It’s the birthday of country and folk musician Mother Maybelle Carter, born Maybelle Addington in a tiny hamlet near Nickelsville in western Virginia. (1909). She revolutionized guitar playing with her unusual style of playing melody on the bass strings: she used her thumb while strumming with her fingers. This method became known as “the Carter Scratch” and turned the guitar from a purely rhythm instrument to a lead instrument.
Carter’s entire family was musical and Maybelle grew up playing banjo and Autoharp. She moved to the guitar as a teenager. Her mother played banjo and sang old Appalachian folk songs and hymns. When Maybelle was 15, she dropped out of school to play music with her cousin, Sara, and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter.
When Maybelle was seven months pregnant, A.P. Carter promised Maybelle’s husband, Ezra — who was also A.P.’s brother — that he’d weed his corn patch if he let Maybelle come along to Bristol, Tennessee, to make a record. Maybelle, Sara, and A.P., had been performing regularly at fairs, schools, and churches as “The Carter Family,” and had gotten pretty popular in Virginia. A man named Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company wanted to record gospel and string bands. Ezra agreed, and lent The Carter Family his rickety Model T.
The Carter Family performed several songs for Peer above a hat shop in Bristol. He paid $50.00 on the spot and promised a royalty of 2½ cents for each single sold. The heavy, spinning turntable, covered with an inch and half of wax, astonished Maybelle. There were pulleys and weights in a wooden tower. The microphone even ran off electricity. She 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.”
The Carter Family finished up the record and went home. A year later, the record they’d made, filled with rural songs like “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “Wandering Boy,” had sold nearly 300.000 copies. The Carter Family was the first vocal group to become country music stars.
When The Carter Family broke up, Mother Maybelle simply formed a new band with her daughters. “Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters” became a staple of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and toured with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Maybelle’s daughter June later married Johnny Cash and wrote the one of the most famous songs in country music about their relationship, “Ring of Fire.”
In the 1960s, music from The Carter Family archives became quite popular on college campuses, with young people starting an Autoharp craze because of Maybelle Carter. She was so enamored of the counterculture’s enthusiasm for Carter Family music that she considered performing a cover of the song “One Toke Over the Line,” until one of her daughters told her what the song was really about. In the mid-1960s, she and Sara reunited to record an album called An Historic Reunion — and it was. Maybelle Carter died in 1978.
Billboard Magazine called the Bristol sessions “the most important single event in the history of country music.”