started my programs in 1974, and I had them for two years here in this little building. This was a store that was built by my daddy in the '40s. And the big building over there was built in '76, and then I decided to put little music shows in it.

It starts out always with me and Joe, and my son Bill helps a lot. We do all Carter family songs. And we do two or three, then make all the announcements. Then we let the band come in. They have two 45-minute sets, the bands that I book. And they either do acoustic or bluegrass. That's what I'm trying to preserve, is that kind of music. I said it'd be a disgrace to have any other kind here in the valley where the family come from, you know.

It has been quite a journey, let me tell you. I've not made a lot of money. I didn't expect to do that. But I wanted to try to keep it a-going, and I'm lucky to have kept my doors open. Now I've had some friends that have done some benefits and given me the money to help continue what I'm doing. And of course, I've had Johnny Cash and I've had Marty Stuart and I've had Tom T. Hall, and they've all done benefits for me over the years.

I hope I can (go on) a while longer, but I get very tired. It is something to give every weekend up for going on 29 years. That's a lot of dedication.

I've never tried to quit, but I've got a few times that it got so hard I didn't think I could go on. But I just more or less leave it all in God's hands. And he'll tell me what to do and when to stop. And I hope my children will continue with it.

I've never made a lot of records. I've helped some (with) Mommy and Daddy and Maybelle. I've done three albums; two of them is discontinued. But my parents' music will always be there.

Q: Why do you think it has had lasting appeal?

Janette: It was such good music. And it was done right. They done a lot of rehearsing. They worked awfully hard at it. And you stop and think, three people and two instruments have made all them songs and worked all them many years and on the radio, in concerts. My daddy called them entertainments. And I, a lot of times, will call them programs. They wasn't among the first to record, but they was among the first to start having them really sell records. It was a new process when they more or less started.

And I guess there was a change wanted in music. Music changes. It seems like it'll go down and maybe (people will) just about quit listening, and the next thing you know it may be a song or a band (becomes popular). And I think my daddy, people never realized what he had done. He didn't realize it.

I watched Mother, my mother Sarah, and Maybelle. My mother did not sing unless it was in the right pitch. You can get it too high; you can get it too low. But she had to sing it in a way that Maybelle could come in for her part and that Daddy could come in for his. He sung bass, of course, and arranged a lot of it. And they picked out the music leads or worked it out. I never heard three people that their voices blended any more than these did.

And they sung good songs. You never heard some of the songs like they hear (today). Some of it is just not very good, I don't think. There's so much good things to sing about, like hymns and ballads and love songs and things like that. I just can't endure music that has bad language in it. It's just not good.

Q: Joe, I would just like you to say a little about what it's meant for her to coordinate these shows for the past 30 years.

Joe: Oh, she's got her heart at it all right. She hangs right with it. She pushes too hard.

Q: Tell me about the role of gospel music in the Carter Family's music.

Janette: They done quite a few hymns and ballads. And my daddy's people were very religious people. They were dedicated. Now, of course, like I say, with the music and the way children are brought up and training, it changes. When we was a-growing up, they'd tell you one time what to do and you didn't tell them you wasn't aiming to do it and argue with them. You done what you was told. And they was trained that a-way.

And they was firm believers in church. Well, I can remember as a child there wasn't anything much in this valley to go to but to church. So we went to church. And I wanted to go. And the church would be full.

(Nowadays,) I don't go to church like I ought to; I have a lot to do. But everybody has a lot to do. You can get along so much better if you take time out to thank (God). Every day of your life when you get up, thank him. And when you go to bed, thank him for every blessing. I give him all the credit. Some people ask me, 'Well, how do you go on...?' Well, like I said, I don't have a lot of money. But I do believe he'll help you in anything you ask him to do.

I remember the first time I ever (performed alone). Standing behind them big drapes over at East Tennessee State, the big stage, and I got to listening. I was supposed to come on in a few minutes. And (the announcer) was a-trying to talk about me and my people and this and that. And I thought, Well, my lord, I've got to walk out there. I've got to get gone. He was a-calling my name. And I started trembling. I said, "I can't go out there." And I said, "Well, what in the world am I going to do? He's calling my name. I've got to go out there and do something." I said, "God, you please go with me." And he did. And I've learned that no matter where I go, if I'll ask him to help me, he will. He'll go with you. So when I got through, I sure thanked him that I got through it. Well, I quit trembling and I walked out there.

Q: You grew up in a Methodist church.

Janette: Yeah, Mount Vernon Methodist Church. Well, I lived in Bristol first when I was married, for 18 years. Of course I didn't come down here much to church then because, well, it was a little ways off. But yeah, I've belonged to that church since I was a child. Yeah, it's been there for the whole valley and the whole community.

And a lot of people go visit the grave of Mommy and Daddy. And Maybelle's buried in Hendersonville, Tenn., because she worked there off of the Opry for so long time, you know.

Q: Describe this valley.

Janette: They's some wonderful people here, and they're like all communities. They talk a lot to one another. But they would do anything to help their neighbors. That's the way it is here. It was that a-way when I was a child. It's still that a-way.

Q: Could you describe the role the church played in your family memories?

Janette: Well, every year they'd have a big revival, as a rule, you know. And then when they got through the revival, of course, ever who was saved, they'd want to be baptized. And you'd go to the baptizing and then they'd usually join the church. And when they started, the children growed up and had their family, but they still going to the same church in the same valley in the same place.

Q: Do you have any memories of church from your early days?

Joe: Yeah, the congregation and all that. They had some good revivals up there. My grandfather was a very religious man and grandmother, too. And they called him a praying machine. And when they called on him, I mean, he would put them right, almost bring the fire down on them, you know. But he was a good man. My dad never was that strict on his, you know, religion. He was a believer and all that, but he just didn't carry it like they did.

(We) used to have a lot of tent meetings, you know and even up through this country they'd have a tent meeting. People turn out to that. It wasn't strictly all Methodists. There was Baptist, Presbyterian and I guess a few Holiness gets mixed in with it even.

Q: Has your family been Methodist from way back?

Joe: Back as far as I can remember. I think that church was built up there at 1905. That's when the first one was buried there in that cemetery. And it's been remodeled a time or two.

Rita: My granddad, his father and brothers helped to bring the timbers down from Clinch Mountain to build it. So it's more than close to our hearts. It's very special. And I guess today the sixth or seventh generation of Carter children attend that church, which you don't see that very often. You really don't see that. So that's a very big part of what we do and our focus.

Q: The "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack from 2001 put roots music back on the charts. The album includes the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side."

Rita: I do think "O Brother" sort of helped to bring a new focus on our kind of music. And I think people just don't get the opportunity to hear our music. When you think about the fact that the "O Brother" soundtrack sold the last count was over 6 million copies with no airplay, that's phenomenal.

Q: Would you like to add anything?

Janette: I'm just a lucky person to hang in there like I have. And, like I say, I give him all the credit. My grandson says, 'Grandma, how do you go on and on and on?' And I says, 'Well, I pray a little, I pray and then I go a little ways, then I'll pray some more and go on another little way.' These grandmas, they're something else.