I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes

One short bio of the Carter Family begins thusly:

The most influential group in country music history, the Carter Family switched the emphasis from hillbilly instrumentals to vocals... (David Vinopal)

So I guess it's up to us to switch the emphasis back. Big job, and one that will require a strong melody. Let me recommend this one. We know it's a strong melody because it has been used for so many other songs as well, among them, Great Speckled Bird, Honky Tonk Angels, Bootleger's Story, Nashville Jail, and Wild Side of Life.

The song was one of hundreds collected and reworked by the man of the outfit, A. P. Carter. The trio recorded it in 1929, only two years into their long recording career. On the audio clip of the performance below, the baritone A. P. is joined by his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle. Among guitarists, Mother Maybelle — as she came to be known in later years — is the most significant member of the group owing to the distinctive guitar style that came to be named after her, Carter-style picking. She's playing the bass notes with her thumb and strumming with her fingers. This not only works as solid accompaniment, but allows her to play a solo instrumental break with the melody in the bass and strummed chords providing the harmony. Have a listen, then try it yourself!

Audio Clip: The Carter Family on I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes

In 1927, when the Carter Family made their first recordings, a young Gene Autry was working the late shift at the telegraph office in Chelsea, OK. To pass the time he was doing what any of us would do: strumming and singing a few tunes. He must have been doing a pretty good job of it, too, because when Will Rogers — then one of the best-known entertainers in the country — wandered in, instead of insisting on immediate service he insisted that Autry keep playing. Just over a year later Autry was auditioning in NY for RCA Victor and in 1931 his new label, American Records, awarded him the first-ever "gold record" when sales of That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine hit an astounding 500,000 copies sold. Over the next two decades he was to become country music's first muti-media megastar of radio, TV and film.

He recorded a Western-tinged version of Thinking Tonight in 1942 and of all those you will hear here, his melody is closest to the one we use as our starting point.

Audio Clip: Gene Autry sings I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes

Like so many songs in the Carter Family's repertoire, Thinking Tonight has long been a standard among bluegrass performers, including the Osborne Brothers. Although bluegrass has from its earliest days provided a showcase of instrumental virtuosity, its best performers also love a good song and show it by getting out of the way and letting the melody itself step to center stage. The simple guitar break on this next audio clip provides a great example and should give courage to anyone who thinks they can't play bluegrass lead guitar.

Audio Clip: The Osborne Brothers perform I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes

In 2006, at the age of 79, Ralph Stanley dedicated a whole album to Carter Family material on a CD titled, A Distant Land to Roam and Thinking Tonight was one of the selections he covered. Any student of A. P. Carter's tastes in song will note that he had a penchant for laments of all stripe and if ever their was a singer who could put across a good lament, it's this fellow Virginian, Mr. Ralph Stanley. Like the Osborne Brothers cut we sampled above, this one opens with a simple instrumental interpretation of the melody—this time on mandolin. Nothing fancy, just down home tasteful.

Audio Clip: Ralph Stanley sings I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes