Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Vocal and instrumental trio of enormous influence on American music: A. P. Carter (b Alvin Pleasant Carter, 15 December 1891, Mace Springs VA; d there 7 November 1960), aka 'Doc', sang bass lines, played some fiddle, collected songs; wife Sara (b Sara Dougherty, 21 July 1899, Wise Co. VA; married A. P. 18 June 1915; d 8 January 1979, Lodi CA), sang lead, played guitar, autoharp; Maybelle (b Maybelle Addington, 10 May 1909, Copper Creek VA; d 23 October 1978, Nashville; Sara's cousin, married A. P.'s brother Ezra), sang harmony, played guitar, autoharp. Sara and A. P. had 16 brothers and sisters between them; A. P. worked for a nursery and met her when he sold her some fruit trees.

The trio drove to Bristol TN with Ezra and made their first records for Ralph Peer in August 1927, the same day as Jimmie Rodgers, with ultimate influence equal and opposite to his: while he established blues and vaudeville elements of country music, theirs was the folk component. They emphasized songs (other period groups were instrumentalists whose singing was often incidental). Sara's mastery of the autoharp was a mainstay of the traditional sound; Maybelle played melody on the bass strings of the guitar, rhythm on treble: the influential 'Carter style'. A. P. had an improvisatory method of coming in with bass harmony when he felt like it; ballads that A. P. collected or wrote (at any rate, copyrighted) were often of ancient lineage, still being sung many years later by the Weavers ('I Never Will Marry'), Joan Baez ('Wildwood Flower', 'Little Moses'), Flatt and Scruggs ('Jimmy Brown The Newsboy'), Emmylou Harris ('Hello Stranger'), Roy Acuff ('Wabash Cannon Ball'), many others. 'I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes' has countless recordings, the tune also adapted by Acuff for 'Great Speckled Bird'. They made more than 100 sides for Victor 1927-35 including many country classics: 'My Clinch Mountain Home', 'Foggy Mountain Top', 'Church In The Wildwood', 'Worried Man Blues', 'Diamonds In The Rough', 'Lonesome Valley', 'Keep On The Sunny Side' (the pop tune from 1906 became their theme), gospel hymn 'Anchored In Love', 'Little Darling Pal Of Mine' (later a bluegrass standard). They learned 'Wildwood Flower' orally in the mountains, but there was a published version 1860; it may have sold a million, phenomenal for the time: they were paid $75 to record it. They recorded with Rodgers in 1932; A. P. and Sara separated '33 but recorded together until '43. The original group recorded for Decca, OKeh and ARC '35-40, broadcasting from '38 on powerful Mexican border radio; already famous, they reached a wider public than ever. A final Victor session in '41 raised the trio's total to over 250 sides.
A.P. and Sara's children began singing; Maybelle's daughter Anita was a pro at age four in 1940, soon joined by sisters Helen and June; the original group split '43. Pa retired; Sara had remarried; Maybelle and her daughters formed an act, broadcast in several states and recorded for Decca and Columbia: 'Are You Afraid To Remember Me', 'Gold Watch And Chain'. Their hymns influenced gospel music: 'Gethsemane', 'Blood That Stained The Old Rugged Cross'. They joined Grand Ole Opry '50, Maybelle a regular there until '67 after the daughters were on their own. The Opry performances included songs Maybelle wrote or co-wrote: 'A Jilted Love', 'Don't Wait', 'Walk A Little Bit Closer', 'I've Got A Home In Glory'. Anita (d 29 July 1999) had five country hit singles '67-71. Maybelle and Ezra had faith in Johnny Cash, helped him through troubled times; June married him. Anita, Helen and Maybelle often appeared with June and Johnny on their TV shows late '60s, early '70s. Maybelle appeared at the Newport Folk Festival '67 and on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The Carter Family were the first group elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame '70. Maybelle gave Chet Atkins one of his first jobs, influenced Floyd Cramer's piano style, etc; she taught her grandaughter Carlene Carter to play guitar; she was deeply loved for her modesty and generosity of spirit.

Japanese RCA once issued complete The Original Carter Family 1927-34, 1941 in a ten-LP set. The Complete Victor Recordings are being issued on Rounder; the first four CDs brought the series up to '30: Anchored In Love, My Clinch Mountain Home, When The Roses Bloom In Dixieland, Worried Man Blues. A complete Carter box is also available on Bear Family. Mexican transcriptions were compiled by the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, UCLA, based on a legacy from an Australian country music fan who bequeathed a large collection of material to the U. of California; Vol. 1 appeared on an Arhoolie CD (On Border Radio 1939, from XET, Monterey); there have also been compilations on Columbia and MCA.

June Carter Cash was first married to country singer Carl Smith. She recorded 'Baby It's Cold Outside' with Homer & Jethro '49; later she performed and sang with second husband Johnny and appeared in several films. Her album Press On ’99 won a Grammy: very informal and light on production, it was almost like sitting on her front porch, and included an astonishingly beautiful version of 'Ring Of Fire', which she had co-written with Merle Kilgore years before she met Johnny, but which became a story about their mutual attraction when they first met. He gave her credit for saving his life and sticking by him when he was addicted to pills. She died on 15 May 2003 aged 73, following heart surgery. See also Johnny Cash's entry.

In later life A.P. had a grocery store in Maces Springs VA, about 20 miles from Bristol; daughter Janette started concerts in the abandoned store '74, then her brother Joe built an 800-seat concert hall where the Carter Family Fold was still being held 30 years later: no electric instruments allowed. Joe Carter d 2 March 2005, aged 78; he attended Peer's recording sessions in 1927 at the age of five months, and played guitar and sang bass with later editions of the family. In 2005 Janette attended the Grammy awards ceremony to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award for the Carter Family, and in September she was given the Bess Lomax Hawes Award by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognizing her lifelong effort to preserve Appalachian music. She d 22 January 2006 aged 85, the last link with the original Carter Family. The music will certainly live a long time to come.