The focus for this season’s NPR Music’s Turning the Tables is 8 Women Who Invented American Popular Music. It launched last week with a survey of early blues superstar Bessie Smith. This week it’s country music’s Maybelle Carter’s turn in the spotlight.
Born in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia in 1909, Maybelle Carter grew up in a musical family. Playing music at home and in her rural community were common childhood activities for her. She had a natural talent and was able to learn several instruments, including two for which she would become very well known: autoharp and guitar.
In 1926, she married Ezra Carter, brother of A.P. Carter, who had married Maybelle’s cousin Sara in 1915. A.P. had an entrepreneurial spirit and had begun traveling throughout the mountains to collect songs. Often his companion on these trips was an African American guitarist named Lesley Riddle. In an interview with Mike Seeger from 1965, Riddle said, “If I could hear you sing, I could sing it too. I was his tape recorder. He’d take me with him and he’d get someone to sing the whole song. Then I’d get it and learn it to Sara and Maybelle.”
In 1927, A.P. became intrigued by an advertisement he saw for an upcoming Victor Talking Machine Company recording session that was to take place in Bristol, Tenn. He encouraged Maybelle and Sara to take the trip to Bristol with him so they could audition and possibly record songs as the Carter Family. They attended the session and recorded six songs over two days, August 1 and 2, 1927, capturing the sound of their three-person group: Sara’s voice and autoharp, A.P.’s arrangements and vocals and Maybelle’s guitar. These records were nationally distributed and gave listeners an opportunity to hear the musical sounds of rural, Southern Appalachia. Audiences responded well: The recordings were very popular and created a demand for more country music to be recorded. These sessions, known as the Bristol Sessions, produced not only the Carter Family but also superstar Jimmie Rodgers. Those several days in 1927 would become known as the Big Bang of Country Music.
As the popularity of the Carter Family grew so did the awareness of Maybelle’s guitar playing style which received several nicknames with the most popular being the “Carter Scratch.” Before Maybelle introduced her style of playing, guitar was often a background rhythm instrument. Her innovative technique involved playing a bass line while simultaneously playing chords, creating the sound of multiple guitars from just one instrument. The Carter Family’s unique sound, with Maybelle providing both rhythm and melody, changed the way guitar would be used in bands from that point forward.
From 1927 to 1941 the original Carter Family recorded 292 songs. They traveled from their homes in Virginia to recording studios in Camden, NJ; Atlanta, Ga.; Memphis, Tenn.; Charlotte, NC; Louisville, Ky.; New York, NY; Chicago, Ill. and performed old-time ballads, traditional folk music, country songs and gospel hymns.
By the mid-1930s the Carter Family’s record sales had slowed down. In 1938, when the opportunity to perform five days a week on the radio was presented, they took it. The money was good, and the exposure was huge — XERA was an over 500,000 watt radio station. Known as a “border-blaster,” the station was located in northern Mexico just over the Rio Grande River. The station’s broadcast was reported to reach up the Mississippi River into Canada, and as far east as Florida and New York City. With radio’s growing popularity, the wide reach of this station offered the Carter Family a level of exposure they had never experienced before. In 1939, the Carter Family returned to XERA for a second season of on-air performances. Maybelle brought all three of her daughters to perform with her on the air. This would be their last season performing on XERA, as it was shut down by the Mexican government in early 1941. A few years later, in March 1943, the last of their other radio performance contracts expired and the original Carter Family stopped playing together.
Maybelle was already on her way to evolving the group from the original Carter Family into the Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. This group was comprised of Maybelle and her three daughters, Helen (born in 1927), June (born in 1929) and Anita (born in 1933). Maybelle had a dedication to touring and performing that was often discouraged for women at the time. Helen Carter told Archie Campbell in a 1983 interview: “I can remember when mother started out with us Aunt Sara would say, ‘May, When are you ever going to settle down and stay home like you should?’ And that was not for mother, she enjoyed every minute.” Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters on radio programs and television shows. They toured and performed together for many years, often on radio and television shows. Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters made studio recordings and became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. Anita Carter sang a duet of “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” with Hank Williams in 1952 on the Kate Smith Evening Hour television show. They opened for Elvis Presley in 1956 and 1957, and in 1961 they joined the Johnny Cash Roadshow.
