Carter Family

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Carter Family
Carter Family 1927.jpg
A.P., Maybelle, and Sara Carter (L–R) in 1927
Background information
OriginMaces Spring, Virginia
GenresTraditional American folk music
Years activeSince 1927
Associated actsJohnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers
Past membersA. P. Carter
Sara Carter
Maybelle Carter
Helen Carter
Anita Carter
June Carter Cash
Janette Carter
Joe Carter
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This article is about the original folk music group Carter Family. For the second generation band, see The Carter Sisters. For the family in EastEnders, see Carter family (EastEnders).
Carter Family
Carter Family 1927.jpg
A.P., Maybelle, and Sara Carter (L–R) in 1927
Background information
OriginMaces Spring, Virginia
GenresTraditional American folk music
Years activeSince 1927
Associated actsJohnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers
Past membersA. P. Carter
Sara Carter
Maybelle Carter
Helen Carter
Anita Carter
June Carter Cash
Janette Carter
Joe Carter

The Carter Family was a traditional US-American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. Their 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 them country standards. The latter's tune 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", making the song a hit all over again in other incarnations.[1]

The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter, and was also Sara's first cousin. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia, where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing.

Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals; Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group instrumentally; on some songs A.P. did not perform at all but at times sang harmony and background vocals and, once in a while, lead vocal. Maybelle's distinctive guitar playing style became a hallmark of the group.


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

By the end of 1930 they 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 the southwestern Virginia area in search of 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 the World's Fair in Ceredo[disambiguation needed] and fell in love with their signature sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.

Second generation[edit]

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 Carter, Joe Carter) and those of Maybelle (Helen Carter, June Carter, Anita Carter) joined the group for radio performances, now in San Antonio, Texas, where 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. Sara married A.P.'s cousin, moved to California, and the group disbanded in 1944.

Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita Carter, June Carter, and Helen Carter as "The Carter Sisters" (sometimes billed as "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters" or "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters"). Chet Atkins joined them playing electric guitar in 1949 until leaving in 1950.[3] A.P., Sara, and their children Joe and Janette recorded some material in the 1950s. The Carter Sisters reclaimed the name "the Carter Family" for their act during the 1960s and 1970s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited, recorded a reunion album, and toured in the 1960s during the height of folk music's popularity.[4]

A 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 and were featured on a 1987 television episode of Austin City Limits along with Johnny Cash.[5]

Revivalist folksingers during the 1960s performed much of the material the Carters had collected or written. For example, on her early Vanguard albums, folk performer Joan Baez sang "Wildwood Flower", "Little Moses", "Engine 143", "Little Darling, Pal of Mine", and "Gospel Ship". The Carter Family song "Wayworn Traveller" was covered by a young Bob Dylan, who wrote his own words to the melody and named it "Paths of Victory"; this recording is featured on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. After writing that song, he wrote new words to the melody and changed the time signature to 3/4, thus creating one of his most famous songs, "The Times They Are a-Changin'".[citation needed]


Carter Family personnel
  • A.P. Carter – vocals
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Sara Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Helen Carter – vocals, accordion, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, autoharp, guitar
  • Anita Carter – vocals, bass

(Robbie Harden would join temporarily in 1969 replacing June Carter)

  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Helen Carter – vocals, guitar
  • Anita Carter – vocals, guitar
  • Robbie Harden – vocals
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Helen Carter – vocals, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Anita Carter – vocals, guitar
  • Helen Carter – vocals, guitar
  • Anita Carter – vocals, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
(2012–present) (as Carter Family III)

Extended family[edit]

This family tree shows the extended Carter family through several generations.

William Sevier Dougherty
Nancy Elizabeth Kilgore
Robert C. Carter
Mollie Arvell Bays
Margaret S. Kilgore
Hugh Jackson Addington
Sara Carter
A. P. Carter
Ezra J. Carter
Maybelle Carter
Gladys Carter
Janette Carter
Joe Carter
Helen Carter
Anita Carter
Vivian Liberto
Johnny Cash
June Carter Cash
Carl Smith
Edwin "Rip" Nix
Rosanne Cash
Kathleen Cash
Cindy Cash
Tara Cash
John Carter Cash
Rosie Nix Adams
Carlene Carter
Nick 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 style" of picking (see 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 white musicians. 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 by 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)[6]

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".[7] 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.

