The Unbroken Circle
The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family
It’s a pretty telling indictment of modern country music that not a single artist in the current crop of stars makes an appearance on The Unbroken Circle to pay homage to The Carter Family. It’s not a stretch, by any means, to make the claim that there would be no country music at all without the groundwork laid by A.P. Carter’s Depression-era songs. If anything, the lack of attendance reveals how today’s country is rooted more in pop than in any other musical genre.
With the big names absent, The Unbroken Circle is populated with a mixture of country’s old guard, bluegrass mainstays, a couple americana-rock acts and a southern rock band. It’s a combination that works reasonably well, with more highs than lows. Norman and Nancy Blake with Tim O’Brien’s “Black Jack David” and The Whites with Ricky Skaggs’s “Will My Mother Know Me There” play it very close to the original material, reveling in the blurred space between the birth of American folk and its traditional British heritage. Janette and Joe Carter similarly evoke their ancestors through ramshackle instrumentation and haggard, but heartfelt harmonies. Johnny Cash’s “Engine One-Forty-Three,” one of his final recordings, is the disc’s highlight and captures the plight of a bruised and broken train engineer welcoming his chance to die and enter Heaven. Cash’s voice, as close to his death as he was, is as resonant as ever.
The weakest songs occur when artists start modernizing the old musical templates. Marty Stuart gives “Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You” an odd slow-core turn that’s enjoyable until he introduces a sitar and brings the sound dangerously close to the territory covered in Ugly Kid Joe’s rendition of “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Sheryl Crow’s staid, unconcerned version of “No Depression in Heaven” lacks the emotional drive Uncle Tupelo gave the song over a decade ago.
Overall, this is a decent homage to one of the most important bands in the history of American music. The circle remains unbroken for now, but it’s showing some stress cracks from the occasional dumbing down of The Carter Family’s song and their sadly diminishing sphere of influence in the realm of country music.