Maybelle and Sara Carter (The Carter Family)
Just over eighty years ago, a family act from Appalachia traveled to Bristol, Tennessee. Behind the wheel was A.P. Carter, and on board were two mountain women he believed were destined for stardom: his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter, and his wife, young Sara Carter, who was eight months pregnant as they made the trip.
The previous day, A.P. had arrived home and declared, “We’re going to Bristol tomorrow to make a record!” The Carter Family had been performing in churches, living rooms and anywhere else they could get an audience in their Appalachian world, and when A.P. heard that a Victor Records employee was seeking rural talent to record in Bristol, he saw their golden opportunity to make it big.
When they got to the recording studio, which was really just a converted warehouse, they took part in a twelve-day recording session with two dozen other artists, ranging in genre from blues to gospel to folk. But among all the other raw talent, the startling vocals of Maybelle and Sara shone through.
They weren’t the first country women to put their voices on record, but for all intents and purposes, the story of women in country music traces its roots back to Maybelle and Sara Carter, members of what is now referred to as The Original Carter Family. Their seminal records took country music to the masses for the first time, as they emerged from their humble Appalachian roots to become the first female country stars to make an impact.
Maybelle was a direct descendant of William Addington, a soldier in the Revolutionary War who settled his family down in the Clinch Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Maybelle was one of ten children, and she grew up surrounded by music. She played the banjo when she was a young child, but switched to the guitar as a teenager.
There weren’t many guitar players from which to learn, so she developed her own style of guitar picking, one that would permanently change the way the instrument was played. Maybelle would play the melody on the low strings of the guitar, while brushing across the higher strings to create the rhythm. This style would come to be known as “Carter style” or “Carter picking.”
On weekends, her family would gather with the neighbors for song swapping, sharing stories and songs passed down through the generations. Maybelle soon joined A.P. and Sara in local performances, and at one of the shows, she fell in love with A.P.’s brother, Ezra. After four months, they eloped, and Maybelle became a Carter, leading to the act dubbing themselves The Carter Family.
A.P. saw the act as a way out of the rural poverty which gripped everyone in the region. An audition for Brunswick Records was unsuccessful, so the Bristol Recording sessions seemed like their next shot at glory. In addition to the haunting harmonies that the ladies put on record, Maybelle’s unique, driving guitar-picking style gave their recordings on that hot summer day a distinct character. Still, they didn’t think they’d changed their lives much as they headed back home, until they returned to Bristol in November and saw crowds of people surrounding a record player that was spinning their tunes.
Along with Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family had created the first country records to achieve national popularity. Maybelle’s revolutionary guitar style moved the instrument from its traditional background role and made it the dominant instrument, a shift that changed the entire sound of popular music. While A.P. provided bass harmonies, much of the Carter Family’s sound was that of Maybelle and Sara harmonizing, and they became the first popular female country singers in history.
Soon, the Carters were raking in royalty checks, with their biggest hit from those first sessions being “Single Girl, Married Girl.” Their popularity having spread nationwide thanks to their successful Victor recordings, the Carter Family toured the country, finding audiences everywhere from Chicago to New Jersey. Even when the Depression crippled most of the music industry, the Carters maintained their popularity, selling records despite the surrounding economic hardship. Such was their professionalism that they were able to record most of their classic performances in just one take, and over the course of fifteen years, they put more than 250 songs on record, and they sold hundreds of thousands of records during their initial run with the original lineup.
As A.P. continued to push the women into touring more than they wanted to, Sara’s resentment built up, especially because A.P. would leave her at home to do all of the manual labor while he searched for songs across the mountains. Going against all conventions of the time, Sara separated from and eventually divorced A.P., though they kept this secret from the public to preserve The Carter Family image.
The original group continued to perform together until the early forties, hosting a successful radio show in Texas. During the 1938-1939 season of the show, Maybelle’s daughter June joined the group. After Sara married A.P.’s cousin and moved to California in 1943, the original group disbanded, but the Carter Family legacy would continue, with Maybelle performing with daughters June, Helen and Anita. Maybelle came to be known as Mother Maybelle Carter, and she carried on the Carter tradition with her daughters for the next two decades.
Now dubbed Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, the act’s popularity remained throughout the forties and fifties, as they were showcased at the Old Dominion Barn Dance, Tennesee Barn Dance and The Ozark Jubilee, before permanently joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1950. While they were overlooked by the industry executives at this time, seen as an oldies act that no longer had any relevance, historians soon begged to differ, especially as the Folk Revival got underway in the 1960’s.
The folk revival renewed interest in the history of the Carter Family, and led to reissues of their classic recordings, introducing them to a new generation of fans. Mother Maybelle appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and teamed up with long-retired Sara for their landmark 1967 album An Historic Reunion. Mother Maybelle also released solo albums during the sixties and seventies, and she again revolutionized a musical instrument while touring, bringing the autoharp to the forefront in ways that had never been imagined before.
While the Original Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters toured the country with the Johnny Cash Show an appeared on his network television show as well. In 1976, both Maybelle and Sara made their final concert appearance together at the Carter Family Reunion show. Maybelle fell ill soon after, and she passed away in October 1978, with Sara passing on the following spring.
Maybelle and Sara Carter (The Carter Family)
- “Single Girl, Married Girl,” 1927
- “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” 1927
- “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” 1928
- “Keep on the Sunny Side,” 1928
- “Wildwood Flower,” 1928
- “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” 1928
- “Motherless Children,” 1929
- “No Depression in Heaven,” 1936
- “Coal Miner’s Blues,” 1938
- Mother Maybelle Carter, 1957
- Queen of the Auto-Harp, 1964
- An Historic Reunion, 1966
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1970
- Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005