Maybelle Carter was a pioneer of guitar playing and style. She was the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with her bandmate and cousin, Sara Carter. Their plaque states that the Carter Family are “regarded by many as the epitome of country greatness and originators of a much copied style.”
1. The Carter Family, “Wildwood Flower”
May 10, 1928, Camden, NJ
Sara Carter, vocal; Maybelle Carter, guitar.
“Wildwood Flower” is the most famous example of Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing technique known as the Carter Scratch. In this recording, you can hear her playing of the rhythmic bass line while simultaneously strumming the melody. In an interview in 1973, Maybelle comically recalled, “I never even dreamed of ‘Wildwood Flower’ hanging on like it has but it’s really been a biscuit for us.”
2. Maybelle Carter, “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”
July 28, 1963, Newport, RI
“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” was the first song that the Carter Family recorded in Bristol, Tenn. in 1927. In 1963, the New Lost City Ramblers: Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz, brought Maybelle to the Newport Folk Festival. Here she is, 36 years later, performing the song solo and sharing a brief remembrance of that day in Bristol — giving us insight to her perspective at the beginning of her recording career.
3. The Carter Family, “Single Girl, Married Girl”
August 2, 1927, Bristol, Tenn.
Sara Carter, vocal and autoharp; Maybelle Carter, guitar.
This song was recorded by Sara and Maybelle without A.P. and features Sara’s singing. Record producer Ralph Peer said, “As soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew that it was going to be wonderful.” The lyrics of this song lament the life of married women and the limitations and burdens that come with it compared to the freedom of being single. It must have resonated with people because it became the most commercially successful of all the records made by the Carter Family at the Bristol sessions.
4. The Carter Family, “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy”
November 25, 1929, Atlanta, Ga.
Sara Carter, vocal and autoharp; Maybelle Carter, guitar.
This song was originally written by William S. Hays in 1875. A.P. Carter took Hays’ lyrics and incorporated them into the song, which the Carter Family recorded in 1929. Hays’ other songwriting credits include “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” which was recorded by Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta in 1923 and became country music’s first hit record. The success of Carson’s recording inspired scouts to search throughout the South for musicians performing regional styles like Country, Blues and Gospel. It was Ralph Peer, the scout for Okeh Records present at Carson’s session, who would be the first to record the Carter Family four years later.
5. Lesley Riddle, “Motherless Children”
1960s, Rochester, New York
This is a gospel blues song that was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Similar to A.P. Carter’s approach to songbook music, Johnson added his own lyrics to his rendition of this song.
Lesley Riddle was a musician who traveled with A.P. on song collecting trips where A.P. would try to find musicians, sheet music and old songbooks with material that he could use for creating new songs. He was gifted in his ability to recall the music and lyrics of the songs heard and found on these trips. Riddle would also share with A.P. the songs he knew.
“Motherless Children” is one of the songs Riddle taught to the Carter Family, and they recorded their version in 1929. This performance was recorded by Mike Seeger during one of several visits he made to Riddle’s home in the 1960s. Seeger connected with Riddle after Maybelle told Seeger that she had learned a number of songs — as well as the country blues bottleneck style of guitar — from Riddle. Of Maybelle’s playing, Riddle told Seeger, “You don’t have to give Maybelle any lessons. You let her see you playing something, she’ll get it — you better believe it.”
6. Sara & Maybelle Carter, “I’m Leaving You”
April 24, 1963, Angel’s Camp, Ca.
Sara Carter Bayes, lead vocal and second guitar, and Maybelle Carter, harmony vocal and lead guitar.
