Most people who have a knowledge of country music will know Maybelle Carter, or Mother Maybelle Carter, as the matriarch of The Carter Family, the mother of June Carter Cash and mother-in-law to country legend Johnny Cash. However, some may not know just how much of an impact Mother Maybelle Carter had on American music, including the "hillbilly music" of the '20s and '30s, bluegrass music, '60s folk music, and even the modern country music of today.
Maybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, Virginia in 1909 to Margaret Elizabeth and Hugh Jackson Addington. She began playing the guitar at the age of 13. On March 13, 1926, she married Ezra Carter and soon joined the original Carter Family band, which was formed by Maybelle's brother-in-law, A.P. Carter, in 1927. A.P.'s wife and Maybelle's cousin Sara Carter was also part of the group.
The Beginnings of the Carter Family
The Carter Family was one of the first groups to find fame in country music. They traveled from Maces Springs, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 to make their first-ever recordings with producer Ralph Peer. Jimmie Rodgers also recorded there. The recordings, which are now regarded as the Bristol Sessions, included songs such as "Wandering Boy," "Poor Orphan Child," "The Storms Are on the Ocean," and "Single Girl, Married Girl."
It wasn't long before Maybelle emerged as a standout guitarist, and she is credited with creating the Carter Scratch, a widely-used guitar playing style where one plays a melody on the bass strings while strumming rhythm on the treble strings. Maybelle also did the reverse of this style, playing the melody on the high strings, which she said she learned from Lesley Riddle. Maybelle would also often tune her guitar down low, and she created other unique finger-picking styles that are still in use today. She often performed these styles on the autoharp and the banjo, in addition to the guitar.
Once Maybelle and Sara started having children, their children joined in on the band. They all traveled to Texas, where they would perform on a radio station on the border. They then did a stint in North Carolina, performing on radio shows there. However, A.P. and Sara Carter's marriage soon ended and they both left the group. Maybelle was then left to carry on with her daughters Anita Carter, June Carter, and Helen Carter taking center stage.
The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle
The now-mother-daughter band went on to record on RCA, Columbia and Coronet Records as The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. They played on various radio stations all over the country, and Chet Atkins became their guitarist in 1949. In 1950, Mother Maybelle and her daughters played on the Grand Ole Opry, their first of many performances there. After the death of A.P. Carter in 1960, Maybelle and her daughters re-assumed the name of the Carter Family as they performed throughout the '60s and '70s. The band often toured with Johnny Cash, and Mother Maybelle performed on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970, where she showcased her enduring talent even in her older age. The Carter Family were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee in 1970.
Some of the The Carter Family's most famous songs include "Wildwood Flower," "Keep On the Sunny Side," and "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)," adapted from the classic hymn, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"
An Enduring Legacy
Mother Maybelle Carter passed away in 1978, three years after her husband. However, the circle of The Carter Family has remained unbroken after her death, as her daughters and other descendants, including John Carter Cash, Carlene Carter, Rosie Nix Adams and Dale Jett, have kept the family legacy of music alive.
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