Carter Family History
The Carter Family transformed country music
from a cultural phenomenon popular with rural audiences to an art form beloved
by mainstream America. The down home melodies and beautiful harmonies of these
Appalachian musicians had wide appeal, and while they didn't undertake huge
national tours or make films like their contemporary Jimmie Rodgers, they did
sell hundreds of thousands of records and made over 270 recordings between 1927
Alvin Pleasant Delaney "Doc" Carter,
born April 15, 1891 in Maces Spring, Virginia, was the oldest of Robert and
Molly Carter's eight children. Robert Carter had musical talent, but didn't
play because of religious beliefs. His wife Molly taught their children to sing
ballads that had been handed down through generations. A.P.'s first job was on
a railroad gang, and while he was away from home wrote songs about Clinch
Mountain. He returned home in 1911 and became a fruit tree salesman, while
continuing to write songs in his spare time.
Sara Dougherty, born July 21, 1898 in Flat
Woods, Virginia, learned to play the autoharp, guitar, and banjo as a young
girl. She met A.P., while he was traveling around selling trees (the story goes
that she was sitting on her front porch singing a tune and playing her
autoharp), and they were married on June 18, 1915. With A.P. on fiddle and Sara
on autoharp, the couple played music in people's homes and in churches.
The Carter Family's first recording session is
legendary. They had seen an advertisement in The Bristol Herald for auditions
for local musicians. A.P. and Sara borrowed the family car from A.P.'s brother
Ezra and drove from their home in Maces Spring with Ezra's wife, 18-year old
Maybelle (born Maybelle Addington on May 10, 1909, in Nickelsville, Virginia),
who was eight months pregnant. Maybelle was already an accomplished musician,
and her guitar style would play an important role in the development of
commercial country music.
The Carter Family had an appointment with
Ralph Peer from Victor Records' A&R staff for August 1,1927. Peer and his
engineers had set up a recording studio on the third floor of an empty hat warehouse,
and the Carter Family was one of 19 acts he recorded during a two-week period.
"As soon as I heard Sara's voice, that was it," Peer said. "I
knew it was going to be wonderful." Peer was captivated by the combination
of A.P.'s bass line vocals, Maybelle's tenor harmonies and unique style on the
guitar, and Sara's lead vocals. Sara Carter would become one of the first
featured singers in music - not just country music, but in any genre. She paved
the way for other female country singers.
Six songs were recorded during that first
session, starting with "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow." Sara
handled lead vocals, and A.P. sang the bass line. Maybelle and Sara played
autoharp and guitar. The other songs recorded with Peer at the initial Bristol
session were "Little Log Cabin by the Sea," "The Poor Orphan
Child," "The Storms Are on the Ocean," "Single Girl,
Married Girl," and "The Wandering Boy." RCA later recorded more
songs with the Carters, and their recordings sold well enough that the family
was invited to RCA's studios in Camden, New Jersey, where they recorded 11
songs in May 1928 and 12 more in February 1929. From these sessions, they had
nationally-popular hits with songs like "Wildwood Flower," "Keep
On the Sunny Side," and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes."
By the time the decade was over, the songs of
the Carter Family were well-known all over America. The trio appeared at county
fairs and city auditoriums in the 1930s, and their popularity increased. At the
same time, A.P. and Sara were having marital difficulties, and separated in
1933. They moved to Del Rio, Texas, in 1938, where they appeared regularly on
radio stations XERF, XERA, XEG, and XENT. While the Carter Family officially
remained a trio, A.P. and Sara's children Janette and Joe sang with their
elders and Ezra and Maybelle's daughters - Helen, June, and Anita - also
appeared with the family. A.P. and Sara were divorced in 1939, but continued
their working relationship. They moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1941,
where they had their own show on radio station WBT When the Carter Family broke
up in 1943, A.P. returned home to Maces Spring and operated a country store.
Sara married A.P.'s cousin, Coy, and moved to Angels Camp, California, where
she retired. Maybelle continued to tour and record, with her three daughters.
In 1952 A P. and Sara reunited as the Carter
Family with their children. They recorded over 100 songs during the next four
years, disbanding once again in 1956. A.P. died on November 7, 1960. Six years
later, Sara and Maybelle recorded an album for Columbia and performed at some
festivals. In 1970, the original Carter Family became the first group inducted
into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Maybelle died on October 23,1978, and Sara
on January 8,1979.
Click on Autoharp for A.P.'s Q & A