Carter Family Music & History by John Lilly

Carter Family photograph

Anita Carter was only four years old when she first saw Dr. John Romulus Brinkley in 1938 at a mansion in Del Rio, Texas, but it was a sight she never forgot: a goat-bearded, diamond-studded, round spectacled man, floating down the stairs with a pet monkey on his shoulder. Dr. Brinkley had built the most powerful radio station in the world, 500,000 watt XERA, and blanketed North America with sales pitches for snake oils and his quack remedies. A Chicago company, Consolidated Royal Chemical, also used XERA airwaves to sell patent medicines, and featured the best in country music entertainment Anita’s mother, Maybelle, her uncle, A. P., and her aunt, Sara: the Carter Family.

One day, Maybelle told little Anita to sing her favorite song into the microphone, the one about the “purty liddle kitty kat” that wore “a great big cowboy hat.” The show’s producers were ecstatic! That cute little girl had the Carter gift, they said. Were there any more at home like her? Why, yes, Maybelle said. There were her two daughters, Helen and June, and there was A. P. and Sara’s daughter, Janette. For the next three years, two generations of Carters sang to an audience spanning the continent, and a generation of budding country stars got a musical education that shaped them forever.

Carter Family photographTaken from Charles Hirshberg’s wonderful article,” The Ballad of A. P. Carter,” in the December 1991 Life magazine, this story captures a critical moment in Carter Family history. In a gentle, natural way, the torch is shared and then passed from one generation to the next; their musical heritage has since touched the whole world of country music and continues to grow today.

It started a hundred years ago. Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, (A. P.) was born in December of 1891 in Poor Valley, Virginia, in the hill country near the Tennessee line. His father, Bob, played banjo, but more importantly, loved to sing the old folk and religious songs as did A.P.’s mother, Mollie.

By all accounts, A.P. was a strange, complicated man. His body was afflicted with a slight but constant tremble, and his mind was full of dreams and ponderous thoughts. According to Janette Carter, “Daddy always had more than one idea in his head. You never knew what he was thinking.”

He was always interested in music but he was also interested in trees. These two came together one day in 1914. A.P. traveled over Clinch Mountain to Copper Creek to sell some fruit tree saplings to his uncle, Milburn Nickles. As he approached the cabin, he was deeply moved and forever changed by what he found there-a beautiful dark-haired woman singing sweetly and playing the autoharp. This was Sara Dougherty, an orphaned niece whom the Nickles raised. Uncle Milburn was a fiddler and there were often music gatherings at their home where young Sara played the banjo, autoharp, and guitar.

A.P. and Sara got married in 1915, setting up home and a farm in Maces Spring, now called Hiltons, Virginia. In addition to performing at church suppers and school houses, A.P. and Sara enjoyed gathering with family and friends in various homes to play music for sheer enjoyment. Among the many talented family members in that area was Sara’s younger cousin, Maybelle Addington, who, like Sara, played guitar, banjo, autoharp, and sang. Maybelle, who eventually married A.P.’s cousin, Ezra, soon joined in with A.P. and Sara. The three of them began building a repertoire and a reputation that would one day stretch out beyond even A.P.’s wildest imagination.

The Carter’s local good name was soon spread to New York when an area merchant recommended them to a big city record company. They were invited to come to Bristol, Tennessee in August, 1927 and audition to make recordings for the Victor company. After a harrowing trip in a borrowed car over 25 miles of dirt roads with wife Sara, 8-year-old daughter Gladys, 7-month-old son Joe, and 8-month pregnant cousin Maybelle, A.P. answered the call.

Victor recording executive, Ralph Peer, recounted his first impressions: “They wandered in. He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They look like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful!”

Equally striking was Maybelle’s guitar work, and the songs and arrangements which A.P. had worked on for many years. As a unit, they presented a truly unique combination of rich mountain tradition and eccentric personal style. Sara and Maybelle’s harmony floated comfortably over A.P.’s trembling, sometimes spooky, bass voice. The guitars and occasional autoharp created a parallel instrumental sound with harp-like strumming and resounding melody notes played by Maybelle on the bass strings.

“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” was the first song they recorded. It was a 19th century song which Sara and Maybelle had both known since childhood. This and the remaining five songs recorded at their session are available on the Country Music Foundation reissue The Bristol Sessions (CMF-011-reviewed in OTH vol. 1 no. 3). This compilation also includes many other historic performances from Jimmie Rodgers, the Stoneman Family, and others with excellent notes by Charles Wolfe.

