Born in rural Virginia, A.P. Carter was a skilled violinist who loved music early on. With his wife Sara, brother Ezra and sister-in-law Maybelle, A.P. formed the Carter Family band. Unusual for having a female lead singer and guitar player, the Carter Family grew famous with hits like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Keep On the Sunny Side." A.P. spent much of his time traveling to find musical inspiration, and the Carter Family band remains a legend of country music today. A.P. Carter died on November 7, 1960.
Singer and guitarist Alvin Pleasant ("A.P.") Carter was born on December 15, 1891, in Poor Valley (now known as Maces Springs), a small town at the foot of Clinch Mountain at the southwest tip of Virginia. He was the eldest of eight children born to Robert and Mollie Bays Carter, farmers by trade. As a child, A.P. Carter suffered from physical tremors. He was also perpetually restless, a condition his mother ascribed to nearly being struck by lightning late in her pregnancy. Carter fell in love with music at a very young age. He was a prodigiously skilled violinist and a standout singer in the church choir. During his adolescent years, he worked with his uncle, Flanders Bays, who operated a touring singing school throughout Scott County, Virginia.
Embarks on Musical Career
Despite his youthful passion for music, Carter assumed that—like his parents and grandparents before him—he would make his living as a farmer. Hoping to save enough money to buy his own plot of land, in 1911 a 19-year-old Carter set out for Richmond, Indiana, to work on the railroads. However, after only a few months he contracted typhoid fever and was forced to return home to Virginia. It was on the train ride back home, in the grips of fever, that Carter wrote his first song, "Clinch Mountain Home," an ode to his hometown:
"Carry me back to old Virginie Back to my Clinch Mountain home; Carry me back to old Virginie, Back to my old mountain home."
Once he regained his health, Carter again went to work for his uncle Francis Bayes, who was at that point running a business selling greenery. Carter traveled Scott County, selling and delivering trees and shrubs. He stayed with local families in the towns he visited, and in return for their hospitality he would entertain them by singing and playing violin and guitar.
One day in 1914, Carter traveled to Copper Creek, a town on the other side of the mountain from Poor Valley, to make a sale. As he approached the house of his destination, Carter heard a beautiful alto voice through an open window, calling to him like the sirens of Greek mythology. The voice, Carter soon discovered, belonged to a beautiful 16-year-old girl named Sara Dougherty. "He thought it was the most beautiful voice he had ever heard," Carter's granddaughter Rita Forrester recalled. "And that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen." Carter and Dougherty quickly fell in love, bonding over their mutual talent for music; the pair married on June 18, 1915. "I really couldn't say what the main thing was that brought them together," their son, Joe, said. "But music I'd say was what done it." In addition to Joe (born in 1927), A.P. and Sara Carter also had two other children, Gladys and Janette, born in 1919 and 1923, respectively.
While still living in Poor Valley, A.P. and Sara Carter traveled throughout the mid-Atlantic to represent their church and town at local and regional singing competitions, finding considerable success. By the mid-1920s, they were also joined regularly in their performances by Maybelle Addington, Sara's cousin, a skilled singer in her own right and also a brilliant guitarist. In 1926, Maybelle married Carter's brother Ezra, further cementing the trio's family ties. A.P., Sara and Maybelle soon became known simply as The Carter Family.
The Carter Family Beginning
For the next year, The Carter Family's musical career remained limited to local gigs as the band performed primarily at schoolhouses and small social gatherings. Their 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 Maybelle Carter was seven months pregnant at the time, A.P. Carter nevertheless convinced the family to make the car trip to the audition, traveling along rough dirt roads through 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 Peer's high expectations for the talented trio.
In addition to giving The Carter Family their big break, 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. These sessions are considered by many to be the beginning of modern country music.
The Carter Family's success was rooted in their ability to transform the Appalachian region's long tradition of folk and church music, passed down orally from generation to generation, into recorded music for popular consumption. In order to find new songs to perform, A.P. Carter traveled all around Appalachia, stopping at farms and taverns to learn the local folk songs and at churches to learn each community's favorite religious music. Despite the pervasive racism of the Jim Crow South, Carter frequently traveled with a black friend named Lesley Riddle. Largely due to Riddle's influence, The Carter Family incorporated much African-American church music into their repertoire as well. Carter then shared the songs he learned on his travels with Sara and Maybelle, who "updated" them by adding layered harmonies and instrumentation for the autoharp and guitar.
The Carter Family's music was revolutionary in many respects. They were among the first popular music groups to have a female lead singer (Sara) and to use the guitar (played by Maybelle) as the lead instrument. 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."
The Carter Family Ending
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.
Death and Legacy
While Maybelle and her daughters Helen and Anita 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, herself a country music legend who would eventually marry Johnny Cash, 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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