The original Carter Family began with family patriarch Alvin P. (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara and their sister-in-law, Maybelle. A.P. was born on December 15, 1891 in Poor Valley, Virginia. He grew up playing the fiddle and learning songs from his mother. A.P. married his wife, Sara, on June 18, 1915. Sara was born on July 21, 1898 and learned to play the autoharp during her childhood. After marrying, the couple lived in Maces Springs, Virginia and played together locally. The third member of the original group, Maybelle, joined in 1926 after marrying A.P.’s brother, Ezra. Maybelle played the Gibson L-5 guitar and her picking style later came to be known as the “Carter scratch.”
A.P., Sara and Maybelle auditioned for Victor Records in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 (later known as the Bristol sessions). They recorded six tracks and were offered a “long-range” contract in 1928 after their music started selling well. Their very first recording was
and over the next eight years the family recorded songs such as
The group faced some obstacles, however, when the Great Depression had a severe impact on their income. A.P. and Sara also faced trouble in their marriage, separating in 1932 and later divorcing in 1939. During the years of A.P. and Sara’s separation, the group only saw each other at recording sessions. Their songs, however, were heard nationwide after they signed contracts at several radio stations that had strong broadcasting signals, contributing to an increase in their popularity.
Even after A.P. and Sara’s divorce, the group continued to perform together until 1943 when Sara retired and A.P. returned to Virginia and ran a country store. Maybelle continued performing, this time with her daughters Helen, June and Anita, and eventually got to play at the Grand Old Opry. June later met (in 1955) and married (in 1968) country music performer Johnny Cash. A.P., Sara and their grown children reunited and started performing together in 1952. With their daughter Janette, the couple signed a contract and recorded over the next four years. The group broke up for the second time in 1956 and A.P. died on November 7, 1960. Maybelle and Sara reunited in 1966, playing at folk festivals and recording an album. Maybelle died in 1978 and Sara died in 1979.
An article on CMT.com by David Vinopal calls the Carter Family
“the most influential group in country music history,”
partly because they “switched the emphasis from hillbilly instrumentals to vocals.” It also states that A.P. “collected hundreds of British/Appalachian folk songs” and “enhanced the pure beauty” of them. The Country Music Hall of Fame website states that the group “essentially invented the kind of harmony singing used for years in the music” and “popularized dozens of songs that became country standards.” The family became the first group to be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. However, the Country Music Hall of Fame website also states that despite their achievements,
“the Carters never had the kind of spectacular financial success like that of Jimmie Rodgers or Gene Autry. They never really ‘crossed over’ to the huge popular audiences of network radio, Hollywood films, and big-time vaudeville. Time and again they kept returning to their beloved Clinch Valley, disgusted or puzzled by the show business world.”