The Carter Family - Biography
The Carter Family – the trio also known as the Original Carter Family, commonly referred to as “the first family of country music” – had an influence that long outlasted them. Active as recording artists from 1927 through 1941, A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter were among the most popular “hillbilly” performers of their era; in 1929, their sales came close to surpassing those of their great Victor Records label mate Jimmie Rodgers. However, there were other immensely successful early country acts, like Vernon Dalhart, who sold hundreds of thousands, even millions, of records and then fell into near-total obscurity, but the resonance of the Carters’ music remains strong today.
As Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirschberg note in their densely-researched 2002 biography Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, “Carter Family songs like ‘Wildwood Flower,’ ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ ‘John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man,’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’ have been making new hits through eight decades, for stars such as Woody Guthrie, Earl Scruggs, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Lucinda Williams.”
Those songs – unearthed, refined, and then copyrighted by the tireless song hunter A.P. Carter – helped define the essential themes of early traditional country music, and to this day those themes have endured to be drawn upon anew. Historian Bill C. Malone wrote, “The Carter Family sang of an America that was gradually disappearing, an America whose values had seemed inextricably interrelated with rural or small-town life…Songs about wandering boys, abandoned mothers, dying orphans, and forsaken lovers had a special poignancy for people who saw the stable world of their parents disintegrating around them.”
Succeeding generations of musicians recognized the Carters’ songs – simple, sentimental, sometimes dark, often devout -- as the bedrock of country’s traditionalist strain. In the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, their repertoire was embraced by performers of the urban folk revival; The Kingston Trio, the first and biggest folk-pop group, racked up a top 20 hit in 1959 with “A Worried Man,” a version of “Worried Man Blues,” originally recorded by the Carters nearly 30 years earlier. In 1990, a young Illinois trio called Uncle Tupelo adapted The New Lost City Ramblers’ version of the Carters’ “No Depression” for the title cut of their debut album, thus giving a name to both a new vein of alternative country music and that music’s most influential journal.
It’s probable that The Carter Family’s music continues to resound with musicians and listeners today because it sprang so authentically from its native terrain – the region of Virginia near the Tennessee border, located (as the title of a Carter Family song put it) in the shadow of Clinch Mountain, picturesquely known as Poor Valley. It was near there, in the Little Valley, on Dec. 15, 1891, that Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was born.
The eldest of eight children, Carter – known as “Pleasant” or “Doc” to relations – grew up in the Poor Valley community of Maces Spring. His father Bob was a rambler, and his mother Mollie’s side of the family was musical; he picked up both traits as a child. He tried his hand at fiddling (though his devoutly religious family frowned on the instrument, which was seen as a tool of the devil). His playing and singing were always affected by a never-explained tremor that afflicted him from childhood. He sang bass in church, and sometimes worked in his uncle’s singing school.
Pleasant Carter farmed and briefly worked in Indiana as a railroad carpenter. In 1914, his uncle got him a job selling fruit trees and shrubs for a local nursery. He walked over Clinch Mountain to nearby Copper Creek, where he stopped by the house of his mother’s cousin Milburn Nickels and his mother Susie Nickels. As he knocked at their door on his sales call, he heard a girl singing the old railroad ballad “Engine 143.”
The girl, 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, had been born July 21, 1898, near Copper Creek. After her mother’s death, she and her older sister were boarded and raised by the Nickels family, who had no children of their own. Before she reached her teens, she was singing and playing autoharp with her cousin Madge Addington, part of a musical family that also included her baby sister Maybelle, born May 10, 1909.
Pleasant Carter was immediately smitten with the dark-eyed, angelic-voiced Sara, and a courtship swiftly ensued. They were married June 18, 1915, and settled in Maces Spring, where the family scratched out a living farming. A.P. and Sara Carter began performing together in the mid-‘20s, at local singing conventions; once, after the family car broke down in Charlottesville, Virginia, the stranded couple put on a show to raise money for repairs.
