Despite its declarative cheerfulness, Keep on the Sunny Side, promises actress Teresa Williams, is “not your typical Oliver or Carousel.”
“We do use the music to further the story,” adds Williams, who plays matriarch Sara Carter in Flat Rock Playhouse’s upcoming production of Sunny Side, a musical about the influential Carter Family, arguable inventors of the modern country genre.
She’s right: This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, chorus-line-infused, top-hat-and-tails production.
Because the Carters just weren’t that kind of people.
He wrote the songs …
According to Williams, physician-turned-playwright Douglas Pote grew up listening to rock music. But “whenever he read the liner notes, [he found] AP Carter had written the songs,” the actress explains.
Alvin Pleasant Carter, born in Southwestern Virginia in 1891, was almost obsessive about collecting, reworking and recording the songs of his mountain home. And though it seems his acoustic, traditional style of folk would have little bearing on the likes of Elvis or Linda Ronstadt, Pote found that the King’s hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight” was attributed to Carter — as was Ronstadt’s version of “I’ll Never Marry.”
“He’s almost a musicologist,” Williams says of Pote, who suggested to Abingdon, Va.’s Barter Theatre that the company do a production about the Carters. “He kept saying, ‘They did their whole thing just up the road here.'” Finally, Barter’s director challenged Pote, who’d never written a script, to come up with his own show.
Sometimes known as the Original Carter Family (since later generations also made their mark on American music), the trio was AP, who collected songs and sang lead and bass; his wife Sara, who sang lead and played rhythm guitar and autoharp; and Sara’s cousin Maybelle, who sang harmony and was an accomplished guitarist. (Maybelle, it’s worth noting, married AP’s brother — keeping the circle unbroken, as it were.)
“Sara had an absolutely beautiful voice,” says Mark Zwonitzer, author of Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. “She was a beautiful woman and she could really sing. People were absolutely knocked out by her. And Sara’s cousin, Maybelle … was already, even at the age of 18, a guitar virtuoso. She had already developed her own style called the Carter scratch, where she could play both the melody and the rhythm on the guitar. It was like having two instruments in one.”
“A lot of people like Johnny Cash [who, of course, later married Maybelle’s daughter June], and Chet Atkins studied [Maybelle’s guitar playing],” Williams says. “And AP went out and salvaged the old ballads that came [to the U.S. with immigrants]. If he hadn’t done that, [those songs] would’ve been lost.
“So it was worthy stage material.”
The trouble with kissing cousins
Keep on the Sunny Side (taking its name from the eponymous song, inducted into the 2006 Grammy Hall of Fame) started touring in 2002, traveling as far as Texas and Atlantic City. Williams has played the role of Sara in all but one production: “I really love her,” she enthuses.
She points out that the Carter women were ahead of their time, and not just musically. “They wore pants before it was common. They had motorcycles at one point,” Williams boasts. “When AP was off on those music [collecting] ventures, [Sara] was known to do a little lumbering. We’re talking some serious hard work. She was left alone on that farm a lot.”
It’s Sara’s industriousness that might account for the humble beginnings of the Carter music group. Williams relates an anecdote where Sara suggested to AP that they busk outside a local store to make enough money to repair a broken-down car. The couple — along with Maybelle — made their legendary Bristol recording in 1927, 12 years after Sara and AP married.
But it was also Sara’s autonomy that led, in part, to the group’s demise. “While AP was away, Sara fell in love with a cousin of AP’s,” a passage on the NPR Web site relates. “But even after Sara and AP separated and divorced in the 1930s, the Carter Family kept recording.”
“And in some ways … those difficulties really added something to the music,” author Zwonitzer maintains. (The Carter Family’s recording career concluded in 1941 when Sara moved to California.)
So things weren’t always so, well, sunny — an important part of the story Williams and her cast mates hope to share with audiences. “The play is inherently dramatic,” she notes.
Covering seven decades and numerous struggles, Keep on the Sunny Side aims to present the first family of country music in a relatively true light. The Carters are allowed to tell their story through their own songs — chestnuts like “Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Gold Watch and Chain.”
But with interest in the family only seeming to increase, Sunny Side is unlikely to be a sentimental delving into the past. At AP’s behest, the Carter Family Fold still holds regular Saturday-night performances in Hiltons, Va. — and though AP and Sara’s daughter Janette passed away this January, the current generation of Carters has no intention of letting the tradition die. Given the recent success of the Johnny Cash/June Carter biopic Walk the Line, it’s certain new fans are tuning into the Carter legacy.
“This is a very ensemble piece,” says Williams. “More than anything else I’ve done, this show is a real labor of love.”
Keep on the Sunny Side runs from Wednesday, April 26 through Sunday, May 14 at Flat Rock Playhouse. Show time is 8:15 p.m. April 26-29, May 3-6 and May 10-13; matinees at 2:15 p.m. will be held April 27, 29 and 30 and May 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13 and 14. Tickets are $28 and $30. Call 693-0731 or see www.flatrockplayhouse.org for more information.