Ralph Peer’s enthusiasm, brisk record sales, and some cash in hand were like gas on the flames for A.P.’s burning desire to take his family and their music as far as they could go. Always a song collector, A.P. now became a man obsessed. According to Charles Hirshberg:

He began carrying pieces of yellow paper with him wherever he went and he went everywhere. All through the mountains he roamed, selling fruit trees, but always with another end in mind: songs. And he seemed to have an uncanny ability to find them. Says (daughter) Gladys: “When I was a little girl, he’d take me with him sometimes. We’d walk along till he seen a house up on a hill or on some riverbank, and he’d say, ‘Well, I’m going up to that house. They’ll know some songs. ‘There’d be some old song they knew the tune to, or the chorus. Daddy’d write down the words, take it home and work it up. Write some more verses, change it around. He usually had to have something to get him started.”

The following spring, Ralph Peer brought the Carter Family to the company studios in Camden, New Jersey and cut twelve more songs including their theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and another tune now synonymous with the group, “Wildwood Flower.”

Artistically, the Carters were flying high. Economically and emotionally these were trying times. Recording and performing did not bring in much money, and A.P.’s erratic personal habits contributed to stress at home. In 1929, A.P. sought work in Detroit for several months, while Maybelle and her husband, Ezra, followed his railroad job to West Virginia, and, in 1931, to Washington, D.C. In 1933, A.P. and Sara’s marriage broke up and Sara moved out.

Resilience is a trademark of any great family, however, and the Carters somehow shrugged off these set-backs. They not only continued to record and perform incredible music, but they also grew and expanded as a family with A.P. and Sara reportedly getting along better after their separation, and Maybelle and Ezra raising three very talented daughters in the Carter tradition.

They changed record labels in 1935, rerecording much of their material for the American Recording Company (ARC). The following summer they began a two-year association with Decca during which they waxed 60 more songs, and were at a performance peak. Unlike ARC, Decca insisted on fresh material. A.P. was never short on songs and these two years of recording (1936-1938) produced an impressive body of work. MCA has recently reissued many of these recordings on a new CD produced by the Country Music Foundation called “The Carter Family: Country Music Hall of Fame Series” (MCAD-10088), with programming and informative notes by Bob Pinson.

On the heels of this recording watershed, the Carter Family received their widest public exposure to date through the wonders of Border Radio in Del Rio, Texas and XERA’s 500,000 watts of power. Beginning in 1938 with the original trio of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, they soon expanded to include daughters Anita, Helen, June, and Janette, as mentioned earlier. They spent the winter months in Texas and the rest of these years back home “mid the green fields of Virginia” or making records for the OKeh and Bluebird companies in New York and Chicago respectively. During this time A.P. and Sara’s divorce became final, and Sara married A.P.’s cousin, Coy Bates.

When Dr. John Romulus Brinkley’s snake oil empire came down around his ears in 1942, XERA folded and a page was turned for the Carter Family. Despite a final six months together on WBT radio in Charlotte, the original Carter Family act disbanded in 1943. Sara and her new husband moved permanently to California, A.P. went back to the old home place, and Maybelle, together with her three daughters, created an exciting new act and hit the road.

Mother Maybelle, as she would henceforth be known, was no longer the younger cousin, harmony singer, and guitar picker. She was now the matriarch of the group, and became a pioneer of the autoharp. According to John Atkins in Stars of Country Music, (edited by Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh, University of Illinois Press) Maybelle introduced “an entirely new concept to this instrument. By picking out melodies within the chords, she was able to play old fiddle tunes, for instance, like “Black mountain Rag” and “Liberty.” In the past the instrument had been used solely for rhythmic back-up, and with the original Carters, at least, had been played in a horizontal position-the instrument had been first designed to be placed flat upon a table, which would then act as a sounding board. Now Maybelle had adapted her playing of the instrument so that she played standing, with crossed hands, chording with the left hand and picking with the right.

Anita, Helen, and June were great entertainers, treating their audience to fine singing and musicianship, mountain dancing, and lively down-home humor. They became members of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1950 and were working and playing with the likes of Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. June married Opry star Carl Smith, and started a new generation of talented Carters with the 1954 birth of daughter Carlene (who is now one of Nashville’s hottest new recording artists).

