Back in the Fold
University Returns Carter Family Tapes
By DAVID McGEE | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | December 05, 2010*** Published Thursday, Dec. 2 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
MACES SPRINGS, Va. – The University of North Carolina has returned a collection of Carter Family Fold audio recordings, some three years after their departure splintered descendents of the Hall of Fame musical family.
After years of conversations, meetings and a bit of legal wrangling, the five boxes of tapes are now stored in a climate-controlled environment in Kingsport, Tenn.
"We are glad they are back," board President Howard Klein said of the recordings Wednesday. "The Carter Fold tapes are a rich legacy of music at the fold covering a 25-year period. They are a priceless record of original Carter Family songs and of Appalachian culture."
The collection had been sent to the university's Southern Folklife Collection at its Chapel Hill campus in 2007 by family member and then-Carter Fold board member Dale Jett – without the support of other board members.
"I go back to Nov. 17, 2007, when the board first found out about it at a board meeting," Klein said. "Dale was giving a report when he told us. We all looked at each other and blew a gasket."
About a month later, the board unanimously decided to remove Jett from the board and contacted both their attorney and the university to try and get the recordings returned.
Jett said at the time that his only motivation was to ensure the recordings were properly preserved.
A November 2010 agreement signed by both Klein and Richard Mann, the university's vice chancellor of finance and administration, acknowledges the 2007 agreement between Jett and university archivist Steven Weiss is "null and void."
"Our attorney told us the only way a nonprofit in Virginia can divest itself of an asset is by board resolution," Klein said. "The University of North Carolina has a highly regarded reputation in its southern folklife collection and, if we had wanted to place them somewhere, it might be at a place like North Carolina. But that wasn't what we wanted."
The board wanted, Klein said, to exercise complete control over the hundreds of hours of one-of-a-kind recordings.
The collection includes 1,250 audio cassettes and 390 digital audio tapes with hundreds of hours of live performances from the family's Scott County music center. Performers include Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Marty Stuart, Doc Watson, Carter Family dependents and dozens of other local, regional and nationally known country, bluegrass and old-time music performers between 1981 and 2004.
In a 2008 telephone interview, Weiss said the transfer grew out of an assessment – prepared by Weiss – that the materials were endangered and in need of better environmental controls.
"We were under the impression that [Jett] was going to consult with the board and that he had the authority to do this," Weiss said in 2008.Klein claims that original assessment incorrectly portrayed the condition of those recordings.
"The tapes are not in dire condition and in need of saving. That was overblown from the beginning," Klein said. "We later found another box of tapes in the museum from the 1980s that had been missed. We took them to an expert who said they were in very good condition."
While the just-returned collection hasn't undergone the same evaluation, Klein predicted the board will also have those recordings checked.
"It will be a monumental effort just to convert them all, but we've examined some of the tapes and they are in fine condition. I was pleasantly surprised," said Rita Forrester, the Carter Fold's executive director.
One of the problems with the 2007 agreement was the university – not the board – would control any redistribution or attempt to commercialize the recordings, Klein said. The document specified that the university and the Carter Fold would split the profits of any recordings released by the university.
"We don't see any commercial value to these things due to the tangle of copyright," Klein said. "The Johnny Cash estate is not going to just allow us to release his recordings. What we might release are CDs of [founder] Janette Carter with her brother, her uncle and aunt, the McLain Family and others we might be able to get permission from. And we think that would be of great value historically."
Ultimately, Klein said, the board wants to transfer the recordings to another format and make them available to colleges or universities, the Library of Congress or others for research purposes.