The Carter Family was an early country music group that performed and recorded between 1927 and 1943. Their music had a lasting impact on country, bluegrass, southern gospel, and even rock music, as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s.
The original group consisted of A.P. Carter (1891-1960), his wife, Sara (autoharp and guitar; 1898-1979), and sister-in-law Maybelle (guitar; 1909-1978). All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia where they were immersed in the tight harmony styles of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. Maybelle's distinctive and innovative guitar playing style became a hallmark of the group, and their songs remain among the most beloved in traditional American music.
The 1927 Carter Family recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which also included the first studio recordings of country legend Jimmie Rogers, are seen as historic events in American popular music, effectively marking the the birth of the country music industry.
The recorded and collected songs of the Carter Family represent a treasure trove of authentic traditional music, much of which has remained widely popular from generation to generation. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" one of their most recorded songs, exemplifies the importance of faith and the family in much of their music, emphasizing that family bond lasts forever, even beyond earthly life.
The Carters got their start on July 31, 1927, when A.P. convinced Sara and Maybelle Carter to make the journey from Maces Springs, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer who was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. They received $50 for each song they recorded. This session, which also brought country legend Jimmie Rogers into the recording studio for the first time, is cited a the birth of the country music industry.
In the fall of 1927, the Victor recording company released a double-sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child." In 1928, another record was released with "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and "Single Girl, Married Girl." This record became very popular.
On May 27, 1928, Peer had the group travel to Camden, New Jersey, where they recorded many of what would become their signature songs, including: "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," "Wildwood Flower," and "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man." The group did not receive any money immediately for this effort but left with a contract that assured a small royalty for sales of their records and sheet music. "Wildwood Flower," in both vocal and instrumental forms, has endured as a widely performed tune for traditional country and bluegrass artists.
During a February 1929 session the Carter Family recorded, among others: "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," "My Clinch Mountain Home," and "Little Moses." By the end of 1930 they had sold 300,000 records in the U.S.
In the following years, A.P. traveled throughout the southwestern Virginia area in search of new songs. He collected hundreds of British/Appalachian folk songs and, many of which might have been lost to future generations without his effort. The Carters themselves would eventually record more than 300 sides. Besides those mentioned above, these included such standards as: "Worried Man Blues," "Wabash Cannonball," and probably their most famous song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"
During his travels in the early 1930s, A.P. befriended Lesley "Esley" Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee. Riddle later accompanied A.P. on his song collecting trips. Riddle's blues guitar playing style influenced the Carters, especially Maybelle, who learned new guitar techniques from watching him play.
In June 1931, the Carters did a recording session in Nashville, Tennessee along with country legend, Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met The Cook Family Singers at the World's Fair in Chicago and fell in love with their sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.
In the winter of 1938-1939, the Carter Family traveled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. In the 1939/1940 season, June Carter (middle daughter of Ezra and Maybelle) joined the group, which was now in San Antonio, Texas. Their highly popular programs were pre-recorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. In Fall 1942, the Carters moved their program to WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina for a one-year contract. They occupied the sunrise slot with the program airing between 5:15 and 6:15 a.m.
In 1943 the group disbanded after Sara moved permanently to California.
Later Careers and Legacy
Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita, June, Helen as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters" into the 1960s. A.P., Sara, and their children—Joe and Janette—recorded some material in the 1950s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited and toured in the 1960s, during the height of folk music's popularity. Anita and June would go on to have their own careers as solo performers. June toured with country star Johnny Cash with whom had several successful albums and later married.
Revivalist folksingers during the 1960s performed much of the material that the Carters had collected, written, or recorded. For example, on her early Vanguard albums, folk performer Joan Baez sang: "Wildwood Flower," "Little Moses," "Engine 143," "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," and "Gospel Ship." "Wildwood Flower" became a staple of many instrumentalists and vocalists. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was widely covered by country, bluegrass and gospel groups, including the African-American gospel-pop group the Staples Singers. The pop-country group "The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band" used the song title as the theme for two successful albums bringing together first and second generation bluegrass, old-time country, and folk rock artists.
Several Carter melodies were also used to create new songs of note. "Wayworn Traveler" was covered by a young Bob Dylan, who wrote his own words to the melody and named it "Paths Of Victory." (This recording is featured on "Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3.") More significantly, Dylan used the same melody and changed the time signature to 3/4 in creating possibly his most famous song, "The Times They Are a-Changing." Earlier, Dylan's idol Woody Guthrie had used the melody of the Carters' "When This World's on Fire" to create "This Land Is Your Land." He also used their "John Hardy" melody for his song "Tom Joad," memorializing John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl novel, "Grapes of Wrath."
Almost as important to country music as the family's repertoire of songs was Maybelle's guitar playing. She developed an innovative guitar technique, today widely known as the "Carter-picking." Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument. Maybelle's interweaving of a melodic line on the bass strings with intermittent rhythmic strums is now a staple of country, folk, and bluegrass guitar technique. Virtuoso flatpickers such as Doc Watson, the late Clarence White, and many others acknowledge Maybelle's influence at the root of their styles.
The Carters were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and were given the nickname "The First Family of Country Music." In 1988, the Carter Family was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Hall of Fame Ward for "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. In 2001, the group was in inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 2005, the Carters received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Carr, Patrick. The Illustrated History of Country Music. Three Rivers Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0812924558
- Cash, Johnny. The Original Carter Family: with a biography by Johnny Cash. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999. ISBN 978-0634003813
- Cash, June Carter. Among my klediments. Zondervan, 1979. ISBN 0-310-38170-3
- Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. Vintage Books, 1998. ISBN 0-375-70082-X
- Zwonitzer, Mark, and Charles Hirshberg. Will you miss me when I'm gone?—the Carter Family and their legacy in American music. Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 978-0743243827
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