Considered the mother of country music, Maybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington on May 10, 1909. She grew up in rural Virginia near the town of Nickelsville, where her father operated a general store. Like many mountain families, the Addingtons played music for their entertainment. By the time Maybelle was 12, she was a talented musician, proficient on the guitar, autoharp, and banjo.
In 1926, Addington married Ezra Carter, with whom she had three daughters, Helen, June, and
Anita. Maybelle Carter also began performing with Ezra’s brother Alvin Pleasant (known as A. P.) and his wife Sara, playing at parties and other local social gatherings. The Carters perfected intricate arrangements of vocals and instruments. A. P. sang bass and Sara sang lead as well as playing the guitar and autoharp. But Maybelle perhaps most shaped the Carter Family sound by her unique guitar work. When Maybelle was pregnant with her first child, the Carter Family traveled down a dirt road for a record company tryout in Bristol, Tennessee. Their performance so impressed talent scout Ralph Peer that he asked them to record six songs that day. The session is regarded as one of the first efforts to record country music. In 1928, the Carter Family had its first hit with the upbeat “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Their other popular songs included “Wabash Cannonball” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Maybelle Carter’s greatest contribution to popular music was arguably her guitar playing on “Wildwood Flower.” On this song, she created a new way of using the guitar, by playing the melody on the bass strings and the rhythm on the treble strings. Her inventive guitar work has infiuenced nearly every popular and rock guitarist who followed her. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once said that there was a bit of the Carter Family in every song he wrote.
Between 1927 and 1941, the Carter Family recorded about 270 songs. They also broadened their audience by appearing frequently on highpowered Mexican radio stations, often featuring their children as singers in on-air performances. When A. P. and Sara divorced in 1943, Maybelle continued to perform with a new Carter Familya foursome that included her and her three daughters. By 1950, they were appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, the premier show for country music artists. Maybelle Carter and her daughters also toured with Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley and were frequent guests on The Johnny Cash Show (1969–71), whose host is married to Maybelle’s daughter June.
By the 1960s, Maybelle Carter had achieved the status of legend. Her musicianship was revered by folk artists such as Bob Dylan who had come to prominence in the popular music scene. She appeared to much acclaim at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1967 and recorded a threealbum set titled Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972) with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1970, Maybelle Carter attended a ceremony inducting the original Carter Family into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She continued to perform until a year before her death on October 23, 1978.
Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. New York: Crown Publishers. 1993.
Wolfe, Charles K. “Carter, Maybelle.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 4, pp. 492–493. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Best of the Best of the Carter Family. King, CD, 1997.
Wildwood Pickin’. Vanguard, CD, 1997.