- A. P. Carter
- Sara Dougherty Carter
- Maybelle Addington Carter
The First Family of Country Music
Considered “The First Family of Country Music,” the Carter Family essentially invented the kind of harmony singing used for years in the music, and popularized numerous songs that became country standards. The act served as a platform for two of the most creative and talented women in the music, Sara and her cousin Maybelle. Maybelle crafted the so-called “Carter lick” on the guitar and watched it become one of the genre’s best-known picking styles. In A. P., the Carters had one of the greatest song collectors and arrangers in country music history, and they produced an amazing number of hits during their major recording career, from 1927 to 1941. During their career, the group explored a wide variety of song genres, from blues to gospel songs and from British folk ballads to nineteenth-century parlor songs.
Despite these achievements, however, the Carters never enjoyed the kind of spectacular financial success that Jimmie Rodgers or Gene Autry did. They never really “crossed over” to the vast mainstream audiences of network radio, Hollywood films, and big-time vaudeville. Time and again, they kept returning to their beloved Clinch Valley, Virginia, disgusted or puzzled by the show business world.
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Early Lives and Formation of the Trio
Alvin Pleasant Delaney “A. P. Carter grew up in Scott County, Virginia, just a few miles from the Virginia–Tennessee border. His family farmed. His father was a well-respected banjo player and his mother sang old folk ballads; an uncle, Flanders Bays, who taught singing schools for local churches, showed A. P. how to read the old shape note songbooks (many of which provided gospel songs for the Carter repertoire). By 1915, after traveling around the country, A. P. returned home to start selling fruit trees; at about this time, he met Sara Dougherty. According to family legend, at the time she was sitting under a tree, playing her autoharp, and singing “Engine 143.” After a courtship, the pair were married on June 18, 1915.
For the next several years, the young couple entertained informally in the neighborhood, often at churches; unlike many of the older mountain singers, who often sang unaccompanied, the Carters backed their singing with their guitar and autoharp; occasionally A. P. even played the fiddle. In early 1927 the pair auditioned for the Brunswick Record Company in nearby Norton; the company wanted to develop A. P. as a fiddler, but he felt his real talent was in singing, and so he passed on the offer.
Also in 1927, Sara and A. P. were joined by Sara’s younger cousin, Maybelle Addington, who was married to A. P.’s brother Ezra. At age twelve, Maybelle had begun playing the guitar, then a relatively new instrument in the mountains. She developed a style of picking the melody on the bass strings while the fingers kept rhythm by down-stroking the higher ones—the “thumb-brush” technique. Later, influenced by the guitar playing of Lesley Riddle, a local African American musician who also helped A. P. gather song material, Maybelle refined her now-famous guitar style further. Always trying to learn new techniques and licks, she absorbed influences from other guitarists as well. Soon after her March 1926 marriage, Maybelle joined her brother-in-law A. P. and Sara as a guitarist and parttime singer. In late July 1927, the trio traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, to make their first records for Victor producer Ralph Peer.
Commercial Success on Records and Radio
On August 1 and 2, 1927, the Carter Family recorded a total of six selections, including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “The Wandering Boy,” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” Over the next eight years, the trio recorded more than three hundred songs for RCA Victor and subsequent firms such as the American Record Corporation and Decca. Among them were best-sellers such as “Keep on the Sunny Side” (1928, their theme song), “Wildwood Flower” (1928), “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” (1928), “I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes” (1929), “Wabash Cannonball” (1929), “Anchored in Love” (1928), and “Worried Man Blues” (1930). On many of the trio’s recordings, Sara and Maybelle shouldered most of the singing and playing, with A. P. only occasionally joining in the harmonies. A. P. assumed most of the responsibility for finding and arranging songs and booking performances.
During the height of their popularity, the Carters were often separated for various reasons. In 1931, Maybelle and her husband lived as far away as Washington, D.C., where Ezra’s job took him; for a time, A. P. resided in Detroit, where he was working in auto factories. In early 1932, Sara left A. P., returning for only major engagements and recording sessions. In 1939, Sara remarried, to one of A. P.’s cousins.
By the mid-1930s, the Carters had landed decent radio contracts, and by the latter part of the decade, they had found a lucrative job on border station XERA in Del Rio, Texas; this station, which transmitted from across the border in Mexico, broadcast a signal that was ten times more powerful than U.S. stations were allowed to use and, in effect, blanketed much of the United States with its programs. XERA helped spread the Carter Family sound farther than any previous station on which the group had broadcast. By now, the group’s members were incorporating their children into the act: Sara’s daughter Jeanette and Maybelle’s girls Helen, June, and Anita. When World War II broke out, the family was working on radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Carter Family included two of the most creative and talented women in country music, Sara and her cousin Maybelle, who crafted one of the genre’s best-known guitar styles. Sara’s husband, A. P., in turn, was one of the greatest song collectors and arrangers in the music’s history.
In 1943, the group broke up for good, even though A. P., Sara, and Maybelle were still at the peak of their performing careers. A. P. returned to Maces Spring to open a country store, and Sara moved to California with her husband. Maybelle meanwhile started her own career performing with her daughters. They eventually settled in Nashville.
In 1952, A. P. and Sara briefly reunited professionally and, over the next few years, made a series of record for the independent label Acme. In 1967, Sara and Maybelle got together for a reunion LP on Columbia. –Charles Wolfe
–Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.