The Carter Family Biography

The Carter Family have become known as country music’s first family and are responsible for several songs such as ‘Wildwood Flower’ and ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’ becoming country standards. The original three members of the Carter Family were A.P. Carter (Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, 15 December 1891, Maces Springs, Scott County, Virginia, USA, d. 7 November 1960, Maces Springs, Scott County, Virginia, USA), his wife Sara Carter (b. Sara Dougherty, 21 July 1898, Flat Woods, Coeburn, Wise County, Virginia, USA, d. 8 January 1979, Lodi, California, USA) and Sara’s cousin, Mother Maybelle Carter (b. Maybelle Addington, 10 May 1909, Copper Creek, Nickelsville, Scott County, Virginia, USA, d. 23 October 1978, Nashville, Tennessee, USA). A.P, also known as ‘Doc’, Carter began to play the fiddle as a boy and learned many old-time songs from his mother. His father had been a fiddler but gave it up through religious beliefs when he married. As a young man, A.P. sang in a quartet with two uncles and his eldest sister in the local church. Initially, he worked on the railroad in Indiana but became homesick for his Clinch Mountain home in Virginia and in 1911, returned to his native area. He became interested in writing songs and found work travelling, selling fruit trees.

One day on his travels, he met Sara, who (legend says) was playing the autoharp and singing ‘Engine 143’, and on 18 June 1915, they married. Sara had learned to play banjo, guitar and autoharp and, as a child, was regularly singing with Madge and Maybelle Addington and other friends in her local area. They made their home in Maces Springs where A.P. worked on varying jobs, including farming and gardening and began to appear singing and playing together at local church socials and other functions. They auditioned for Brunswick Records, singing such songs as ‘Log Cabin By The Sea’, but when the record company suggested to A.P. that, performing as Fiddlin’ Doc, he only record square dance fiddle songs, he flatly refused because he felt it was against his mother and father’s strong religious beliefs. After her marriage in 1926 to A.P.’s brother Ezra J. Carter, Maybelle (Addington) joined with her relatives and the trio began to entertain locally. Like her new sister-in-law, Maybelle was equally competent on guitar, banjo and autoharp and was to become the main instrumentalist of the trio, as she developed her immediately identifiable style of picking out the melody on the bass strings and strumming a backing on the treble (Maybelle may well have been influenced by black guitarist Leslie Riddles, who often accompanied A.P. when he went on his searching-for-songs trips). Sara, often playing chords on the autoharp, usually sang lead vocals, with A.P. providing bass and Maybelle alto harmonies (Sara also yodelled on some of their recordings although this was probably more the instruction of the record company’s producer than her own free choice).

The Carter Family sound was something totally new. Vocals in the early folk and hillbilly music were usually of secondary importance to the instrumental work, whereas the trio, with their simple harmonies, used their instruments to provide a musical accompaniment that never took precedent over their vocal work. In July 1927, their local newspaper reported that Ralph Peer of Victor Records was to audition local artists in Bristol, Tennessee. In spite of the fact that Sara had three children (the youngest only seven months old) and that Maybelle was seven months pregnant with her first, they travelled the 25 miles to Bristol, where on 1 August, they made their first recordings. They recorded six tracks. Peer was impressed and the records proved sufficient sellers for Victor to secure them a recording contract. Between 1928 and 1935, they recorded many tracks for Victor, including the original versions of many of their classics such as ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, ‘Wildwood Flower’, ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, ‘Homestead On The Farm’ (aka ‘I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home’), ‘Jimmie Brown The Newsboy’ and ‘Wabash Cannonball’.

By the end of the 20s, the Carter Family was a very well-known act. In 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky, they met and recorded with Jimmie Rodgers. It was at this session that Rodgers made his only valid duet recordings with a female vocalist when he recorded ‘Why There’s A Tear In My Eye’ and ‘The Wonderful City’ with Sara Carter (the latter song also being the only sacred number that Rodgers ever recorded). Combined recordings made at this time between the two acts comprised ‘Jimmie Rodgers Visits The Carter Family’ and ‘The Carter Family And Jimmie Rodgers In Texas’. The former consisted of duets by Sara and Maybelle on ‘My Clinch Mountain Home’ and ‘Little Darling Pal Of Mine’, with Jimmie Rodgers and A.P both joining on a quartet version of ‘Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight’. The latter featured Jimmie Rodgers with a solo version of ‘Yodelling Cowboy’ and Sara joining in with the vocal and yodel on ‘T For Texas’. Both also included some talking by the two acts. The Carter Family managed to record, even though the families at times had moved apart. In 1929, A.P. relocated to Detroit to find work and at one time, Maybelle moved to Washington, DC.

In 1932, Sara and A.P separated; they divorced a few years later, but the trio continued to record and perform together (later, in 1939, Sara married A.P’s cousin, Coy Bayes). In 1935 they left Victor and moved to ARC, where they re-recorded some of their popular earlier songs, though often using different arrangements, as well as recording new numbers. They signed to Decca Records in 1936 and later recorded for Columbia Records (formerly ARC). Their previous reluctance to perform outside of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina ended in 1938, when they accepted the opportunity to work on the powerful Border Radio stations XERA, XEG and XENT on the Mexican/Texas border at Del Rio and San Antonio. Here the Carter’s children began to make appearances with the family; first, Sara’s daughter Janette and Maybelle’s daughter Anita Carter, followed soon afterwards by her sisters Helen Carter and June Carter Cash (b. Valerie June Carter, 23 June 1929, Maces Springs, Scott County, Virginia, USA, d. 15 May 2003, Nashville, Tennessee, USA).

