The Carter Family
The Carter Family
Family groups have always been a staple of popular music in America, but none has blazed a more influential trail than the Carter Family of Maces Springs, Virginia. The Carters—A. P., his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle—brought their Blue Ridge mountain ballads to nationwide audiences during the Great Depression, creating a rich trove of folk songs that are sung and performed to this day. According to John Atkins in Stars of Country Music, the Carters’ style and repertoire “provide much of the nucleus of that branch of country music which has always remained apart from the well-defined patterns of commercial success determined by Nashville, Tennessee.”
Each of the 300-odd songs the Carter Family recorded bears the distinctive Carter mark. Only a scant few cater to popular trends. Unlike their exact contemporary, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters rarely experimented with nontraditional arrangements or backup bands. In Country Music U.S.A., Bill C. Malone notes that, save for a marked improvement in instrumental technique over time, the Carter recordings “never varied substantially in … sixteen years.” Malone suggests that the group achieved national stardom because the Carters “sang of an America that was gradually disappearing, an America whose values had seemed inextricably interrelated with rural or small-town life. That America had been fading since before the Carters were children, though its vision may have burned brighter in the South and Midwest than anywhere else in the nation. Songs about wandering boys, abandoned mothers, dying orphans, and forsaken lovers had a special poignancy for people who saw the stable world of their parents disintegrating around them. The paeans to the ‘Homestead on the Farm,’ the ‘Little Village Church Yard,’ or ‘The Little Poplar Log House’ became increasingly meaningful as such nostalgic symbols of rural innocence and security receded farther and farther into memory.” That same nostalgia became the focal point of the folk renaissance of the early 1960s, so it is not surprising that the living members of the Carter Family enjoyed an unprecedented comeback at that time.
The Carter Family was founded by Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, better known as A. P. He was born in Maces Springs, Virginia, a small town near the Tennessee border, and was one of nine children of deeply religious parents. Growing up, A. P. was encouraged to sing in church quartets with other members of his family, but he was dissuaded from learning to play the fiddle because of the temptation to play “sinful” dance tunes. In 1915, A. P. met and married Sara Dougherty, a native of the nearby town of Copper Creek. The lively Sara was proficient on the banjo, guitar, and autoharp, and she had been performing locally with her equally talented cousin, Maybelle Addington. Sara returned to Maces
Members of original Carter family were Alvin Pleasant IVI (A. P.) Delaney Carter (April 15, 1891-November 7, 1960), Sara Dougherty Carter (July 21, 1898–1979), and Maybelle Addington Carter (May 10, 1909-October 23, 1978). A. P. Carter married Sara Dougherty, June 18, 1915 (divorced, 1933); children: Janette, Joe. Maybelle Addington married Ezra Carter, 1926; children: Helen, June, Anita. All members were born in the vicinity of Maces Springs, Virginia.
Formed group the Carter Family, 1926; A. P. on bass vocals, Sara on soprano vocals, autoharp, and guitar, and Maybelle on alto vocals, autoharp, and guitar. Cut first record for the Victor label, 1927; had first best-seller, “Wildwood Flower,” 1928. Children Janette, Joe, Anita, June , and Helen Carter were added for radio performances, ca. 1935. Original Carter family disbanded, 1943.
Maybelle, June, Helen, and Anita formed group the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, 1943; became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, 1950, and members of the Johnny Cash road show, 1961. Appeared regularly on Johnny Cash’s television show, 1966. Group disbanded, ca. 1969, and Maybelle returned to solo performing, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, and in concert at the White House.
The Carter Family was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970.
Springs with A. P., and they formed a duo that was soon much in demand in the region. In the early 1920s they were actually offered a recording contract by Brunswick Records, but since the company wanted square-dance fiddle tunes, A. P. turned down the deal. In 1926 Maybelle Addington married A. P.’s brother Ezra, they settled in Maces Springs, and she became the third Carter Family member. Atkins writes: “Soon the trio began to unite their musical talents into a firmly knit group, with Sara singing lead, Maybelle alto harmony, and A. P. bass.”
In 1927 the Carters were one of a number of local groups who travelled to Bristol, Virginia, to audition for Victor Records. During the same week that Jimmie Rodgers cut his first songs for Victor, the Carters were offered fifty dollars per song for six tunes by record executive Ralph Peer. Having concluded the session, the Carters returned to their farms and young children in Maces Springs. Months later, they were surprised to find that their first recordings had sold quite well indeed. Early in 1928, Peer invited the group to the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, for a whole series of recording sessions. Quite magnanimously, Peer raised the Carters’ take to seventy-five dollars per song. These Victor recordings on 78 RPM were almost all best-sellers, especially “Wildwood Flower,” released in May 1928. A tale of lost love that highlights Maybelle’s melody-and-rhythm guitar picking, “Wildwood Flower” was one of the first country songs heard outside the South.
