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Singer and guitarist Mother Maybelle Carter began performing with The Carter Family in the 1920s and influenced country and folk music for decades to come.
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Born in the Virginia mountains in 1909, "Mother" Maybelle Carter began performing with relatives at 16 under the group name The Carter Family. The group recorded hundreds of songs, including "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep on the Sunny Side." Their musi influenced the direction of country and folk music for decades to come.
Guitarist and singer Mother Maybelle Carter was born as Maybelle Addington in the small, dusty town of Midway in the mountains of western Virginia, in the heart of a region known colloquially as "Poor Valley." She was the sixth of 10 children born to Margaret Elizabeth Kilgore and Hugh Jack Addington, a farmer and businessman who owned a local general store and a lumber mill.
The entire family was very musical; as a young girl, Maybelle sang and learned to play the banjo and the autoharp, displaying great musical promise. At the age of 13, she took up the guitar. Her mother knew a virtual encyclopedia of folk songs, passed down orally through generations of Poor Valley residents, and taught them to her children to perform at the many parties and dances the family hosted.
In 1915, when Maybelle was 6 years old, her cousin Sara Dougherty married a local musician named A.P. Carter, and the couple performed frequently at nearby church functions as well as traveling to "singing conventions" throughout Appalachia. In 1925, at the age of 15, Maybelle dropped out of Midway High School to begin accompanying A.P. and Sara in their performances, playing guitar and adding her voice to three-part harmonies.
In December 1925, while playing with the Carters at a schoolhouse performance in Maces Springs, Virginia, she was introduced to A.P.'s handsome brother Ezra. The pair instantly fell in love, and after a brief courtship they married in March 1926, when Maybelle was still only 16 years old. The marriage of Maybelle and Ezra cemented the kinship ties of the musical trio; A.P., Sara and Maybelle began to perform under the moniker The Carter Family.
For another year, The Carter Family's musical career remained limited to local gigs as the band performed primarily at schoolhouses and small social gatherings. The Carters' big break came in July 1927, when they received word that Ralph Peer, a musical talent scout working for the phonograph manufacturer Victor, was holding an open audition and recording session in Bristol, Tennessee. Although she was 18 years old and seven months pregnant at the time, Maybelle agreed to make the 18-hour car trip to the audition, traveling across rough dirt roads in the oppressive summer heat.
In Bristol, The Carter Family recorded six songs, including the country music classics "Poor Orphan Child," "Wandering Boy" and "The Storms Are on the Ocean." In November 1927, these songs were released to the public as monophonic records on the Victor label and sold remarkably well, exceeding even Ralph Peer's high expectations for the talented trio.
In addition to launching The Carter Family's career, Peer's 10-day stop in Bristol (known ever after in country music lore as The Bristol Sessions) also launched the career of country music legend Jimmie Rodgers; it is considered by many to be the foundational moment in the history of modern country music.
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