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Carter Family

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The Carter Family
A. P., Maybelle, and Sara Carter (L–R) in 1927
A. P., Maybelle, and Sara Carter (L–R) in 1927
Background information
OriginMaces Spring, Virginia
Years active
  • 1927–1956
Past members

The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound influence on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock music, as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s.

They were the first vocal group to become country music stars, and were among the first groups to record commercially produced country music. Their first recordings were made in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor Talking Machine Company under producer Ralph Peer on August 1, 1927. This was the day before country singer Jimmie Rodgers made his initial recordings for Victor under Peer.

The success of the Carter Family's recordings of songs such as "Wabash Cannonball", "Can the Circle Be Unbroken", "Wildwood Flower", "Keep on the Sunny Side", and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" made these songs country standards. The melody of the last was used for Roy Acuff's "The Great Speckled Bird", Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" and Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels". The song became a hit all over again in these other incarnations.[1]

The original group consisted of Sara Carter, her husband A. P. Carter, and her sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. Maybelle was Sara's first cousin, and was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra Carter (Eck). All three were born and raised in southwest Virginia. They were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. The latter dated to the early 19th century and revivals in the South.

Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals and played rhythm guitar or autoharp. Maybelle sang harmony and played lead guitar. On some songs A.P. did not perform at all; on some songs he sang harmony and background vocals, and occasionally he sang lead. Maybelle's distinctive guitar-playing style became a hallmark of the group. Her Carter Scratch (a method for playing both lead and rhythm on the guitar) has become one of the most copied styles of guitar playing.

The group (in all its incarnations, see below) recorded for a number of companies, including RCA Victor, ARC group, Columbia, Okeh and various imprint labels.[2][3][4]


Birthplace log cabin of A.P. Carter at the Carter Fold at Maces Springs, Virginia near Hiltons, Virginia.

The Carter Family made their first recordings on August 1, 1927.[5] The previous day, A.P. Carter had persuaded his wife Sara Carter and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter to make the journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer. Peer was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. The initial sessions are part of what are now called the Bristol Sessions. The band received $50 for each song recorded, plus a half-cent royalty on every copy sold of each song for which they had registered a copyright. On November 4, 1927, the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) released a double-sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child". On December 2, 1928, Victor released "The Storms Are on the Ocean" / "Single Girl, Married Girl", which became very popular.

By the end of 1930, the Carter Family had sold 300,000 records in the United States. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around southwestern Virginia to find new songs; he also composed new songs. In the early 1930s, he befriended Lesley "Esley" Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee. Lesley accompanied A.P. on his song-collecting trips. In June 1931, the Carters did a recording session in Benton, Kentucky, along with Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met the Speer Family at a fair in Ceredo, West Virginia, fell in love with their signature sound, and asked them to tour with the Carter Family.

Second generation[edit]

A.P. Carter General Store Museum at the Carter Fold at Maces Springs, Virginia near Hiltons, Virginia

In the winter of 1938–39, the Carter Family traveled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña (now Ciudad Acuña, Mexico), across the border from Del Rio, Texas.

In the 1939–40 season, the children of A.P. and Sara (Janette and Joe Carter) and those of Maybelle (Helen, June, and Anita) joined the group for radio performances, by then in San Antonio, Texas. Here the programs were prerecorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. (The children did not, however, perform on the group's records.) In the fall of 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.

By 1936, A.P. and Sara's marriage had dissolved. After Sara married A.P.'s cousin, Coy Bayes, they moved to California. The Carter Family disbanded in 1944.

Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita Carter, June Carter, and Helen Carter and recorded on 3 labels (RCA Victor, Columbia and Coronet) as "The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle" (sometimes billed as "The Carter Sisters" or "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters" or "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters"). In 1943, Maybelle Carter and her daughters, using the name "the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle" had a program on WRNL in Richmond, Virginia.[6] Maybelle's brother, Hugh Jack (Doc) Addington Jr., and Carl McConnell, known as the Original Virginia Boys, also played music and sang on the radio show.

Chet Atkins joined them playing electric guitar in 1949 at WNOX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee. He moved with them in October 1949 to KWTO radio in Springfield, Missouri.

