Personalities | The Carter Family | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country

The Carters (A. P. 1891–1960, Sara 1899–1979 and Maybelle 1909–78) are the most extensive clan in country music, encompassing three generations of performers and connections by marriage to other artists. This is fitting, for their musical influence is pervasive, too.

Near the dawn of country music as a commercial entity, they were its first successful family group, expressing domestic and Christian values in the face of the seamy, bluesy music purveyed by Jimmie Rodgers. Yet, in the guise of a group dedicated to the ethos of the Victorian parlour song and the mountain ballad, they initiated the process of creative recomposition – rewriting songs in the public domain in order to turn them into profitable copyrights.

A Family Business

The Carter Family took shape in the early 1920s, when Alvin Pleasant Carter and his wife Sara Dougherty Carter began singing at local gatherings around their home in Maces Springs, in south-west Virginia. In 1926, A. P.’s brother Ezra’s wife, Maybelle Addington Carter, joined them, adding her guitar to Sara’s autoharp as the trio’s musical accompaniment. The following year they made their first records, for Victor. Ralph Peer, who supervised the session, said that when he first heard Sara’s deep, sober voice, ‘That was it. I knew that was going to be wonderful.’ But while it was the singing that initially sold The Carter Family’s records, the music behind it would in the long term be no less important. Maybelle’s melody-picking on the lower strings, featured in songs like ‘Wildwood Flower’, would inspire a generation of country guitarists.

Under Peer’s careful direction The Carter Family made scores of records, their settings varying from solo vocal to duet to trio, and from autoharp and guitar to two guitars. A. P. was the rogue element: sometimes he chimed in with a low harmony line, sometimes not, as he felt moved. To fill their recording schedule he sought material from amateur singers, content even with fragments if he could build and shape them into a three-minute work. In effect he was a collector, though his goal was not folkloric documentation but practical use.

Break For The Border

A. P. and Sara’s marriage broke up in 1932, but they continued to work together. In 1938 the clan moved to Texas to be close to the border radio stations, which, by transmitting from Mexico, evaded US broadcasting regulations and beamed a powerful signal across the entire nation. Sponsored by the manufacturers of hair products and tonic medicines, their programmes attracted enormous audiences and fan mail. By then, a second generation of Carters had joined the original trio: Sara’s daughter Janette (1923–2006) and Maybelle’s daughters Helen (1927–98), June (1929–2003) and Anita (1933–99).

The Texas adventure ended in 1941, as did the recording log of the original Carter Family. A. P. and Sara reunited in the 1950s to record for the small Acme label, but Sara was disinclined to stay in music and moved to California. Meanwhile Maybelle and her daughters worked on various...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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