Best Known For
A.P. Carter is best known for forming the Carter Family band, which combined traditional Appalachian sounds with a unique guitar style and African American gospel influences.
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Maybelle had a unique guitar style, known as the "Carter Scratch," in which she played the bass line with her thumb while her fingers strummed the melody. This gave The Carter Family their unique sound and influenced the direction of country and folk music for decades to come.
In May 1928, The Carter Family traveled to Camden, New Jersey, for their second studio recording session; it was here that they recorded "Wildwood Flower." One of their most popular and enduring songs,
"Wildwood Flower" sold over 120,000 copies upon its release in 1929, more than 10 times the usual sales for a popular record at that time.
The development of more powerful radio stations during the 1930s facilitated The Carter Family's exploding popularity. As the writer Mary Bufwack later wrote, "I think the real turning point in the Carter Family comes with the move to border radio. It was a wonderful opportunity for them because it was money coming in constantly, but it also really exposed them to a tremendous audience." Over the next 14 years, The Carter Family would go on to record hundreds of songs adapted from the oral traditions of the mountain people of Appalachia. Some of their most famous songs include "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Keep on the Sunny Side," and "Wabash Cannonball."
However, by the mid-1930s, Carter's lengthy voyages to discover new songs had come to take a significant toll on his marriage to Sara. He disappeared for months at a time and frequently left his wife with too little money to manage the family's affairs while he was away. When he was home, Carter was apparently of little use tending to the house or the land. "She'd be cutting down wood, pulling mining timbers out of the mountains—and Daddy out somewhere trying to learn a song," their son Joe later remembered. "He never stopped to think what effect it might have on his family." During these prolonged absences, Sara fell in love with Carter's cousin Coy Bayes, whom Carter had asked to help look after Sara while he was away.
Although Bayes eventually moved away to California, the damage to the Carters' marriage was irreparable, and they divorced in 1936. Despite their divorce, The Carter Family trio continued to record new music and perform together for another seven years, moving to Del Rio, Texas, and then to Charlotte, North Carolina, in pursuit of regular radio gigs. During a brief reunion in Texas in 1939, Sara and Coy Bayes had married, and in 1943, when The Carter Family's North Carolina gig came to an end, she and Bayes left the band to move back to California together, marking the end of the original trio.
While Maybelle and her daughters would carry on The Carter Family's musical tradition, A.P. Carter retired from music when Sara left the band in 1943. He returned to Poor Valley, where he ran a general store and lived off his music royalties for the rest of his days. He passed away on November 7, 1960, at the age of 68.
Traveling around the small mountain communities of Appalachia, listening to the songs ordinary people sang out in the fields, on their porches and in their churches, A.P. Carter is perhaps the single person most responsible for transforming an oral tradition of Appalachian folk music into modern popular country music. Maybelle Carter's daughter, June Carter Cash, herself a country music legend, summarized the influence of the original Carter Family on the genre: "They had so many tunes that formed a basis for Country Western music as we know it today. And when people didn't know what kind of melody to use, they just went back and grabbed that old Carter Family melody and hung on to that."
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