The Carters quickly found themselves in demand for radio and live appearances. They answered the demand for new material by scouring the Blue Ridge communities of Virginia and Tennessee for family songs and rhymes that could be put to music. A. P. led these “song-hunting” trips, and Sara and Maybelle arranged the music to suit the group. Scholars feel that A. P. Carter wrote only a few of the songs the family performed, even though he is listed as the songwriter in almost every case. “Carter’s motivation for collecting songs was not to preserve them in print,” writes Atkins, “… but purely to provide a source of original material—in terms of what was on phonograph records—for his group to record. The end product, however, … [had] the effect of preserving the songs for future generations. A. P. Carter thus firmly deserves a place in the annals of the collectors as well as the entertainers.” Indeed, no rural family ever complained when the famous Carters recorded a cherished local song, and it is likely that this rich legacy of music might have been lost forever had the Carters not mined it so thoroughly.
The Carter Family oeuvre consists almost exclusively of Anglo-Saxon and Scotts-lrish traditional music, but the works were adapted from their traditional forms. “In addition to furnishing a rich legacy of songs for American folk and country music,” writes Atkins, “the Carters introduced a new stylistic and rhythmic content to the music, and it was perhaps this that was to prove their greatest legacy. Based on Maybelle’s guitar styling in such songs as ‘Wildwood Flower’ and ‘Engine 143,’ where she played melody on the bass strings while maintaining the rhythm with chords on the treble strings, the Carters offered a rhythm which was new to country music and even newer to the songs they performed.” It can certainly be argued that the Carter Family’s greatest contribution to modern American music is Maybelle’s “Carter lick,” a style that elevated the guitar from merely an accompanying instrument to one that might take the lead itself.
Even though A. P. and Sara Carter divorced in 1933, the Carter Family continued to perform together into the early years of World War II. As their children grew, they too were incorporated into the live and radio performances, especially Maybelle’s daughters, Helen, Anita, and June. They switched to Decca Records in 1936 and were one of the few groups to be awarded royalties rather than flat fees per recording. In the latter half of the 1930s the family could be heard regularly on several high-wattage radio stations on the Texas-Mexico border. Despite obvious personal differences, the Carters maintained a singular air of professionalism in the studio and onstage. Most of their songs were recorded in a single take, having been practiced extensively beforehand, and their live shows exhibited nothing but amiability. The group finally disbanded in 1943, when A. P. and Sara chose to retire.
Undaunted by the loss of her original partners, Maybelle took her daughters and formed another group, the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. Before long the new band was more in demand than the original, making regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and touring with other country stars. A. P. and Sara tried a comeback in 1952, adding their children Joe and Janette to their band. They did not receive much attention, so in 1956 they again retired. Sara moved to California and A. P. returned to Maces Springs, where he died in 1960.
With the resurgence of interest in folk music during the 1960s, Maybelle finally won the acclaim that her half-century career deserved. She became a perennial favorite at the Newport Folk Festival and even reunited with Sara for a 1967 album, An Historic Reunion. Throughout the 1960s Maybelle also toured with her daughters as part of Johnny Cash’s travelling show. Her daughter June married Cash in 1967.
Maybelle Carter died of respiratory failure in October 1978. In a Rolling Stone eulogy, Chet Flippo maintained that “Mother Maybelle,” through her playing and singing, “helped define the direction of country music: her unique guitar style revolutionized country instrumentation and influenced performers from Woody Guthrie to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan…. [The Carter Family’s] sound, dominated by Maybelle’s guitar, was a mournful, American-gothic kind of gospel harmony that epitomized and reinforced the South’s verities of church and home.” Sara Carter died in California in 1979, so far from the fame she had once enjoyed that few newspapers noticed her passing.
Atkins concludes: “Today the Carter Family’s music enjoys a wider audience than ever before. Their music and style have survived analysis; their lives, both public and private, have been laid bare for all to see. But even before these words and many other similar treatises were written, it has always been there for inspection and analysis, because everything the Carter family ever did, everything they ever were is captured on the wonderful legacy of recordings they have willed to the world at large, and to country music for all time.”
The Famous Carter Family, Columbia, 1961.
The Original and Great Carter Family, RCA, 1961.
’Mid the Green Fields of Virginia, RCA, 1963.
An Historic Reunion, Columbia, 1967.
Wildwood Flower, RCA, 1988.
Best of the Carter Family, Columbia.
Favourite Family Songs, Liverty.
Happiest Days of All, RCA.
More Golden Gems from the Original Carter Family, RCA.
My Old Cottage Home, RCA.
Keep on the Sunny Side, Columbia.
Travelin’ Minstrel Band, Columbia.
Three Generations of the Carter Family, Columbia.
A. P. Carter’s Clinch Mountain Ballads, Pine Mountain.
The Carter Family on Border Radio, John Edwards Memorial Foundation.
Country Sounds of the Original Carter Family, Harmony.
Home among the Hills, Harmony.
More Favorites by the Carter Family, Decca.
A Selection of Favorites by the Carter Family, Decca.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? United Artists.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1978.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"The Carter Family." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-family
"The Carter Family." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-family
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