Personalities | Maybelle Carter | The Carter Scratch | Guitar Heroes

As a member of the first family of country music, Maybelle Carter (1909–78) distinguished herself far beyond her role as accompanist to her brother-in-law A.P. Carter and his wife Sara (Maybelle’s cousin) in the Carter Family, the first recording stars of country music.

Maybelle was born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, Virginia. In 1926 she married Ezra J. Carter. The Carter Family was formed in 1927 by her brother-in-law A.P. and his wife Sara. Maybelle was the guitarist and doubled on autoharp and banjo. Maybelle’s unique style involved using her thumb (with thumb-pick) to play bass and melody while her index finger filled out the rhythm on the higher strings. The technique, now known as the ‘Carter scratch’, is identifiable on any of the Carters’ recordings of the nineteenth-century folk classic ‘Wildwood Flower’.

In 1927, A.P. convinced Sara and a pregnant Maybelle to travel from Virginia to Tennessee, where they would audition for Ralph Peer, a record producer who was looking for new talent. In fall of that year, the Victor recording company released a 78-RPM record of the group performing ‘Wandering Boy’ and ‘Poor Orphan Child’. But it was 1928’s release of ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ and ‘Single Girl, Married Girl’ that boosted the family’s popularity.

The Carter Family performed together on radio shows and records until the breakup of A.P. and Sara’s marriage in 1942. Many of the Carters’ recordings, such as ‘Can The Circle Be Unbroken’, ‘Cannonball Blues’ and ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, became country music standards. After the breakup, Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita, June and Helen as Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. Daughter June would eventually marry country legend Johnny Cash, and Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters would be regulars on Cash’s Seventies television show.

The Carter Family was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1970. In 1988, they were inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. In 1993, they were honoured on a US postage stamp. In 2001 Maybelle was initiated into the International Bluegrass Music Hall Of Honor. Mother Maybelle died in October 1978, in Nashville.

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