MAYBELLE CARTER (By Alain Dormoy)
Born Maybelle Addington Carter, 10 May 1909, Nickelsville, Virginia
The Carter family are among the most famous of the pioneers who made ntoday's country music possible. In 1915, Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, mostly known as "A.P.", born 1891, married 16 year old Sara Dougherty. For the following several years, the young couple entertained informally, often at churches, in the neighbourhood of the southern Virginia town in which A.P. had grown up. Unlike many of the Appalachian mountain singers of that time, who often sang without an accompaniment, they used a guitar and an autoharp, A.P. occasionally playing the fiddle. In 1927, they were joined by Sara's younger cousin Maybelle Addington who had married A.P.'s brother Ezra the year before. Guitar was a rather unusual instrument in the mountains in those times and Maybelle developed an original style of picking the melody on the bass strings while the fingers kept the rhythm by downstroking the higher ones. Folk singers in the '60s adopted a guitar picking style that had a great deal to do with the one Maybelle had popularised. A.P. wrote original songs but also would go on "searching-for-songs" trips, looking for traditional songs to adapt. He would often go on those trips with black guitarist Leslie Riddles who probably influenced Maybelle's playing style. In late July 1927, the family travelled to Bristol, Tennessee to make their first record with pioneer producer Ralph Peer on the Victor label. Peer discovered Jimmie Rodgers during those same famous Bristol sessions. What A.P. had to offer was exactly what Peer was looking for: traditional songs from the public domain, which could be copyrighted after adaptation. They recorded six songs during those sessions. "Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow Tree" is considered the first one ever recorded by the Carters. For the subsequent eight years and even after A.P. and Sara separated in 1932, they recorded numerous songs for the Victor company, among which hits like "The Storms are on the ocean", "Keep On The Sunny Side" (their radio theme song), "Wildwood Flowers", "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man", "Anchored In Love", "I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes", "Wabash Cannonball", "Worried Man Blues" and the most famous "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". In the second half of the '30s, they found a job with the XERA radio station. It was located on the Mexican side of the Texas border and could broadcast a much more powerful signal than the US laws were allowing. This helped spread the Carter sound a lot farther than had been possible with the previous stations they had worked for. By that time the family performances included Maybelle's children Helen, June - who would marry Johnny Cash in 1968 - and Anita, along with Sara's daughter Janette. The family broke up in 1943 even though they were at the peak of their popularity. Maybelle started her own career, performing with her three daughters on the Old Dominion Barndance on WRVA Richmond, Virginia as Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters. A popular act between 1943 and 1948 they moved to WSM Nashville and performed on the Grand Ole Opry from 1950 to 1957 (with a young guitarist named Chet Atkins). In 1967 Maybelle and Sara got together for a reunion LP on Columbia. In 1970 the "Original Carter Family" was the first group ever to be elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Their plaque read: "They are regarded by many as the epitome of country greatness and originator of a much copied style".
Representative recordings: Rounder series complete recordings 1927-33 (Rounder 9 CDs - 1993-1997). There is also a recent box-set "The Carter Family 1927-1934". (JSP, 5 CD's.) The re-recordings of their songs they did for Decca in 1936 and 1937 are sometimes considered better than their original work. A selection can be found on Country Music Hall Of Fame (MCA 10088). Recommended reading: Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2002.
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