Rarely does tradition permeate a recording the way it does this one. No matter how familiar you may be with the Carter clan's seminal role in country music history, you may overlook some of the ways that legacy obtrudes in the Carter Family III debut. Songs mined nearly a century ago in the hills of Appalachia by patriarch A.P. Carter? Of course. Gospel? You kiddin'? Heartache and homespun wisdom? They wouldn't be Carters without it. But how 'bout this one: the opening track, Maybelle's Guitar, in which A.P. and Sarah's grandson Dale Jett moans, "They sold music's soul for a pocket full of gold," is not just a rant about Nashville hat bands. It recounts a squabble Jett had with the board of the Carter Family Fold, a performance venue launched by his mother, Janette Carter, to keep old time music alive. She should've just handed her son the mike.
Jett's singing is the main revelation in this 13-song collection in which he is joined by fellow Carter Family grandson John Carter Cash (Johnny and June's boy) and John's wife, Laura Cash. The dispute in the shadow of Clinch Mountain robbed Jett of his regular gig as emcee and performer at the Fold, but not before he developed a pretty fair set of chops. His voice ain't pretty. It's guttural and betrays more regional inflection than any of his better-known kin's. But it's got range and expressiveness that would make the others envious or, one hopes, proud.
Of course, the Carters have rarely been known for crystalline vocal cords. Giving voice to the concerns of common folks has far more often been their fare. And this release suggest that CF3 - actually the fifth combination (at least) of Original Carter Family descendants and their spouses -remains true to that objective. Maybelle's Guitar gets things started on a slightly awkward, sanctimonious note, but the trio soon finds its footing with gospel numbers featuring Laura (The Sun of the Soul) and Jett (Sea of Galilee, Revelation) on lead vocals and with the moving Let It Go, in which Jett declares, "Forgiveness is the best revenge." If "Past & Present" helps put a set of Carters back on the national stage, instead of an 800-seat auditorium in rural Virginia, this revenge will have to do.