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The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrasscountrySouthern Gospelpop androck 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 CannonballCan the Circle Be UnbrokenWildwood FlowerKeep 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 BirdKitty WellsIt Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels and Hank Thompson's The Wild Side of Life 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.

History[edit source | editbeta]Edit

The Carter Family made their first recordings on August 2, 1927.[2] A.P. had persuaded Sara and Maybelle the day before to make the journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer, who was seeking new talents for the relatively embryonic recording industry. The sessions, part of what's now called the Bristol Sessions included performances by Jimmie Rodgers and 17 other acts. [3][4]

They received $50 for each song they 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.

On May 27, 1928, Peer had the group travel to the Victor Camden, New Jersey, studios, where they recorded many of what would become their signature songs, including: "Meet Me by the Moonlight Alone"; "Keep on the Sunny Side"; "Can the Circle Be Unbroken"; "Little Darling, Pal of Mine"; "Forsaken Love"; "Anchored in Love"; "I Ain't Goin' to Work Tomorrow"; "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone"; "Wildwood Flower"; "River of Jordan"; "Chewing Gum"; and "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man".

"Wildwood Flower" in both vocal and instrumental forms has endured as a signature tune for traditional country and bluegrass artists. During a February 1929 session they recorded: "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes"; "My Clinch Mountain Home", "Sweet Fern"; "Grave on the Green Hillside"; "Little Moses"; "Don't Forget This Song"; and "Engine 143".

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 Louisville, Kentucky, along with Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met the Cook Family Singers at the World's Fair in Chicago and fell in love with their signature sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.

Second generation[edit source | editbeta]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 (June CarterAnita CarterHelen 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 perform however 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, June, and Helen, 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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 onBootleg 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]

Personnel[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Carter Family personnel
(1927–1939)
(1939–1940)
(1940–1944)
  • A.P. Carter – vocals
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Sara Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
(1944–1969)
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Helen Carter – vocals, accordion, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, autoharp, guitar
  • Anita Carter – vocals, bass
(1969–1971)

(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
(1971–1978)
  • Maybelle Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Helen Carter – vocals, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
  • Anita Carter – vocals, guitar
(1978–1996)
  • Helen Carter – vocals, guitar
  • Anita Carter – vocals, guitar
  • June Carter – vocals, guitar, autoharp
(2012–present) (as Carter Family III)