The Carter Family Biography
The Carter Family was a country music group that performed and recorded between 1927 and 1943. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, southern gospel, pop and rock musicians, as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s.
The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter (A.P.; 1891-1960), his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter (autoharp and guitar; 1898-1979), and Maybelle Addington Carter (guitar; 1909-1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. Maybelle's distinctive and innovative guitar playing style became a hallmark of the group.
The Carters got their start on July 31, 1927 when A.P. convinced Sara and Maybelle (pregnant at the time) to make the journey from Maces Springs, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee to audition for record producer Ralph Peer who was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. They received $50 for each song they recorded.
In the Fall of 1927 the Victor recording company released a double-sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child". In 1928 another record was released with "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and "Single Girl, Married Girl". This record became very popular.
On May 27, 1928, Peer had the group travel to Camden, New Jersey where they recorded many of what would become their signature songs, including:
In the winter of 1938-1939, the Carter Family travelled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña (now Ciudad Acuña), Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. In the 1939/1940 season, June Carter (middle daughter of Ezra Carter and Maybelle Carter) joined the group, which was now in San Antonio, Texas, where the programs were pre-recorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. In Fall 1942, the Carters moved their program to WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina for a one-year contract. They occupied the sunrise slot with the program airing between 5:15 and 6:15 a.m.
In 1943 the group disbanded after Sara moved permanently to California.
Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita, June, and Helen as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters" into the 1960s. A.P., Sara, and their children — Joe and Janette — recorded some material in the 1950s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited and toured in the 1960s, during the height of folk music's popularity.
Revivalist folksingers, during the 1960s, performed much of the material the Carters had collected or written. For example, on her early Vanguard albums, folk performer Joan Baez sang: "Wildwood Flower", "Little Moses", "Engine 143", "Little Darling, Pal of Mine", and "Gospel Ship". It is also interesting to note that the Carter Family Song "Wayworn Traveller" was covered by a young Bob Dylan, who wrote his own words to the melody and naming it "Paths Of Victory". This recording is featured on "Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3". After writing that song, he wrote new words to the melody, and changed the time signature to 3/4, thus creating possibly his most famous song "The Times They Are a-Changin'". This became the second time an American folk singer used a Carter Family melody to create their most well known song, Woody Guthrie did it by turning "When This World's on Fire" to "This Land Is Your Land".
As important to country music as the family's repertoire of songs was Maybelle's guitar playing. She developed her innovative guitar technique largely in isolation; her style is today widely known as the "Carter style" of flatpicking. Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument. Maybelle's interweaving of a melodic line on the bass strings with intermittent strums is now a staple of steel string guitar technique. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Clarence White and Norman Blake took flatpicking to a higher technical level, but all acknowledge Maybelle's playing as their inspiration.
The Carters were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and they were given the nickname "The First Family of Country Music." In 1988, the Carter Family was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received its Award for the song "Can the Circle Be Unbroken". In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. In 2001, the group was in inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.