After being separated for several years, Sara and A.P. Carter were divorced in 1936. In 1939, while performing on the Border Radio station XERA, she dedicated the song “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” to Coy Bayes who had moved to California with his family six years earlier. This was all it took to rekindle their affection for one another, and they were soon married. Eventually Sara grew tired of being so far from her husband and moved to California in 1943. This was the end of the Carter Family as the trio it had always been. This song was recorded by Mike Seeger at the home of Sara and her second husband, Coy Bayes.
In his writing about this recording, Seeger recalled, “This is one of the few songs that we had full takes, and you can hear their ad lib but totally musical togetherness. Maybelle plays this song with a flat pick, which she did occasionally.” The Delmore Brothers recorded this track in 1933, and it was released the following year. It had not been recorded by Sara and Maybelle prior to this session.
7. Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs Featuring Mother Maybelle Carter & The Foggy Mountain Boys, “You Are My Flower”
February 10, 1961, Nashville, Tenn.
Lester Flatt, guitar and vocals; Earl Scruggs, guitar and vocals; Curly Seckler, mandolin; Buck Graves, dobro; Paul Warren, fiddle; Jake Tullock, bass; Maybelle Carter, autoharp and guitar; produced by Don Law
This recording is from Songs of the Famous Carter Family, the 1961 album based on a concept that Earl Scruggs presented to Lester Flatt. Most people know Scruggs best as an innovative and influential banjo picker, but he also played guitar extraordinarily well. He cited Maybelle and Merle Travis as his two favorite guitar players. In a 2004 interview, Earl Scruggs recalled, “I used her guitar on that recording and I played all over that son of a gun and I could never make it sound like Maybelle Carter. I could not dig up what I heard her do.” In another interview with Scruggs referenced in the book Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? he says Maybelle played the guitar on this recording because he couldn’t get it right and when he asked her to show him how to play it the producer rolled tape and captured her performance, later splicing it into the tape.
8. Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, “Foggy Mountain Top”
From the 2005 reissue compilation Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash — Her Life in Music
Music and performance were so important to Maybelle Carter’s life it was only natural that she would include her children — Helen, Anita and June — in what she valued so dearly. This song gives each daughter her moment to shine, with each taking a turn for a solo. Don Law, a Nashville staple for this era of recording, produced this (as well as the previous Flatt and Scruggs track). Listeners can hear the similarities in the production style, as each are representative of the more polished and contemporary sound coming from 1960s Nashville studios.
9. Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, “Root, Hog or Die”
June Carter, vocal; Maybelle Carter, guitar; Chet Atkins, electric guitar; Helen Carter, accordion; Anita Carter, bass
“Root, Hog or Die” is a saying that dates back to the 1800s, at least. It refers to the spirit of survival and how essential it is to thrive and to survive regardless of one’s conditions and circumstances. This song has been adapted to fit numerous situations and circumstances. This particular version is a comic take on a woman’s experience with a man who was charming at the beginning of their relationship and then became selfish and uncaring. June’s comedic spirit really comes across in this performance.
Chet Atkins joined Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters in 1949. In his autobiography, Me and My Guitars, he recalled, “June had a natural genius for comedy, she could make anything funny with her style and delivery. Working with her in that way is what finally helped me start overcoming the crippling shyness I’d always had. When I learned how it felt to make people laugh, and became confident doing it, that’s when I started to blossom as a performer. The musical mix of my guitar playing, their repertoire of country songs and ballads, and June’s comedic talent made for a very appealing show. We drew big crowds everywhere we appeared.”
10. Doc Watson, “Victory Rag”
Doc Watson grew up listening to the Carter Family’s records and taught himself how to play in the style of Mother Maybelle. He added his own flatpick style of playing strings on the up strum, and his style of flatpicking would go on to become as influential as Mother Maybelle’s. Here’s a song from his album Home Again! which was released in 1966. He pays homage to Maybelle by playing her arrangement of “Victory Rag” on the record.
