The Carter Family

Carter Family Biography

The Carter Family was a country music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. 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. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. Their recordings of such songs as "Wabash Cannonball," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep On the Sunny Side" made them country standards. The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter (1891-1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898-1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909-1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter and was also Sara's first cousin. 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.

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The Carter Family made their first recordings on August 2, 1927. A.P. had convinced Sara and Maybelle the day before to make the journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer, who was seeking new talents 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: "Meet me by the Moonlight Alone"; "Keep on the Sunny Side"; "Can the Circle be Unbroken"; "Little Darling, Pal of Mine"; "Forsaken Love"; "Anchored in Love"; "I Ain't Goin' to Work Tomorrow"; "Will You Miss Me when I'm Gone"; "Wildwood Flower"; "River of Jordan"; "Chewing Gum"; and "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man".

The group did not receive any money for this effort and left with a contract that assured a small royalty for sales of their records and sheet music. "Wildwood Flower" in both vocal and instrumental forms has endured as a signature tune for traditional country and bluegrass artists. During a February 1929 session they recorded: "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes"; "My Clinch Mountain Home"; "Sweet Fern"; "Grave on the Green Hillside"; "Little Moses"; "Don't Forget This Song"; and "Engine 143". By the end of 1930 they had sold 300,000 records in the USA. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new songs. In the early 1930s, he befriended Lesley "Esley" Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee. Esley accompanied A.P. on his song-collecting trips. In June 1931, the Carters did a recording session in Nashville, Tennessee along with country legend Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met the Cook Family Singers at the World's Fair in Chicago and fell in love with their signature sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.

In the winter of 1938-39, the Carter Family traveled 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 1939-40 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 prerecorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. In the fall of 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. By 1936, A.P. and Sara's marriage had dissolved. Sara married A.P.'s cousin, moved to California, and the group disbanded. Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters, Anita, June, and Helen, as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters" into the 1970s. A.P., Sara, and their children Joe and Janette recorded some material in the 1950s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited, recorded a reunion album, and toured in the 1960s during the height of folk music's popularity. In 1987, reunited sisters June Carter Cash and Helen and Anita Carter, along with June's daughter Carlene Carter, appeared as the Carter Family and were featured on a 1987 television episode of Austin City Limits along with Johnny Cash. 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 named 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 one of his most famous songs, "The Times They Are a-Changin'". This became the second time an American folk singer used a Carter Family melody to create his best-known song (Woody Guthrie did it by turning "When This World's on Fire" into "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 scratch" or "Carter style" of picking (see Carter Family picking). While Maybelle did use a flatpick on occasion, her major method of guitar playing was the use of her thumb (with a thumbpick) along with one or two fingers. What her guitar style accomplished was to allow her to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings. Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument among white musicians. 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. It has been noted by that 'by the end of the twenties, Maybelle Carter scratch ... was the most widely imitated guitar style in music. Nobody did as much to popularize the guitar, because from the beginning, her playing was distinctive as any voice.'" —quoted in The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005) The Carters were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and 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 "Will 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 inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 2005, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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