A! Magazine for the Arts

Eugene Wolf as A.P. Carter in a performance at The Carter Family Fold (photo courtesy of Barter Theatre)

Eugene Wolf as A.P. Carter in a performance at The Carter Family Fold (photo courtesy of Barter Theatre)

Eugene Wolf and A.P. Carter—musical souls intertwined

February 26, 2024

By Bonny Gable

Bonny Gable is a former theater professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia. www.bonnygable.com

When veteran actor Eugene Wolf was first approached by Barter Theatre in 2002 to portray the iconic A.P. Carter in “Keep On the Sunny Side,” a play by Douglas Pote about the Original Carter Family and their music, he was apprehensive. His knowledge of their history was sketchy, and he didn’t consider himself steeped in Carter Family music. But from the far reaches of his childhood, he recollected the voice of his mamaw humming and singing those tunes as she went about her chores. The call of that voice led him to what would become one of the most successful and enduring roles of his career.

Wolf realized that being raised in Greeneville, Tennessee, by that singing grandmother gave him a unique edge for approaching the role. “I’m from the same dirt that A.P. was born out of,” Wolf says, “and so, there’s something about me that already knows the landscape, physical and emotional, social and cultural landscape of this person.”

But his portrayal of A.P. Carter was not rendered without a lot of hard work and preparation. Tasked with also creating the vocal arrangements for the play, Wolf taught himself guitar in order to master the Carter Family songs and understand their structure. He trained on a nylon-stringed guitar and thought he’d gotten his hands in shape, but Doug Dorschug, an old-time musician hired to be the musical director for the show, had other ideas. Wolf recalls, “He brought me an Epiphone guitar with very heavy strings, because it was similar to the steel-stringed Gibson guitar Maybelle Carter had played. He said ‘Eugene, take this. Practice.’ So, I had to get my hands strengthened and really learn how to play.”

Wolf gathered information about A.P. the man from as many sources as possible. He reveled in first-hand stories from lots of folks who had known A.P. personally. Particularly helpful was Bill Clifton, an accomplished country musician, avid follower of the Carter Family music, and close friend to A.P. himself.

In 2004 an invaluable resource emerged with the publication of “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, the first definitive biography of the Carter Family. It revealed new information about the Carter family previously unknown outside of the tight community of Poor Valley, Virginia. As playwright Pote integrated these discoveries into his script, Wolf more fully fleshed out the character of A.P.

Although very little film footage of A.P. exists, Wolf painstakingly studied his photographs. “I like physicality. If I understand the form of somebody, I can take on the form and then fill it up with things I learn from the script.” A special talent of Wolf’s is the ability to mimic physicality. “And when I say mimic, I don’t mean ‘just lay it on top,’” he says. “It’s organic. I know where the impulse comes from in my body to make this happen.”

One example of this technique stems from the story of A.P.’s impending birth. When his mother was eight months pregnant with him, lightning struck a tree near her and chased her through the ground. When Alvin Pleasant Carter was born, his mother said he came out “nervous.” His hand shook and would do so for the rest of his life.

Wolf was able to incorporate A.P.’s physical characteristics into his performance to a striking effect. After seeing Wolf perform, A.P.’s daughter, Janette Carter, commented to someone, “You know that man that plays Daddy shakes just like him. Is there something wrong with him?” High praise indeed.

But Wolf has his own theory about what the lightning incident meant for A.P. “I like to think that he was driven. That the lightning that almost struck his mom transferred into him, and ‘tuned’ him. He needed to find something—an intention—back to that. And the thing he wanted most was music.”

Wolf believes that A.P.’s tremble was more than a mere physical trait. “That otherworldly tremor in his voice is a gateway for us, because it opens something in our hearts, and in our brains and in our psyche, our souls that lets us in to a hundred years ago.”

When it comes to the power of music, Wolf and A.P. seem to have souls that are intertwined.

“A.P. knew that people had to have this music to survive,” Wolf says. “To get through sorrow we need music to shift the molecules in us, and when you sing these things, you’re releasing. I understand that, and I think A.P. understood that, too. He got such joy from the music, the performing, the singing. I get that too. I don’t know where I’d be, I don’t know what I’d be or what I’d be doing, if it weren’t for music.”

One of A.P.’s greatest joys came when the widespread appeal of Carter Family music exploded between 1938 and 1940. The family traveled to Texas to perform radio broadcasts at a Mexican border studio boasting an impressive 500 kilowatts. Those powerful sound waves enabled thousands of listeners from coast to coast to feel the passionate influence of their music.

“Somebody referred to them as the first Internet, in a way,” says Wolf, “because everyone was relating to this one sound. And even though it had a country flavor, everyone had somebody that had gone off to war, somebody they had loved and lost, somebody that they loved but who wouldn’t love them back. The Carter Family was singing about things that everyone could translate to their own culture.”

That influence has reverberated into subsequent generations. Due to popular demand, “Keep On the Sunny Side” has been reprised at Barter several times, seen many performances at the Carter Fold and enjoyed a highly successful national tour.

Perhaps the best assessment of Eugene Wolf’s portrayal of the iconic A.P. Carter comes from the play’s own author, Doug Pote. In a Kingsport Times News article dated March 1, 2015, Pote says, “I even joke to both Eugene and Rita [Forrester, A.P.’s granddaughter] and say that if A.P. Carter came back and played himself in the play, he wouldn’t be as good as Eugene.”

Wolf is quick to give credit where credit is due. “I didn’t come into playing A.P. knowing all the things that I think I know now. Playing A.P. Carter reinforced to me the transformative power of music, the love of family and the notion of forgiveness.

“And here, a hundred years later, the Carter Family is still in our thoughts. We have their beautiful melodies, and lyrics wrought from the Victorian language of the hymns. Even if you’re not a Christian, or not necessarily spiritual, those songs reach for things that we don’t reach for anymore. But we’re learning that we can, again.”