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“Well You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is a long overdue book about the most important family in   America  musical history. The Carter Family are our collective link to the past, not simply to the southern past, either, but to the enormous antithetically mixed culture that would finally produce the most creative and interesting nation on earth. In some ways this is a sad book, but it’s an indispensable one for the person who wants to learn about origins of American music. I don’t think anyone who reads this book will forget its portrayal of the mist-shrouded southern mountains and of the travail and spiritual strength that was characteristic of its people.  James Lee Burke


Mark Zwonitzer 

Mark Zwonitzer is a writer-director whose work appears nationally on public television. He is currently finishing up work on a documentary about the creation or the transcontinental about the creation of the transcontinental railroad and hopes to begin work soon on a documentary about the Carter Family

Mother Maybelle & Sara At The Carter Fold

Carter Family bio-musical has real chance to shine  

  ABINGDON, Va. — The Carter Family is alive again in the southern  Appalachians , and they're all but certain to be coming to a theater near you. 

The great mountain trio, one of the key wellsprings of country music, is the subject of Keep on the Sunny Side: The Songs and Story of the Carter Family, a new bio-musical at Barter Theatre, just a holler or two away from   Bristol , Tenn.  , where A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter made their first recordings of mountain ballads in 1927. 

The musical, conceived and written by Douglas Pote (a physician, neophyte playwright and expert on the history of the Carters) and directed by Barter's artistic director, Richard Rose, is still in gestation at the theater, but it is already drawing sellout crowds. 

A handful of Carter relatives — including  Jan ette Carter, who is the daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter and is depicted as a teenager in the show — have seen and approved. Country legends Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, also have shown interest and are expected at a performance any day now. 

Keep on the Sunny Side concludes its run at Barter's second stage Sept. 22 and will move to a theater in   Roanoke ,   , before returning to Barter's main stage early next year. Rose tells me that he and Pote will continue to work on the piece, strengthening its dramatic and musical aspects, and they fully expect it to grow into a touring production with wide — at least regional and possibly national — circulation. 

''It's definitely going to have a life beyond here,'' says Rose, who has done a lovely job so far on the work. ''The music is strong, the story is interesting and the revival of interest in the Carter Family has helped a lot. We think it's going to go far.'' 

I agree. Keep on the Sunny Side, which the theater commissioned, has the potential to be for Barter what A Chorus Line was for the Public Theatre in   New York  : a critically acclaimed theatrical franchise that takes this small but respected theater to the next level of national prominence. 

First, though, several issues need to be addressed. Like most bio-musicals — including Stand by Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story, which opens this week at Ryman Auditorium in a return engagement — Keep on the Sunny Side suffers from an episodic structure that tries to cover too much ground, leaving precious little time for the narrative core. 

That core, in this case, is the relationship between A.P. and Sara Carter. Their initial romantic and musical partnership is evoked beautifully, but their subsequent conflicts are touched upon far too sketchily for the story to work as drama. 

There is, for example, a strong suggestion that Sara, in her isolation while A.P. was spending too much time away from home collecting songs and drumming up business for the trio, had a romantic liaison with the neighbor whom she later married. (As the onstage character of Jan ette puts it delicately, ''Her head was turned.'') 

But this is never adequately dramatized, and neither is the tension between the pair during the years when they continued to work together as musicians long after they were no longer living together as husband and wife. When Sara marries her new love and leaves for   California  , effectively dissolving the Carter Family as a trio, the moment passes almost as an afterthought. And a scene evoking the late years of A.P. — who never remarried and, it seems, continued to pine for Sara until his death — is never properly tied back to the love story, making the ending of the show oddly unsatisfying. 

It's true, too, that the Carter Family's music is not inherently dramatic. It needs to be clearly yoked to the story — as it is, most effectively, in the first-act closer, A.P.'s plaintive Are You Tired of Me, My Darling — but at this point that happens all too infrequently. 

Right now, then, Keep on the Sunny Side hovers uneasily between a revue and a true musical. If Rose and Pote continue to push it toward the latter, the piece stands an excellent chance of becoming an important new addition not only to the cultural heritage of the region, but also to the American musical theater. If you'd like to catch the show at Barter this week, call the box office at (276) 628-3991 or visit www.bartertheatre.com

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Revised: September 03, 2007

 

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