Opry management didn't want the Carters to bring Chet when they were offered a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry but Ezra Carter (their father and manager) insisted that Chet come with them, as he was a part of their troupe or band now. Finally the Opry management agreed and Chet went with them when they were hired by WSM and the Grand Ole Opry; their first day was May 29, 1950. Chet worked with them when they did "personals" off and on for 8 years, but mostly on the live Grand Ole Opry performances.[7] A.P., Sara, and their children Joe and Janette recorded 3 albums in the 1950s under the name of The A.P. Carter Family.

After the death of A.P. Carter in 1960, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters began using the name "the Carter Family" for their act during the 1960s and 1970s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited, recorded a reunion album (An Historic Reunion), and toured in the 1960s during the height of folk music's popularity.[8]

A film documentary about the family, Sunny Side of Life, was released in 1985.

In 1987, reunited sisters June Carter Cash and Helen and Anita Carter, along with June's daughter Carlene Carter, appeared as the Carter Family. They were featured on a 1987 television episode of Austin City Limits, along with June's husband Johnny Cash.[9]

Third generation[edit]

The Carter Family name was revived for a third time, under the name Carter Family III. It was a project of descendants of the original Carter Family, John Carter Cash (grandson of Maybelle Carter, son of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash) and Dale Jett (grandson of A.P. and Sara Carter), along with John's wife Laura (Weber) Cash. They released their first album, Past & Present, in 2010.[10]

Rosie Nix Adams, daughter of June Carter Cash and her second husband, was also a semi-regular performing member of the Carter Family.

Third Generation family member Carlene Carter (granddaughter of Maybelle Carter) had ventured into pop music before becoming part of the 1987 Carter Family's second generation revival.


Extended family[edit]

June Carter and her sisters were distant cousins of U.S. president Jimmy Carter.[11]

This family tree shows the extended Carter family back four generations.

Cash Carter family tree
William Sevier DoughertyNancy Elizabeth KilgoreRobert C. CarterMollie Arvell BaysMargaret S. KilgoreHugh Jackson Addington
Sara CarterA. P. CarterEzra J. CarterMaybelle Carter
Gladys CarterJanette CarterJoe CarterHelen CarterAnita Carter
Vivian LibertoJohnny CashJune Carter CashCarl Smith
Edwin "Rip" Nix
Rosanne CashKathleen CashCindy CashTara CashJohn Carter CashRosie Nix AdamsCarlene CarterNick Lowe
Joseph Breen


Legacy and musical style[edit]

As important to country music as the family's repertoire of songs was Maybelle's guitar playing. She developed her innovative guitar technique largely in isolation; her style is today widely known as the "Carter scratch" or "Carter Family picking". While Maybelle did use a flatpick on occasion, her major method of guitar playing was the use of her thumb (with a thumbpick) along with one or two fingers. What her guitar style accomplished was to allow her to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings.

Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument among musicians.[citation needed] Maybelle's interweaving of a melodic line on the bass strings with intermittent strums is now a staple of steel string guitar technique. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Clarence White and Norman Blake took flatpicking to a higher technical level, but all acknowledge Maybelle's playing as their inspiration.

It has been noted that "by the end of the twenties, Maybelle Carter scratch ... was the most widely imitated guitar style in music. Nobody did as much to popularize the guitar, because from the beginning, her playing was distinctive as any voice."

— quoted in The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005)[12]

The Carter Family was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and were given the nickname "The First Family of Country Music".[13] In 1988, the Carter Family was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received its Award for the song "Will 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 inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 2005, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Keep on the Sunny Side, a musical play chronicling the Carter Family's rise to stardom, premiered at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, in 2001. Conceived and written by Douglas Pote, the play enjoyed a multiyear run, a national tour spanning 23 states, and an original cast recording; the Barter has also mounted numerous revivals amid lasting popularity.

Renewed attention to the Carter Family tune "When I'm Gone" occurred after several covers performed a cappella with a cup used to provide percussion, as in the cup game and dubbed the Cups song, went viral and culminated with a short performance in the movie Pitch Perfect. Afterwards it was released as a single by Anna Kendrick.