Back home in Virginia, A.P. lived a far different life. He ran a small grocery store, maintained a modest orchard, and enjoyed the company of his daughters, Janette and Gladys, and his son, Joe. As he neared his death in 1960, he asked them to do their best to keep the music alive. They did so without even leaving the farm. Having built a large performance space on their property called the Carter Fold, Joe and Janette, along with their featured guests, continued to perform Carter Family songs and traditional country music every Saturday night to enthusiastic audiences and some of the wildest buckdances to ever step out on the floor!

Mother Maybelle’s branch of the family tree found a rich avenue of expression through their Nashville successes and through the urban folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, in California, Sara had carved out a new life for herself and her husband. Although she participated in a few reunion events and recordings during the 1960s, she was substantially inactive musically during her later years. She died in 1979.

In Nashville, the Carter Family’s songs and praises have been sung by virtually everyone with a traditional bone in their body, including Roy Acuff (“Wabash Cannonball”), Mac Wiseman (“Homestead on the Farm”), EmmyLou Harris (“Gold Watch and Chain”), and Johnny Cash, who toured with, then married, June Carter (who cowrote “Ring of Fire”). Through Johnny Cash the Carter legacy has been carried to millions via his TV shows, performances, and recordings.

In the folk world, Carter music has thrived equally well thanks to Maybelle’s many personal appearances at festivals up until her death in 1978. Further attention was brought to the Carter Family by such popular folk performers as Joan Baez, Mike Seeger, and Doc Watson. Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land” used a Carter melody from “Darling Pal of Mine.” Nearly every bluegrass, old-time, or folk singer of the past 50 years, famous or not, has more than one Carter Family song up his or her sleeve.

Here is where the largest piece of the Carter legend lies. According to historian Nolan Porterfield, in his article entitled “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Familv” in Country: The Music and the Musician (published by the Country Music Foundation/Abbeyville Press). “Among the treasures bestowed by the Carters, you’ll find: the simplest close harmony yet discovered, so pure it’s scary; that famous, intricate Carter guitar lick, widely imitated but never improved on; and their ultimate gift to the world, a vast repertoire of true AngloAmerican folk music, laboriously gathered in bits and pieces across the folkland, much of it masterfully arranged and restored (“worked up” was A.P.’s term) to fresh vigor, saved from oblivion and passed on to its rightful heirs.”

If, as many suggest, country music is the commercial manifestation of American folk music, then the Carter Family are country music incarnate. By combing the hills, the hymnals, their own memories, and every other source imaginable and available, A.P. and the Carter Family took the songs of their mountain community and presented them to the world at large in a way that millions of people could understand, love, and call their own. It is unclear whether A.P., Sara, or Maybelle ever made up a single song from scratch. However, they found creativity in identifying, reworking, and rearranging fragments, lost licks, and song ideas into a formidable repertoire which outstrips the catalogs of even the most prolific of songwriters.

Add to the songs already mentioned “You Are My Flower,” “Hello Stranger,” “My Dixie Darling,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” along with dozens more, and the Carter songbook comprises a canon of traditional country music themes, images, melodies, and titles.

Perhaps their most famous song is, “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” As the Carter Family members and their music continue into their eighth decade, their creativity, tenacity, values, and beauty assure that for them, and for the traditions they represent, the circle is indeed strong and remains happily unbroken.

Many hard to find Carter recordings, along with coloring books, postcards, and inspiring live performances are available every Saturday at the Carter Fold, in Hiltons, Virginia. For information or a schedule of events, send S.A.S.E. to: Carter Music Center, Attn: Janette Carter, PO Box 111 Hiltons, Va 24285 703) 386-9480

John Lilly is an old-time musician and songwriter, currently living in Charleston, West Virginia. He is the editor of the book, Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music From Goldenseal, published by the University of Illinois Press, and since 1997 has served as editor of Goldenseal magazine, a quarterly folklife journal published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Contact


THE OLD-TIME HERALD Summer 1992, Volume 3, Number 4

2 thoughts on “Carter Family Music & History by John Lilly

  1. Does anyone know if the Carter family/sisters played at a Mobile, AL TV station morning show in the 50s?

    1. I believe that Anita Carter who was married to Don Davis at the time did appear on television in Alabama in the late 50’s. Her husband had a television program at the time and they were living in Alabama because that’s where he was from.

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