The First Rock Stars
The Carter Family Is a Behind the Music for a Pre-Television Age
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song
by Frank M. Young and David Lasky
(Abrams ComicArts, $24.95)
Coming along at the same time as the mass production of decent-quality, affordable records, the Carter Family was one of the first pop music acts in American history. It was an odd time to be a popular band; the Carters were selling records around the country, but they still couldn't afford groceries. Their country and gospel music—the burgeoning record industry called it "hillbilly" music—was a precursor to rock and roll.
And so local writer Frank M. Young and local cartoonist David Lasky have produced The Carter Family, a kind of comic book Behind the Music, a biography of a band that achieved a kind of popularity that nobody had ever experienced before. The Carters display early versions of the same weird peccadilloes and tragic personal flaws as the rock stars we apparently can't hear enough about today. (For example, A. P. Carter was always using the family car to lug home enormous sawmill equipment he'd scrounged up while out scouting for new songs to perform.)
The Carter Family doesn't hide the flaws of its protagonists, but it isn't a sleazy tell-all, either. Young relates the dialogue in the heavy Southern dialect of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s ("c'd" for "could," "law" for "lord," and so on), which gives the book its own laid-back rhythm. And Lasky is doing the best work of his career—his figure work is reminiscent of Crumb, but the overall cartooning resembles early comic strips like The Katzenjammer Kids. With its small, square panels with the "camera" pulled back to the middle distance, many of the panels are framed the way silent movies were, before Orson Welles tossed his camera all over the set in Citizen Kane. The whole book feels pleasantly like a historical document, an artifact from another time, before the abject humiliation of musicians became a national pastime. It's an immersive experience unlike any other musical biography you'll read this year.