The original Carter Family, l-r, Maybelle, Sarah and A.P. Contributed/Bob Cox
The Original Carter Family, who resided in Maces Springs in the nearby Clinch Mountains, became a legend in the early country music field.
The original singers, comprised of Mother Maybelle Addington Carter; her brother-in-law, A. P. Carter; and his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter, produced a vast assortment of country music hits. A.P acquired a remarkable collection of songs that he either wrote or rescued from obscurity.
In later years, Mother Maybelle carried on the Carter Family style of music with her three attractive and talented daughters: June, Helen and Anita. They became featured performers on ABC-TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show” that comprised 58 episodes, running from June 7, 1969, to March 31, 1971. Adding to its attractiveness was the fact that it was taped at the famed Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, early home of the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny had a special fondness for the Carters, especially June Carter, whom he married in 1968.
Mother Maybelle invented the folk-guitar style of picking known as the “Carter lick” or “Carter scratch,” a designation that still bears her name. Throughout her life, she had no intention of abandoning the country music audiences who held the original threesome in their hearts for three generations.
The Carters commanded an audience that bridged a wide generation gap from folk coffeehouses to civic auditoriums. Maybelle’s highly familiar rendition of “Wildwood Flower” would enchant a sophisticated class of UCLA students one moment only to stir a group of southern hillbillies the next.
The Carter girls entered the act when their mother felt in her heart they were ready to perform: Anita at age 4, Helen at 6 and June at 10. Each of the girls played several instruments, ironically disclaiming the piano, the only instrument on which they received formal training.
In the winter of 1938-39, the Carter family left the beautiful Clinch Mountains and moved to Texas. Living at a San Antonio boarding house, Helen, Anita and June received training by recording radio transcriptions in the basement of a house. They later progressed to radio stations in Del Rio, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Knoxville.
By 1951, the group had been invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, an American icon. A few years later, they returned to Texas to play before 40,000 wildly cheering fans in the Cotton Bowl. June’s personal hits included “Music, Music, Music.” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the latter featuring zany country comedians and song satirists, Homer and Jethro.
June next studied dramatics in New York and continued with tours and personal appearances on major network television shows. She rejoined the Grand Ole Opry in 1958.
As a writer, June won three BMI awards for “Ring of Fire” which Cash recorded; “The Matador”; and “Wall to Wall Love.” Maybelle could play about any instrument that could be picked and a few that couldn’t. Urged on by a college crowd, she once played five-string banjo nonstop for an hour and a half. She also mastered the guitar, fiddle and autoharp.
In 1951, Mother Maybelle hired a then-unknown electric guitar player, Chet Atkins, to travel with the Carter Family. Because of his natural talent and affiliation with the famed group, his name didn’t remain unfamiliar very long. He soon became a smooth electric guitar player legend in his own right.
Maybelle, along with A.P. Carter, Sara and daughters Helen, June and Anita, became the next generation Carter Family. She was born May 10, 1909, in Nickelsville, Va. A singer of traditional ballads of the hills and an accomplished musician, she broke into commercial music after marrying Ezra Carter in 1926.
With her musically inclined in-laws, she traveled from her home in Poor Valley that was adjacent to the Clinch Mountains to Bristol, Va., to make their first recording, an RCA release called “Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow.” Forty-three years later, the Original Carter Family became the first group named to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Mother Maybelle’s demise occurred from respiratory complications at Nashville Memorial Hospital on Oct. 22, 1978, at age 69. The Carter Family style of old-time music is still revered and appreciated to this day.
Email Bob Cox firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bcyesteryear.com.