It’s the birthday of “Mother” Maybelle Carter (1909), born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, Virginia, a small town in the mountains of western Virginia — the Poor Valley area. One of the pioneers of American country music, Maybelle Carter was a member of the Carter Family, a musical trio consisting of Maybelle, her cousin Sara, and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter. They popularized a more melodic style of rural folk music, then known as “mountain” music — with songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
They were one of the first groups to have a female lead singer, and to use the guitar as the lead instrument, which is what Maybelle played. She’s responsible for inventing what became known as the “Carter scratch,” in which she played the melody line with her thumb while her fingers strummed the rhythm — essentially, this meant she was playing both melody and rhythm on one instrument.
About her unusual technique, Maybelle Carter said: “I started trying different ways to pick it, and came up with my own style, because there weren’t many guitar players around. I just played the way I wanted to and that’s it.”
Carter was the sixth of 10 kids. Her father owned a local general store and dabbled in moonshine. The entire family was musical and Carter learned banjo and Autoharp when she was young. She taught herself guitar at 13. In Poor Valley, folk songs were passed down orally from generation to generation and Carter learned many songs from her mother. She grew up happily walking miles to revivals to listen to hymns. She had an excellent ear.
When she was 15, she dropped out of school to play full time with A.P. and Sara. They’d christened themselves “The Carter Family” and played at churches, schoolhouses, and “singing conventions.”
In 1927, when Maybelle was 18, married, and seven months pregnant, the Carter Family borrowed a rickety Model T from Carter’s husband, Ezra, and drove 18 hours across rough dirt roads in sweltering summer heat to reach Bristol, Tennessee, where a producer from the Victor Talking Machine Company was recording rural artists. His name was Ralph Peer, and he was convinced that there was better country music to be heard than what Vernon Dalhart, a former opera singer, was selling. Dalhart simply imitated what he thought singers from the mountains sounded like, and that sounded like mockery to Ralph Peer.
Ralph Peer promised to pay $50 on the spot for each side cut and 2½ cents for each single sold. Sessions were held on the third floor of a hat and glove factory and when Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. walked in, Peer was skeptical. He said: “They looked like hillbillies, but as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” The Carter Family recorded six songs, including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “Wandering Boy,” and “The Storms Are On the Ocean.”
It took the Carter Family three days and three tire patches to drive back home. Five months later, they had their first hit record with “Single Girl, Married Girl.” By 1930, the Carter Family had sold over 300,000 records in the United States. Their music influenced Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, who tinkered with the melody to “Wayworn Traveler,” added his own lyrics, and turned it into the song “Paths of Victory.” Johnny Cash later married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June, who would go on to write the seminal country song, “Ring of Fire.” After the Carter Family disbanded in the 1940s, Maybelle formed “The Carter Sisters” with her daughters Helen, June, and Anita.
Billboard Magazine describes the Carter sessions at Bristol, Tennessee, as “the most important single event in the history of country music,” largely responsible for the development of modern country music.
The recording machine at the hat and glove factory astounded Maybelle Carter. The heavy, spinning turntable was covered with an inch and half of wax. There were pulleys and weights in a wooden tower. The microphone ran off electricity. Maybelle Carter said: “When we made the record and played it back, I thought it couldn’t be. I just couldn’t believe it, this being so unreal, you standing there and singing and they’d turn around and play it back to you.”
She said: “I have loved music all my life. I guess I was just born that way.”