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(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
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.
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.
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.
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.