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.
Formation of The Carter Family
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.
In May 1928, The Carter Family traveled to Camden, New Jersey, for their second 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'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 songs to perform, A.P. 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. He then shared these songs 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 was also among the first to embrace a guitar style in which she played the base line with her thumb while her fingers strummed the melody. Known as the "Carter Scratch," this style gave The Carter Family their unique sound and influenced the direction of country and folk music for decades to come.
Debut of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters
By the mid-1930s, A.P. 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 Sara with too little money to manage the family's affairs while he was away. During these prolonged absences, Sara fell in love with A.P. Carter's cousin Coy Bayes. Although The Carter Family continued to record and perform music together long after the affair became public, in 1943 Sara and Bayes ran off to California together, bringing about the end of the original trio.
After The Carter Family dissolved, Maybelle started her own all-female band with her three daughters, calling the act Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. "Mother Maybelle" Carter played guitar, her eldest daughter, Helen, played accordion, her middle child, June, played autoharp, and her youngest, Anita, performed lead vocals and played bass. From 1946 to 1948, the all-female family quartet became a fixture on the Richmond, Virginia, radio program The Old Dominion Barn Dance.
Then in 1948, they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to join the legendary country guitarist Chet Atkins on WNOX radio station. In 1950, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters moved to Nashville with Atkins to appear regularly on the nation's most popular country music radio show, The Grand Ole Opry.
Although her musical career slowed down considerably after the 1950s, Maybelle continued to record and perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s as one of the elder statesmen of country music. In 1966, she and Sara recorded the now-classic album An Historic Reunion: Sara and Maybelle, the Original Carters. In 1968, the singer and songwriter Johnny Cash married Maybelle's daughter June, bringing even more attention to the family. Throughout the late 1960s and late 1970s, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters made frequent appearances on Cash's tours and on ABC's Johnny Cash Show.
Death and Legacy
Mother Maybelle Carter passed away on October 23, 1978, at the age of 69. One of the creative forces behind The Carter Family, Maybelle stands out as a legendary pioneer of modern country music. She was a key figure in transforming an oral tradition of folk songs into one of America's most popular musical genres. As one of country music's first great lead guitarists and the inventor of the "Carter Scratch," she made a profound impact on the development of American popular music that shapes country, folk and rock music to this day.
The Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, and in 2005 posthumously honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Summing up her mother and the original Carter Family's contribution to country music, June Carter Cash said, "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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