A. P. Carter (1891–1960)


A. P. Carter was a song collector and member of the Carter Family, a trio that helped to pioneer what became known as country music. Born in Scott County, in Southwest Virginia, Carter worked as a carpenter and traveling salesman before marrying Sara Dougherty in 1915. Carter’s true passion had always been music, and with his new wife, who sang and played the autoharp, he began to perform and audition to make recordings. With Maybelle Carter—Sara Carter’s first cousin and the wife of A. P. Carter’s brother—the couple formed the Carter Family, recording for the first time at the Bristol Sessions of 1927. The group made nearly 300 records in a career that lasted until the early 1940s, and for several years they performed on ultrahigh-frequency border radio. These broadcasts could be heard across North America and helped make the group nationally famous. Many of the songs the Carter Family performed had been collected and arranged by A. P. Carter, who often spent weeks at a time combing the Virginia countryside for material, absences that, along with the fame, took a toll on his marriage. He and Sara Carter divorced in 1936 but continued to record together until 1941. The next year she moved to California, leaving behind their three children. With the Carter Family dissolved, A. P. Carter returned to Scott County, where he opened a general store, reuniting briefly with his former wife in the 1950s to perform with two of their children. Carter died in 1960 and was buried near Sara Carter in Virginia.

Early Years

Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was born on December 15, 1891, in a log cabin near Maces Spring, in Scott County. The eldest of the eight children of Robert C. Carter, a farmer, and Mollie Arvella Bays Carter, he was a dreamer who found himself out of step with life in the Southwest Virginia mountains. Carter was a restless man who seldom stayed focused on tasks long enough to see them through to completion. Family members described him as nervous, a condition that manifested itself in trembling hands and a quavering voice. His formal education was meager. Lacking the instincts and passions of a farmer, Carter worked as a carpenter and as a traveling fruit-tree salesman. In 1911 he went to Richmond, Indiana, where he was briefly a carpenter for a railroad company. Later he spent six months in Detroit, Michigan, seeking work in the building industry. At various times Carter operated his own sawmill and gristmill and ran a grocery store.

Although Carter had little interest in farming and failed to achieve prosperity in his other career endeavors, music captured his attention and brought him success, not in terms of financial wealth, but in the form of enduring fame and immutable respect. Both of Carter’s parents came from musical families. His father was a fiddler and his mother a singer of hymns and ballads that had been handed down through her family. As a youth Carter learned to play the jew’s harp, guitar, and fiddle, despite his mother’s aversion to the last instrument, to which she objected on religious grounds.

Although his achievements as an instrumentalist were unremarkable, Carter’s bass voice earned him early credibility as a musician. In singing schools held from time to time in the community he learned the seven-shape-note singing method that evolved in western Virginia after the American Civil War (1861–1865), rather than the traditional four-note system found in popular prewar songbooks such as Sacred Harp, and had lessons in composition, harmony, voice, sight-reading, and rhythm. Carter also attended the singing schools of his uncle Flanders Bays, a well-known singing-school teacher who traveled a wide circuit in southwestern Virginia. An astute pupil who soon mastered the basics of music, Carter, when time allowed, assisted his uncle in conducting the singing schools in churches, schools, and other gathering places.

While on one of his tree-selling excursions in 1914 Carter heard Sara Dougherty playing an autoharp and singing the disaster ballad “Engine 143.” They married in Scott County on June 18, 1915, set up housekeeping in a two-room cabin that Carter built with the help of his family and neighbors, and by 1919 had moved to Maces Spring. They had two daughters and one son. From the beginning the new Carter household was filled with music, as the husband and wife sang together to the accompaniment of his fiddle and guitar and her autoharp. Sara Carter joined the church choir of which her husband had long been a member, and occasionally the two of them performed together before audiences. In 1926, out of respect for his mother’s religious convictions regarding fiddle playing, Carter rejected an offer from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, which wanted to record the Carters’ square dance tunes and bill the act as “Fiddlin’ Doc.”

The Carter Family

In March 1926 Carter’s brother, Ezra J. “Eck” Carter, married Maybelle Addington, who was Sara Carter’s first cousin. Maybelle Carter began playing guitar and singing tenor harmony with her cousin and brother-in-law, with Sara Carter singing lead and playing the autoharp and A. P. Carter singing bass. The group attracted considerable local attention and soon was in demand for performances at various community socials.

Undaunted by bad roads and a flat-tire-prone automobile, the three Carters made their way to Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, in July 1927 to audition for the Victor Talking Machine Company and on August 1 impressed the scout, Ralph Sylvester Peer, with their performances. The Carters recorded “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow,” “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” “Poor Orphan Child,” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean” in Peer’s makeshift studio and returned the next morning to record two additional songs, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Wandering Boy.” These Bristol recording sessions proved to be a watershed event in the history of country music and launched the career of the Carter Family, one of the most important acts in that genre of American popular music.

A Victor Talking Machine and Records

For the next sixteen years, Carter devoted his energies to the music of the Carter Family. He collected, composed, arranged, and rehearsed songs for the group’s recording sessions. He negotiated contracts with record companies and sought to keep the Carter Family music before the public through radio and personal appearances. Carter was an indefatigable song hunter, and the original Carter Family recorded almost 300 releases on a variety of labels for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor Records), American Record Corporation, and Decca Records. The repertoire, arranged to fit the Carter Family style, included hymns, spirituals, blues, ballads of British origin, nineteenth-century popular songs, occupational songs, and an occasional novelty tune. Carter assiduously canvassed ephemeral publications, old-timers living in neighboring hills and valleys, shape-note hymnals, black musicians such as the blues player Lesley Riddle, and sheet music in his search for material for the Carter Family and supplemented the songs obtained from external sources with his own original compositions. Among the Carter Family’s memorable songs are “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Wildwood Flower.”