The Carter Family finally came together in earnest as a musical group in 1926, after teenaged Maybelle Addington married A.P. Carter’s younger brother Ezra (known as “Eck” or “Pop”). Though she couldn’t read music, Maybelle had shown an aptitude for playing from childhood. She mastered the autoharp, and developed a distinctive and formidable guitar style – later known as the “Carter lick” or “Carter scratch” – in which melody and rhythm were skillfully interwoven. A natural music-maker, Maybelle bonded with her sister-in-law; their homegrown harmonies were bolstered by Pleasant’s bass singing and supported by rolling guitar and ringing autoharp. The trio’s sound would remain unvarying over the course of their career.
The family was at that juncture non-professionals who made music at home, but A.P. Carter envisioned larger objectives for them as performers. In 1926, the Carters auditioned for a Brunswick Records talent scout, who took a dim view of Sara’s lead vocals – hillbilly music was then still a man’s game. However, the restless patriarch sensed another break in July 1927, when he saw an ad in the Bristol, Tennessee paper, placed by the local phonograph dealer, announcing the imminent arrival of a recording unit for the Victor Talking Machine Co. in the city.
The sessions had been arranged by Ralph Peer, who had cut the first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” at Okeh Records in 1920, and had almost single-handedly developed the market for hillbilly music by recording Atlanta’s Fiddlin’ John Carson for Okeh in 1923. Bringing musician and backwoods A&R man Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman with him, he joined Victor in 1925 to head the label’s hillbilly music initiative. Working for no salary, he secured the option to control the copyrights of the label’s artists, and received a royalty on each record sold.
On July 31, 1927, leaving three-year-old daughter Janette with relations, the Carters – A.P., Sara, their eight-year-old daughter Gladys and infant son Joe, and Maybelle, seven months pregnant – loaded themselves into Eck Carter’s Essex for the 26-mile trip to Bristol, a small town carved in two by the Virginia-Tennessee state line. After a hot daylong journey slowed by a poorly patched tire, the family arrived at the home of A.P.’s sister Virgie. The following evening, A.P., Sara, and Maybelle recorded four songs for Victor at the label’s jerry-rigged studio on State Street; another two were cut on Aug. 2. Two days later, a former railroad brakeman from Mississippi named Jimmie Rodgers recorded his first two sides for Victor, capping one of country’s historic studio sessions.
As it turned out, The Carter Family was exactly what Ralph Peer was looking for. He was interested in traditional-sounding groups, but most especially ones with material that could be copyrighted and published by Peer’s company Southern Music. A.P. Carter had a knack – which would serve him in good stead throughout the family’s career – for digging up folk material or songs in the public domain, then adapting and arranging them in refreshing ways. From the first, most of the Carters’ songs would bear his name as writer, which made for a very lucrative arrangement with Victor and Peer.
The Carter Family’s first 78 was issued in late 1927, but it was the pairing of “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Storms Are On the Ocean” in early 1928 that led to their first major sales – and an invitation from Ralph Peer to another recording session, at Victor’s Camden, N.J., studio. Suddenly, the obscure Virginia trio was a hot property.
In all, The Carter Family recorded 145 sides for Victor – most of them between 1927-34, and a final dozen in their last session in 1941. The Victor sides included most of the classic compositions that became the foundation of the country and folk repertoire: “Keep On the Sunny Side” (their theme), “Little Darling, Pal of Mine,” “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man,” “Wildwood Flower,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Worried Man Blues,” “Lonesome Valley.” These songs and others made the Carters one of the most popular hillbilly acts in America – from 1928-30, they sold 700,000 78s.
The Carter Family’s material was found during A.P. Carter’s many song-hunting trips; the restless family patriarch scoured the Appalachians by foot and automobile, seeking unique material to adapt and record. Around 1928, he enlisted the assistance of a one-legged black guitarist from Kingsport, Tennessee, named Lesley Riddle, who performed some of the melodic transcription that Pleasant Carter found so difficult. It proved a long and fruitful relationship, running through the mid-‘30s (when Riddle became a Pentacostal preacher), and it may have resulted in some of the bluesier entries in the Carter songbook.
The Carters achieved their popularity without the benefit of big live appearances. While Victor’s other major star Jimmie Rodgers was a star of vaudeville and even appeared in a short talking film, The Carter Family stayed close to home, restricting their live performances to small shows in regional churches, schoolhouses, and courthouses. According to a much reproduced handbill for one of their shows, admission ran 15 and 25 cents; the advertisement also announced, “The Program is Morally Good.”