Renewed attention to the Carter Family tune, When I'm Gone, has occurred after several covers of "the cups song" culminated with a short performance of it in the movie, Pitch Perfect.

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.[8][9]

Selected discography[edit]

Selected 78 rpm records[edit]

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

Decca Records

Victor Records

Vocalion Records

Selected vinyl albums[edit]

The long-playing album did not debut until several years after the Carter Family disbanded. Most of the full-length LPs issued under "the Carter Family" were budget albums as was traditional on most vintage recordings.

1960All Time FavoritesACME Records
1962The Original and Great Carter FamilyRCA Camden Records
1963Mid the Green Fields of VirginiaRCA Victor Records
1964More Favorites by The Carter FamilyDecca Records
1965Great Sacred SongsHarmony Records
1966Home Among the HillsHarmony Records
The Happiest Days of AllRCA Camden Records
1967More Golden Gems
1972Lonesome Pine Special
1973My Old Cottage Home
1974Legendary PerformersRCA Records

Charted albums[edit]

YearAlbumU.S. CountryLabel
1972Travelin' Minstrel Band44Columbia
1973Mother Maybelle Carter44
1976Country's First Family49

Rounder CD compilations[edit]

1993Anchored in Love: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1927–1928)Rounder
1993My Clinch Mountain Home: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1928–1929)
1995When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1929–1930)
1995Worried Man Blues: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1930)
1996Sunshine in the Shadows: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1931–1932)
1997Give Me the Roses While I Live: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1932–1933)
1998Gold Watch and Chain: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1933–1934)
1998Longing for Old Virginia: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1934)
1998Last Sessions: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1934–1941)

Boxed Sets[edit]

2000In The Shadow of Clinch MountainComplete recorded works for Victor, ARC, Decca, APS, Columbia and Bluebird Records on 12 CDs, as well as interviews with group members all packaged with a hardcover booklet of 220 pages.Bear Family Records
2002 and 2003The Carter Family Volume 1: 1927-1934 and The Carter Family Volume 2: 1935-1941Two boxed sets, each with five CDs of original recordings remastered. Volume 1 of 127 songs originally recorded for RCA Victor from 1927-1934 and Volume 2 of 130 songs recorded for RCA Victor plus ARC and Decca labels (Decca owned both) from 1935-1941.JSP Records


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Performed by the Carter Family

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YearSinglePeak positionsAlbum
US CountryCAN Country
1928"Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow"N/A
"Wildwood Flower"
1929"I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes"
1935"Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)"
1971"A Song to Mama" (with Johnny Cash)3742Travelin' Minstrel Band
1972"Travelin' Minstrel Band"42
"The World Needs a Melody" (with Johnny Cash)3555
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Guest singles[edit]

YearSingleArtistPeak positionsAlbum
US CountryCAN Country
1963"Busted"Johnny Cash13Blood, Sweat and Tears
1973"Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup"
(with The Oak Ridge Boys)
"—" denotes releases that did not chart


  1. ^ Heatley, Michael (2007). The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. London, UK: Star Fire. ISBN 978-1-84451-996-5. 
  2. ^ Maybelle Carter, Bill Clifton. Wildwood Pickin' (audio CD). Vanguard Records. "1: Introduction: Bill Clifton". ASIN B000000EHH. 
  3. ^ Atkins, Chet; Neely, Bill (1974). Country Gentleman. Chicago: Harry Regnery Company. ISBN 0-8092-9051-0. 
  4. ^ Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter. Maybelle & Sara Carter Cannonball Blues (video). YouTube ("bluesriff"). Retrieved April 29, 2013. 
  5. ^ "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. 
  6. ^ Wolfe, Charles K.; Olson, Ted (2005). The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music. p. 74. ISBN 0-7864-1945-8. 
  7. ^ Wolfe, Charles. "Carter Family". Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Retrieved April 29, 2013. 
  8. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  9. ^ Carter Family TR


External links[edit]

Preceded by
Gram Parsons
AMA Presidents Award
Succeeded by
John Hartford