Carter’s frequent absences collecting songs put strains on his marriage, and by 1932 Sara Carter had begun an affair with his first cousin, Coy W. Bays (later Bayes). Early in 1933 Carter and his wife separated, and on October 15, 1936, they divorced. Their three children remained with A. P. Carter. Despite this family schism, Carter and his former wife continued to perform together, even after her remarriage in 1939, and the group later expanded to include one of Carter’s children and Maybelle Carter’s three daughters, including June Carter.

The Carter Family in Virginia

The Carter Family, through their phonograph records, became well-known among country music aficionados in the United States. Their music began to reach a much wider audience by the winter of 1937–1938, when the group started broadcasting regularly over several powerful Mexican border stations. Not bound by the 50,000-watt power restriction imposed by the government on radio stations in the United States, such border stations as XEG and XERA reached much of North America with a signal that sometimes exceeded 500,000 watts. The Carter Family received other significant radio exposure over WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they were heard from the autumn of 1942 to the spring of 1943. When the contract with WBT expired in March 1943, the original Carter Family disbanded. They had made their last recordings on October 14, 1941, in RCA Victor’s New York studio.

Later Years

Carter spent the last years of his life in Maces Spring, where he operated a country store (after his death the museum of the Carter Family Memorial Music Center, Incorporated). Between 1952 and 1956 he, his former wife, and their children Janette Carter and Joe Carter recorded occasionally as the Carter Family or the A. P. Carter Family for Acme Records, a minor independent recording company headquartered in Tennessee. He received a citation of achievement from the performing-rights organization BMI in 1959 for his arrangement of the Victorian parlor song “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy,” recorded by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Carter died in Kingsport, Tennessee, on November 7, 1960, and was buried in Mount Vernon United Methodist Church Cemetery in Maces Spring. In 1970 the original Carter Family was the first musical group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and that same year A. P. Carter was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized the Carter Family’s 1935 Banner label recording of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)” and 1928 RCA Victor recording of “Wildwood Flower” as enduring works of historical significance with Grammy Hall of Fame Awards in 1998 and 1999, respectively. The recordings that the group made in 1927 were still being reissued in the twenty-first century, and professional entertainers acknowledging a debt to the influence of Carter Family music have become legion.

December 15, 1891
A. P. Carter is born in a log cabin near Maces Spring, in Scott County.
A. P. Carter travels to Richmond, Indiana, where he briefly works as a carpenter for a railroad company.
June 18, 1915
A. P. Carter and Sara Dougherty marry in Scott County. They will have two daughters and one son.
A. P. Carter rejects a recording offer from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company out of respect for his mother's religious convictions against fiddle playing.
March 12, 1926
Ezra J. "Eck" Carter and Maybelle Addington marry in Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee state line. They will have three daughters.
July 1927
The Carter Family auditions to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
August 1—2, 1927
The Carter Family records six tracks for the Victor Talking Machine Company, in Bristol, part of what becomes known as the Bristol Sessions.
May 9, 1928
The Carter Family makes a second series of recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, in Camden, New Jersey.
By this year Sara Carter has begun an affair with her husband's first cousin, Coy W. Bays (later Bayes).
Early 1933
A. P. Carter and Sara Carter separate.
October 15, 1936
A. P. Carter and Sara Carter divorce but continue performing together in the Carter Family. Their three children remain with A. P. Carter.
Late 1938
The Carter Family moves to Del Rio, Texas, spending the winter performing for an ultrahigh-frequency radio station that broadcasts from across the border in Mexico and can be heard across North America.
February 20, 1939
Sara Carter and Coy Bayes marry in Brackettville, Texas, where Carter is performing with the Carter Family.
Winter 1939—1940
The Carter Family lives in San Antonio, Texas, performing for a border radio station. June Carter, her sisters Helen and Anita, and their cousin Janette all join the family act.
October 14, 1941
The Carter Family makes its final recording as a trio in RCA Victor's New York studio.
Autumn 1942
The Carter Family moves to Charlotte, North Carolina, to perform for WBT radio.
March 1943
The Carter Family's contract with WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina, ends, and the musical act disbands.
A. P. Carter and Sara Carter perform and record occasionally with two of their children as the Carter Family or the A. P. Carter Family.
A. P. Carter receives a citation of achievement from BMI for his arrangement of "Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy."
November 7, 1960
A. P. Carter dies in Kingsport, Tennessee. He is buried in Mount Vernon United Methodist Church Cemetery in Maces Spring.
The Carter Family is the first musical group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, Tennessee.
A. P. Carter is inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The former home of A. P. Carter and Sara Carter is placed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizes the Carter Family recording of "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)" from 1935 as an enduring work of historical significance.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizes the Carter Family recording of "Wildwood Flower" from 1928 as an enduring work of historical significance.
  • Daniel, Wayne W. “Carter, Alvin Pleasant Delaney.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 52–54. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
  • Zwonitzer, Mark, with Charles Hirshberg. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
APA Citation:
Daniel, Wayne & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. A. P. Carter (1891–1960). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/carter-a-p-1891-1960.
MLA Citation:
Daniel, Wayne, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "A. P. Carter (1891–1960)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.