The bottom fell out of the record market with the advent of the Depression, and even a 1931 pairing of Victor’s two biggest stars, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, sold just a fraction of what it might have a couple of years earlier. But the family had harder realities to deal with at home. A.P. and Sara’s marriage had grown strained by his restlessness and long absences, and she often refused to make live appearances, forcing Pleasant to use his sister Sylvia as a stand-in.
Finally, according to biographers Zwonitzer and Hirschberg, Sara succumbed to the attentions of A.P. Carter’s 26-year-old cousin Coy Bays sometime in early 1932. Their affair was nipped in the bud when the family elders caught wind of Sara’s infidelity and decided that Coy should relocate to New Mexico. Not long after his departure, Sara Carter moved back in with her mother’s family in Copper Creek. The Carters’ lives were progressing much like one of their darker songs.
It was only an impassioned letter from Ralph Peer’s wife Anita – whose husband had signed The Carter Family to an exclusive five-year management contract in 1932 – that convinced Sara Carter to keep the group intact. However, she never lived with A.P. Carter again, and ultimately divorced him in October 1936, five years before the trio made their last recordings.
After some 1933-34 sessions for Victor, Peer exited the label following an internal power struggle and took The Carter Family to ARC, where they cut a marathon five-day 1935 session that saw the group remaking many of their old hits. (One song that was recorded at Victor but went unreleased, the timeless “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” was re-recorded and issued by ARC.) Sessions for Decca featuring some potent duets (including “No Depression”) by Sara and Maybelle followed in 1936.
Possibly the most amazing era in The Carter Family’s career – what could be called “The Border Radio Years” – began in 1938. Ralph Peer secured a lucrative job for the trio (and their family members) on XERA. The super-high-powered station was the brainchild of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a mountebank who had made a fortune selling patent medicines and marketing expensive (and sometimes fatal) “goat-gland transplant” surgery to cure impotence on his Kansas station KFKB.
After the state suspended his medical license and shut down the station, Brinkley moved his operations to Del Rio, Texas; erecting a million-watt directional transmitter just over the border in Villa Acuña, Mexico (where, unlike the U.S., there were no federal restrictions on radio power), he hawked his wares on a daily radio show that blanketed the U.S. and featured hillbilly talent. A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, plus Maybelle’s children Helen, Anita, and June Carter and A.P. and Sara’s daughter Janette, all appeared on XERA’s “Good Neighbor Get-Together.” It was during this time that the Carters reached their largest national audience. Three volumes of broadcast transcriptions from this period, recorded in Monterrey, have been issued by Arhoolie Records.
On one fateful 1939 broadcast, Sara dedicated “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” to Coy Bays. Her long-lost lover, whom she hadn’t seen in six years, heard the broadcast in California and drove straightaway to Texas, where the couple married on Feb. 20, 1939.
The Carter Family’s tenure on XERA ended in 1940, a year before the Mexican government shuttered the station. The original trio regrouped only occasionally, for Sara Carter Bays now lived in California; they ended their recording career with a session for Okeh in 1940 and a final date back at Victor in 1941. Following a stint at a Charlotte, N.C., radio station in 1943, The Original Carter Family broke up for good.
While all three original members never recorded together again, there were sporadic sessions that featured partial reunions. In 1952, A.P. and Sara and their children Janette and Joe recorded for minister Clifford Spurlock’s Manchester, Kentucky, label Acme Records. For the most part, Pleasant kept himself occupied running a grocery store with highly irregular hours in Maces Spring. He died on Nov. 7, 1960. Unlike A.P., Sara and Maybelle lived to witness a new flowering of interest in The Carter Family’s music during the ‘60s folk revival; they recorded an album together in 1966, and performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Sara Carter died at 80 on Jan. 8, 1979.
Of the original trio, Maybelle enjoyed the heartiest music career. With daughters Helen, Anita, and June, she performed in The Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle; the troupe recorded and toured regularly with Johnny Cash (who married June Carter in 1968). Maybelle also cut a couple of solo albums, but her best-known work in her own right was probably on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s all-star 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, on which, backed by the California country-rock band, she introduced some key songs in the Carter’s repertoire to a new generation of listeners. She died Oct. 23, 1978.
Maybelle and Sara Carter were present at a ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville when The Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 14, 1970.