MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The mother of country music - those words were emblazoned on an award handed to Maybelle Carter in 1966 in Nashville. Now, by then, Carter had already spent three decades in the country music spotlight as a pioneering guitarist and singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOSPEL SHIP")
THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) I'm going to take a trip in that old gospel ship. I'm going far beyond the sky.
KELLY: Now, she was mother to more than country music. She had three daughters - June, Helen and Anita. And she raised them on the road traveling and playing together as a family band. For the last few years, NPR has been reinterpreting the history of American music by putting women front and center. Our series is called Turning The Tables. And today, we are going to explore motherhood and musicianship and Maybelle Carter. Our guide is Tift Merritt. She's a singer-songwriter who is no stranger to the rigors of parenting on the road.
Tift Merritt, nice to speak with you.
TIFT MERRITT: Nice to be here. Thank you.
KELLY: So the idea of this being a family affair and her influence in that way and the girls being in the mix from such a young age, I mean, were you able to get a sense of what life was like for them? There was one moment I read that I just loved that one of her daughters, Anita, has talked about how when she was little, she slept in Maybelle's guitar case when they were backstage and waiting for Mom to come off stage.
MERRITT: Yeah. Guitar cases (ph) are great places...
MERRITT: ...For children to take a nap (laughter). I think it was the family business. I think it was not any kind of celebrity situation. This is what they did. They loved it. I think it's really important to lend your imagination back to these situations that are at this point really foreign to us, you know, travelling with a map rather than a phone. What it was like being a woman in strange places in that time? How did she feed everybody? You know, this was hopefully really joyful and a lot of fun, but it was also a really unique and probably difficult situation.
KELLY: And how did that come through in the music? I mean, is there a song you would point to that captures that moment in the family history?
MERRITT: I would point to "Wildwood Flower."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILDWOOD FLOWER")
THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) Oh, I'll twine with my mangles and waving black hair, with the roses so red and the lilies so fair.
MERRITT: Maybelle is really playing this amazing lead line, which she was - and playing rhythm guitar, which is what she really cultivated. And then the beautiful voices of her daughters come in, and it just blooms. It just blooms. I think you're seeing women in their element at a time when women were really working far, far from the microphone. And there is a joy, and there's a blooming.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILDWOOD FLOWER")
THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) When I woke from my dreaming, my idols were clay, all portion of love had all flown away.
KELLY: Was blending, having young kids, having her family right there with her on the road the whole time, was that the only way Maybelle Carter could be as successful as she was? I'm guessing there were not a lot of child care options back in the day in the - when you were trying to do a road trip as a musician.
MERRITT: I can only speak through my own experience. I never really thought about the fact that I was a woman in a band except for if I were to become a parent, it was really going to change for me, and I was going to have to be able to afford to have child care out there with me or I was really going to have a reckoning with who I had to find myself to be and who I was actually going to become. And that was something the men around me didn't have to deal with.
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, let's go to your own experience. You have a daughter...
MERRITT: I do.
KELLY: ...Born in 2016.
KELLY: Do you remember the first time you brought her on the road with you?
MERRITT: I do. We went to Texas. She was 3 months old. She sat in her bassinet on stage for sound check.
KELLY: So she didn't have to sleep in the guitar case (laughter).
MERRITT: No, but she's hung out in a guitar case (laughter). You know, all of my fears about taking her on the road, she was not worried about whether the dressing room was dirty. And she didn't know a stranger. I mean, she thought any time we went to a restaurant, it was who we were on the road with. But I eventually decided that that wasn't how I wanted to raise her.
KELLY: It bothered you, not her.
MERRITT: I didn't want to teach her that center stage was where everything in the world lived. And I wanted her to have a safe place to dig down into what the world was about. And so we're not touring right now. I feel really good about that. I think Maybelle would be proud of that, too.
KELLY: I gather from your music this - how to combine these two spheres of your life is something you wrestled with from even before she was born, a couple of songs you wrote while you were pregnant. Is that right?
MERRITT: Oh, yeah. I was terrified (laughter) of - you know, I had completely defined myself as a musician. I knew that having a kid was going to blow all of that up. What I didn't know was that it was going to blow it all up in a really wonderful and meaningful and profound way that was really grounding and that made my canvas bigger rather than taking it away.
KELLY: And how did that come through in your music? Is there a song you would point me to of yours?
MERRITT: There are a couple of songs. One's called "Stitch Of The World."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STITCH OF THE WORLD")
MERRITT: (Singing) You must empty your pockets of stones, that light-hearted you may go, for you must go with the stitch of the world, into the stitch of the world.
I think that song is really about our insignificance and our significance at the same time, which I think is something that Maybelle actually speaks to. You know, I think Maybelle would be the first person to say what she did wasn't a big deal. And yet the day-to-day experience of life and the love that we give to each other is extremely profound. And we are bound to each other in delicate and strong ways.
KELLY: You know, there's a part of me that laments the fact that this is two women having this conversation because it feels like it's always women having this conversation. And I'm sure back in Maybelle's day, it was the same thing.
KELLY: I want to note that we're - we are having this conversation because you've thought so deeply about this and you've written an essay about it for Turning The Tables. Thank you for that. But, I mean, why is it still such a woman-centric conversation in 2019?
MERRITT: Oh, boy. Well, we would have to have another interview to cover all of those things. But, you know, I think things have changed a lot. I think the question now for me is how do I push that forward for my daughter? And how do I make sure that this isn't just two women having a conversation in the future, that women are seen and that women are paid equally? And I don't know the answers to those questions, but I hope them for my daughter.
KELLY: Yeah. Well, let me end by asking about your daughter. Jean is still very young, too young to be your bandmate in the way that Maybelle Carter's daughters were.
KELLY: Is that a life you can imagine wishing for her?
MERRITT: No, it's not. She loves to make up songs, and she loves to beat a watermelon with spoons and put on a show.
MERRITT: But she also wants to be a doctor with a ponytail. And I'm kind of - I'm really encouraging that one.
KELLY: Well, maybe she'll be a singing doctor with a ponytail. It could all come together.
MERRITT: And a unicorn.
KELLY: Well, Tift Merritt, it has been a pleasure. Thank you.
MERRITT: Thank you so much.
KELLY: That was Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter. She's based in North Carolina, and we've been talking about life on the road, both hers and Maybelle Carter's.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FOGGY MOUNTAIN TOP")
THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) If I was on some foggy mountain top, I'd sail away...
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