Apart from their normal studio recordings, they recorded radio transcription discs at this time, which were used on various stations and helped to increase their popularity. They remained in Texas until 1941, when they relocated to WBT Charlotte, North Carolina. In 14 October 1941, after rejoining Victor, the trio made their final recordings together; in 1943, while still at WBT, Sara decided to retire and the original Carter Family broke up. During their career, they recorded almost three hundred songs, never once varying from their traditional sound. A.P. claimed to have written many of them and the arguments still persist as to just how many were his own compositions and how many were traditional numbers that he had learned as a boy or found on his many song-searching trips. Sara Carter was undeniably a vocalist of great talent and could easily have become a successful solo artist. Maybelle Carter, apart from her instrumental abilities, was also a fine vocalist. A.P, who possessed a deep bass voice, was a very nervous man who suffered with palsy for many years. Some people believe this accounted for the tremolo on his voice at times and for the fact that he was often either late with his vocal, or failed to sing at all.

The influence of the Carter Family can be seen in the work of a great many artists and their songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Louvin Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Mac Wiseman, Flatt And Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Stonewall Jackson. They recorded the ‘Wabash Cannonball’ seven years before Roy Acuff first sang it; this and many other Carter songs have become standards and have been recorded by many artists. Many of their numbers were beautifully descriptive of their native state, such as ‘Mid The Green Fields Of Virginia’, ‘My Clinch Mountain Home’ and ‘My Little Home In Tennessee’. Several of Woody Guthrie’s best-known songs used Carter Family tunes including ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (‘When The World’s On Fire’) and ‘Reuben James’ (‘Wildwood Flower’). He also regularly performed ‘It Takes A Worried Man’, which the Carters sang as ‘Worried Man Blues’. Other folk artists influenced by their music include Joan Baez, who recorded many of their songs such as ‘Little Darling Pal Of Mine’ and ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. After the break-up of the original trio, Maybelle and her three daughters began to perform on theOld Dominion Barn Dance on WRVA Richmond. They appeared as Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters and were a popular act between 1943 and 1948.

After spells at WNOX Knoxville and KWTO Springfield, they moved to WSM Nashville and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1950, taking with them a young guitarist called Chet Atkins. During the 50s, Helen and Anita left to marry and pursue their own careers and June became a solo act. Maybelle remained a featured star of the Grand Ole Opry until 1967, when she was rejoined by Helen and Anita. In 1961, Maybelle even recorded an album of Carter Family songs with Flatt And Scruggs and in 1963, she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. After June married singer Johnny Cash in 1968, Maybelle, Helen and Anita became regular members of theJohnny Cash Show. They had begun to make appearances with Cash the previous year. A.P retired to Maces Springs, where he opened a country store and lived with his daughter Gladys. Sara and her husband moved to Angel’s Camp, California, where she withdrew from active participation in the music scene.

In 1952, seemingly at the request of her ex-husband, she was persuaded to record once more. Between 1952 and 1956, the A.P. Carter Family, comprising Sara, A.P. and their son and daughter Joe Carter (b. 27 February 1927, Maces Springs, Virginia, USA, d. 2 March 2005, USA) and Janette Carter (b. 2 July 1923, Maces Springs, Virginia, USA, d. 22 January 2006, Kingsport, Tennessee, USA), recorded almost 100 tracks for Acme Records. These included a 1956 recording made with Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, which consisted of talk and a version of ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Although these recordings never matched the work of the original trio, they did maintain traditional standards, whereas Maybelle and her daughters moved to a more modern country sound. In 1953, A.P. opened his ‘Summer Park’ in his beloved Clinch Mountains, near the home of Joe and Janette, and held concerts that featured such artists as the Stanley Brothers. A.P. Carter died at his home in Maces Springs on 7 November 1960. After A.P’s death record companies began to release their material on album for the first time. In 1967 Sara was persuaded to appear with Maybelle at the Newport Folk Festival; the same year she and Maybelle, with Joe Carter taking his late father’s bass part, recorded their classicAn Historic Reunion album, which included their rather nostalgic ‘Happiest Days Of All’. It was recorded in Nashville. The trio surprised the recording engineers by recording 12 tracks in just over four hours - an unusual event. It was the first time the two had recorded together for 25 years (in 1991, Bear Family Records reissued these recordings, plus a version of ‘No More Goodbyes’ that had not been released by Columbia Records, on a compact disc; it also contained a reissue of Mother Maybelle’s 1966 album A Living Legend, and a further previously unissued recording of her instrumental ‘Mama’s Irish Jig’).

In 1970, Sara and Maybelle were both present when the Original Carter Family became the first group ever to be elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum. Their plaque stated that the Carter Family are ‘regarded by many as the epitome of country greatness and originators of a much copied style’. Maybelle Carter, a most respected member of the country music world, continued to perform until her death in Nashville on 23 October 1978. Sara Carter died in Lodi, California, after a long illness, on 8 January 1979. June Carter died in May 2003 just a few months before her husband Johnny Cash died. The Carter Family inspired other groups to reproduce their sound, notably the Phipps Family of Kentucky, who among their many albums recorded tributes to the Carters such asEchoes Of The Carter Family andMost Requested Sacred Songs Of The Carter Family. Further afield, the Canadian Romaniuk Family also showed their ability to recapture the Carter Family sound with albums such asCountry Carter Style.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.