The A. P. and Sara Carter House, A. P. Carter Homeplace, A. P. Carter Store, Maybelle and Ezra Carter House, and Mt. Vernon Methodist Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as components of the Carter Family Thematic Resource.[14][15]

In 2017, the Carter Family's story was told in the award-winning documentary series American Epic.[16] The film featured unseen film footage of The Carter Family performing and being interviewed,[17][18] and radically improved restorations of their 1920s recordings.[19][20] Director Bernard MacMahon commented that "we first came to the Carters through their records, but one of the other things that struck us about them is that they were involved in both of the main waves of America hearing itself for the first time. They made their first impact in that early wave of rural recordings, and then the next stage was the arrival of radio, and in the late 1930s, they went to Texas and were on XERA, a border station based in Mexico that could be heard all over the central and western United States."[21] The Carter Family's story was profiled in the accompanying book, American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself.[22]


Selected 78 rpm records: The Carter Family's career predated any sort of best-selling chart of country music records. (Billboard did not have a country best sellers chart until 1944.) Below is a select list of their 78 rpm releases.

Bluebird Records

Montgomery Ward Records

  • "Lonesome Pine Special"
  • "Two Sweethearts"
  • "Where We'll Never Grow Old"

Decca Records

  • "Coal Miner Blues"
  • "Hello Stranger"
  • "My Dixie Darling"
  • "You Are My Flower"

Victor Records

Vocalion Records

  • "Broken Hearted Love"
  • "Can the Circle Be Unbroken"


  1. ^ Heatley, Michael (2007). The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. London: Star Fire. ISBN 978-1-84451-996-5.
  2. ^ Zwonitzer, M. & Hirshberg, C. (2002). Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  3. ^ ["The Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle: Living Tradition", in The Journal of the Academy for the Preservation of Old-Time Country Music]
  4. ^ Sunny Side Sentinel: Official Publication for the Carter Family, Discography Issue (1980)
  5. ^ Maybelle Carter, Bill Clifton. Wildwood Pickin' (audio CD). Vanguard Records. ASIN B000000EHH.
  6. ^ Wolfe, Charles K. (2000). Classic Country: Legends of Country Music. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415928267. Retrieved 16 January 2015.
  7. ^ Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill (1974). Country Gentleman. Chicago: Harry Regnery Company. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0.
  8. ^ Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter. Maybelle & Sara Carter Cannonball Blues (video). YouTube ("bluesriff"). Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  9. ^ "Austin City Limits: 1987: Johnny Cash with The Carter Family". Austin, Texas: PBS. Archived from the original on October 19, 2007. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  10. ^ "Past & Present". Johncartercash.bandcamp.com. Archived from the original on 2016-04-30. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  11. ^ Carter 1978, p. 1115 (Conference on HIRE, June 14).
  12. ^ Wolfe, Charles K.; Olson, Ted (2005). The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music. McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers. p. 74. ISBN 0-7864-1945-8.
  13. ^ Wolfe, Charles. "Carter Family". Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Archived from the original on August 7, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  14. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  15. ^ Carter Family Tree
  16. ^ "BBC – Arena: American Epic – Media Centre". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  17. ^ "Mule Calls and Outlaws: A Conversation With 'American Epic' Director Bernard MacMahon". Men's Journal. 2017-05-23. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  18. ^ "'American Epic' Recreates Music History With Elton John, Beck & More". Udiscovermusic.com. 10 May 2017. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  19. ^ "American Epic". Stereophile.com. 2017-06-12. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  20. ^ Lewis, Randy (14 May 2017). "'American Epic' explores how a business crisis ignited a musical revolution". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  21. ^ Wald, Elijah; McGourty, Allison; MacMahon, Bernard (2017). American Epic | The First Time America Heard itself. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 74. ISBN 9781501135606.
  22. ^ MacMahon, Bernard; McGourty, Allison; Wald, Elijah (2017-05-02). American Epic. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781501135606.

General and cited references[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by AMA Presidents Award
Succeeded by