11. Norman Blake, Nancy Blake and Tim O’Brien, “Black Jack David”
Norman Blake, vocal and acoustic guitar; Nancy Blake, vocal, acoustic guitar and cello; Tim O’Brien, vocal and bouzouki; Laura Cash, fiddle; John Carter Cash, autoharp
This recording is from the Carter Family tribute album, The Unbroken Circle, which was released on August 24, 2004, a year after the passing of June Carter Cash. The album was initiated by Johnny Cash and his son, John Carter Cash. Norman Blake performed with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters in Chattanooga, Tenn. in the late 1950s. He was teaching guitar lessons in Chattanooga in the 1960s when one of his students brought in a Doc Watson LP. Watson’s flatpicking style was a revelation and influence to Blake, but like Doc, Blake would continue to pay homage to one of his original guitar inspirations, Mother Maybelle, as heard in this recording with his wife Nancy Blake and Tim O’Brien.
12. Joan Baez, “Wildwood Flower”
Joan Baez began her career singing traditional folk songs and ballads. She recorded “Wildwood Flower” for her self-titled debut in 1960. The album introduced songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Silver Dagger” to a new generation of listeners who found inspiration in traditional folk and country music. Joan Baez and her folk music contemporaries like Bob Dylan and The New Lost City Ramblers were at the forefront of the folk music revival, without which the music of The Carter Family may not have reached young listeners.
13. Clarence White, “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”
Recorded in 1962
From the album 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals
First appeared on Rounder Guitar – A Collection Of Acoustic Guitar, released in 1987
Clarence White was a flatpicking legend and innovator. He furthered the recognition of the guitar as a lead instrument while also creating a bridge between the worlds of country music and rock and roll, playing for The Kentucky Colonels and the Byrds. He recognized Doc Watson as an influence on his playing style, and by doing so Clarence incorporated elements from Doc which Doc had learned from Maybelle.
14. Tommy Emmanuel, “Cowboy’s Dream”
From his 2014 album, The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel
Tommy Emmanuel is a Grammy-nominated guitarist from Australia whose idol and inspiration is Chet Atkins and his fingerpicking style of guitar playing. Atkins began performing and touring with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters in 1949 and developed as an artist under Maybelle and the Carter Sister’s influence. Both the playing styles of Chet Atkins and Maybelle Carter can be heard in Emmanuel’s version of “Cowboy’s Dream” heard here.
15. Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Hello Stranger”
Hubby Jenkins, vocal and guitar; Rhiannon Giddens, vocal and banjo.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a Grammy-winning string band based in Durham, N.C. They brought the music of the Carter Family era to a new generation of fans while introducing and educating listeners to the important role African-Americans played in the history of American music. This version of “Hello Stranger” features vocalists Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins interpreting the Carter Family sound as part of the soundtrack to the 2015 documentary The Winding Stream.” Dom Flemons, a former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, headlined this year’s Lesley Riddle Festival in Burnsville, N.C.
16. Lucinda Williams, “Little Darling Pal of Mine”
September 1978, Jackson, Miss.
Lucinda Williams, 12-string guitar and vocal; John Grimaudo, 6-string guitar
Lucinda Williams recorded “Little Darling Pal of Mine” for her debut album, Ramblin’, which came out on the Smithsonian Folkways label in 1979. The album covers a variety of early, traditional American music and was an expression of Williams’ influences, including this version of a song the Carter Family recorded in 1928.
17. Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land”
April 1944, released by Folkways Records in 1951
Woody Guthrie, vocal and guitar
“This Land Is Your Land” is Woody Guthrie’s best-known song. Its melody is based on the Carter Family’s gospel tune “When the World’s on Fire.” Matt Jennings, a childhood friend of Guthrie’s, recalled to Ed Cray how Woody was always trying to master “the Carter Family lick.” When the two of them would listen to Carter Family records on a wind-up Victrola, Jennings said, “Woody wanted to do all the runs; he loved those bass runs.” Those influential bass runs can be heard here in a song so beloved there have been campaigns for it to serve as the national anthem of the United States.