The Carter Family helped to revolutionize the country music industry and changed the way that people viewed this particular type of music forever. The Carters helped to change the great emphasis that was on hillbilly style instrumentals on the country music scene and created a style of guitar playing that was deemed “Carter picking,” and became the dominant form of playing for decades.
The Carter Family were some of the very first country music stars. They were made up of a lean, shy gospel quartet member by the name of Alvin P. Carter and two reserved country girls, Alvin’s wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle. The Carter Family was known for singing pure and simple harmony which influenced many other family groups during the era as well as folk, bluegrass and rock musicians including The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Woody Gutrie and Emmylou Harris.
The Carters Helped Influence the Bluegrass Genre
It is very unlikely that the bluegrass genre would have come about without the influence of the Carter Family. Alvin, the patriarch of the family, collected hundreds of British/Appalachian folk songs and put them together for the family to record. They also helped to preserve these treasured songs for future generations to enjoy for decades to come.
The trio turned the old-time songs that they found around the Virginia and Tennessee area into what would later be known as “Carter Songs”, even though they were actually in the public domain. Among the more than 300 singles that they recorded were popular hits such as “Wabash Cannonball”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, “Keep on the Sunny Side”, Wildwood Flower,” and “Worried Man Blues.”
Along with their unique vocals, the Carters were also excellent instrument players. Maybe would play the bass-strings lead on her Gibson L-5 Guitar, which is the current mainstay of bluegrass guitarists. Sara would play the autoharp or a second guitar while A.P. devoted his talent to singing in his iconic bass and baritone style.
The original Carter Family may have disbanded in 1943, but enough or their recordings remained in the vaults to keep the group current throughout the 1940s.
The Early Beginnings of the Carter Family
Initially the group consisted of just the husband and wife team A.P. and Sara. A.P. (Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter) learned to play the fiddle as a child, but he abandoned the instrument after he married Sara. It has been said that they met while A.P. was traveling and selling trees and she was on her porch playing the autoharp and singing “Engine 143” when they met. Like A.P., Sara learned to play and sing through her family.
A.P. and Sara were married on June 18, 1915 and while Alvin worked various jobs, they would sing at local parties, socials and gatherings. For the next 11 years, they would play locally. They auditioned for Brunswick Records, but the label was only interested in signing them if A.P. agreed to play under the name of “Fiddlin’ Doc”, feeling that was against his parent’s religious beliefs, he declined.
Maybelle, who was married to A.P.’s brother Ezra, joined the group in 1926. They auditioned for several labels including Victor Records who eventually signed them in 1928. Over the next seven years they recorded some of their signature songs like “I’m Thinking Through My Blue Eyes,” and “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man.” By the end of the 1920s the group had become well-known throughout the country, but their income was considerably low due to the Great Depression. They were unable to play concerts in major cities throughout the U.S., and instead were stuck playing in local schools in Virginia. Eventually the money situation was so bad that the members had to move away from home in order to find work.
Trying Times for A.P. and Sara Carter
Along with the stress of the Great Depression, A.P. and Sara’s marriage on started to fray. The group left Victor for ARC where they re-recorded their most famous songs and then the following year they signed with Decca. Eventually they signed a radio contract with XERF in Del Rio, which led to other contacts with stations along the Mexican and Texas border. This allowed their music to be heard to a broader audience and as a result, the band’s popularity began to increase.
While their careers were on the rise, their personal life was falling apart. A.P. and Sara divorced in 1939, but the Carter Family continued on. They briefly recorded for Columbia before they re-signed with Victor in 1941. Two years later, Sara retired and moved out to California with her new husband Coy Bayes (who was A.P.’s cousin). While A.P. moved back to Virginia where he ran a country store. Maybelle Carter continued to record on her own, and toured with her daughters Helen, June and Anita.
Putting the Band Back Together
A.P. and Sara put the band back together in 1952 with their grown children. They performed a successful concert in Maces Spring. Afterwards, ACME records signed A.P., Sara and their daughter Janette to a contract and over the next 4 years they would record nearly 100 songs that unfortunately didn’t gain much attention at the time.
In 1956. The Carter Family disbanded for the second time. Four years later, A.P. died at his Maces Spring home. After his death, the Carter Family’s original recordings began to be reissued. In 1966, Maybelle encouraged Sara to reunite to play various folk festivals and to record another album for Columbia. In 1970, the Carter Family was the first group to enter the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is a fitting tribute for their lifelong commitment to creating timeless music.