Carter Family, The

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Carter Family, The

seminal American country-music group. membership:A(lvin) P(leasant) (Delaney) Carter, voc, fdl. (b. near Maces Springs, Va., Dec. 15, 1891; d. Kingsport, Term., Nov. 7, 1960); his wife, Sara Elizabeth (Dougherty) Carter, voc, autoharp, gtr. (b. Flat Woods, Va., July 21, 1898; d. Lodi, Calif., Jan. 8, 1979); and his sister-in-law (and Sara’s cousin) songwriter (“Mother”) Maybelle (Addington) Carter, voc, gtr. (b. Nickelsville, Va., May 10, 1909; d. Nashville, Oct. 23, 1978).

A. P., the son of Robert and Molly Bayes Carter, was selling fruit trees when he met Sara, who had been raised by her aunt and uncle, Milburn and Melinda Nickels, after her mother died when she was an infant. They married on June 18, 1915, and eventually had three children: Gladys, Janette, and Joe. Maybelle, the daughter of Hugh Jack and Margaret Addington, who owned a general store and a mill, married A. P/s brother Ezra, a railroad mail clerk, on March 23, 1926, and they had three daughters: Helen, June, and Anita.

The Carter Family first auditioned for Brunswick Records; then, on July 31, 1927, for Victor Records in Bristol, Term., for A&R executive Ralph Peer. They recorded six songs for Victor on Aug. 1–2. Among them was “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow” which became a hit. They went to Camden, N.J., for a second Victor session in May 1928 that produced the million-seller “Wildwood Flower” and the hits “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Little Darling Pal of Mine.” Their February 1929 recording session in Camden resulted in the hit “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” “Worried Man Blues” was a hit in September 1930, and “Lonesome Valley” in April 1931.

The Carters’ repertoire consisted of songs they had collected, adapted, and written, although they were credited to A. P. as original compositions on the Victor discs. Nevertheless, the Carters’ arrangements and performances were highly original, especially Maybelle’s guitar playing, featuring what came to be called the Carter Lick, used in country music ever after.

In the early 1930s A. P. and Sara separated, and they eventually divorced, although they continued to perform together. After a final RCA Victor recording session in December 1934, they contracted to the American Record Corporation (ARC) (later Columbia Records) and recorded 40 sides in May 1935, many of them repeats of songs done for Victor, although “Can Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye),” released on Banner Records, became a hit in August. From June 1936 to June 1938 they were contracted to Decca Records, recording 60 songs. Between 1938 and 1941 they spent their winters in Tex., broadcasting over the Mexican radio stations XERA, XEG, and XENT, sponsored by the Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation of Chicago. (These powerful stations, located just south of the U.S. border, could be picked up in much of the country.) On the broadcasts (some of which were transcribed on disc and later released commercially), they frequently included their children.

Sara married A. P.’s cousin, Coy Bayes, on Feb. 20, 1939, and the couple moved to Calif., although she continued to perform with the family. The Carters recorded 20 sides for Columbia’s OKeh label on Oct. 3, 1940, and another 13 for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label on Oct. 14, 1941. These were the last of their 273 commercial recordings. Starting in late 1942 and running until March 1943, they appeared on WBT, Charlotte, N.C. At this point the group broke up; A. P. went back to Maces Springs and opened a store, Sara retired to Calif.

Maybelle carried on: On June 1, 1943, “the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle” began broadcasting on WRNL, Richmond, Va. They moved to WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance in 1946, to WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance in 1948, and to KWTO Springfield’s Ozark Jubilee in 1949. In 1950 they reached the pinnacle of country radio programs, WSM Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. A. P. and Sara, with their children Janette and Joe, formed the A. P. Carter Family in 1952 for recordings on the local Acme Records label; A. P. also opened the Summer Park arena in the Clinch Mountains, in which the group performed. They stayed active until 1956.

After A. P.’s death, Maybelle and her daughters began billing themselves as the Carter Family, and the earlier trio began to be referred to as the Original Carter Family. In the mid-1960s, Sara and Maybelle appeared together at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded the Columbia album An Historic Reunion. The Original Carter Family became the first group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in November 1970.

The Carter Family had a tremendous influence on country, folk, and pop music. Their repertoire provided hits for many artists: Roy Acuff (who had earlier adapted the tune of “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” for his “Great Speckle Bird”) had a million-seller with “Wabash Cannonball” in 1938; “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” was a Top Ten Country hit for Gene Autry in 1944; “Wildwood Flower” hit the Country Top Ten in an instrumental version by Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys with Merle Travis in 1955; Mac Wiseman had a Top Ten Country hit with “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and the Kingston Trio had a Top 40 pop hit with their version of “Worried Man Blues,” “A Worried Man,” in 1959; and Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys had a Top 40 Country hit with “You are My Flower” in 1964. In addition to these specific hits, the Carters’ songs were endlessly performed, recorded, and adapted by other artists. Woody Guthrie employed many of their melodies for his songs, notably borrowing the tune of “When the World’s on Fire” for his “This Land is Your Land.”

The Carters’ rural background and rudimentary musical style formed the basis for traditional country music and bluegrass and remain the defining elements of those genres. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s gold-selling 1972 triple-LP (now a double CD) album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, featuring a guest appearance by Mother Maybelle Carter and including such Carter songs as the title track, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “You are My Flower,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and “Wildwood Flower,” underscored the Carter Family’s ongoing influence on country and pop music.


J. Atkins, The Carter Family (London, 1973); M. Orgill, Anchored in Love: The Carter Family Story (1975); R. Krishef, The Carter Family: Country Music’s First Family (Minneapolis, 1978); Janette Carter (A. P. and Sara’s daughter), Living with Memories (N.Y., 1983); June Carter Cash (Maybelle’s daughter), From the Heart (N.Y., 1987).

—William Ruhlmann