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 and 1941.
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.
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