Maybelle Carter (1909–1978)


Maybelle Carter was a member of the Carter Family, a trio that helped to pioneer what became known as country music. Born in Scott County, in Southwest Virginia, she grew up playing music and learning traditional Appalachian songs and tunes. She also developed a distinctive style of guitar playing that combined rhythmic chords and thumb-plucked melody that was dubbed the “Carter lick.” With her first cousin Sara Carter and Carter’s husband, A. P. Carter, Maybelle Carter 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. After the Carter Family disbanded in 1943, Maybelle Carter continued to perform with her three daughters, as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. She joined the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and later toured with Johnny Cash, her daughter June Carter‘s third husband. Later in life Carter continued to perform and appear on television and came to be known as the Mother of Country Music. She died in 1978.

Early Years

Maybelle Addington was born on May 10, 1909, in the Copper Creek community near Nickelsville, in Scott County. One of ten children of Hugh Jack Addington and Margaret Elizabeth Kilgore Addington, she learned a variety of traditional Appalachian songs and tunes from her banjo-playing mother as well as from siblings, relatives, and neighbors. Performing as a child at social gatherings with her family’s informal band, Addington sang and played the banjo and autoharp, although by her teenage years she had adopted the guitar as her primary instrument. Her style of playing, modeled loosely on old-time banjo techniques, required plucking the melody on the bass strings while strumming the rhythm on the high strings and became so influential among later guitar players that it was dubbed the “Carter lick.”

The Carter Family

One of the people with whom Addington performed regularly when young was her older first cousin Sara Dougherty, who lived with Addington’s aunt after her own mother died and who in June 1915 married A. P. Carter. On March 12, 1926, Addington eloped to Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee state line, with A. P. Carter’s younger brother Ezra J. “Eck” Carter, whom she had known only about four months. The couple settled in Maces Spring, a rural community in Poor Valley. There Carter began performing regularly with Sara Carter, who sang the lead vocal melody and accompanied on the autoharp, and A. P. Carter, who sang bass, collected and arranged songs, and managed the family singing group.

Late in July 1927 the trio traveled by automobile over rough roads to a makeshift studio in Bristol, where the producer Ralph Sylvester Peer was recording performances by various Appalachian musicians for commercial release on the Victor Talking Machine Company label. On August 1 and 2 the Carters recorded six tracks, including “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow,” “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” and “The Wandering Boy,” released on three double-sided 78 rpm records issued under the name the Carter Family. Strong sales led to more recording sessions for the trio, beginning with one in Camden, New Jersey, on May 9, 1928. Through commercial records, radio, and concerts, the Carter Family quickly developed a national reputation as one of the most influential acts in the emergent popular music genre then called hillbilly music and eventually known as country music.

Carter played the guitar and occasionally the autoharp on the trio’s early recordings and during the 1930s began to sing tenor harmony behind Sara Carter’s lead vocals. Her fame continued to be based on her guitar style, and her guitar arrangements on the Carter Family’s recordings of such songs as “The Cannon-Ball,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “Wildwood Flower” remain among the most-imitated instrumental parts in country music history. A number of Carter’s guitar accompaniments on the group’s 1930s recordings reveal the significant influence on her playing style of the African American blues musician Lesley Riddle, a family acquaintance who accompanied A. P. Carter on song-collecting expeditions.

The Carter Family in Virginia

Despite Sara Carter and A. P. Carter’s marital difficulties, separation, and 1936 divorce, the original members of the Carter Family continued to perform together into the 1940s. Between 1938 and 1942 the Carter Family spent winters in Texas, where they performed over several Mexican border radio stations whose powerful ultrahigh-frequency signals blanketed all of North America and occasionally reached Asia, Europe, and South America. Appearing with the trio on these radio shows were Carter’s three daughters, Anita Carter, Helen Carter, and Valerie June Carter, as well as A. P. Carter and Sara Carter’s daughter Janette Carter.

The original Carter Family had its final recording session as a trio on October 14, 1941, in RCA Victor’s New York studio. Their nearly 300 recordings, made over a fourteen-year period and released on the American Record Corporation, Decca, and RCA Victor labels, encompassed most types of songs popular in early twentieth-century southwestern Virginia homes, ranging from ballads, sentimental nineteenth-century parlor songs, and hymns to blues. Many of the songs the Carter Family recorded were familiar to record buyers throughout the southeastern United States, yet such songs were transformed in A. P. Carter’s striking arrangements.

Later Years

Original Grand Ole Opry House

After performing regularly on radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, from the autumn of 1942 to the spring of 1943, the trio disbanded in March 1943. Teaming up with her daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Carter traveled the South for several years performing over various radio stations, including WRVA in Richmond on the “Old Dominion Barn Dance,” WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, and KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. By 1950 Carter had moved to Nashville and joined the Grand Ole Opry. She occasionally wrote and composed songs for her group’s repertoire, including “I’ve Got a Home in Glory,” “A Jilted Love,” “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” “Lonesome Homesick Blues,” and “Walk a Little Closer.” In 1961 the country music star Johnny Cash invited Carter and her daughters to tour with him. Exposure to a wider audience led to renewed recording opportunities, including, at Cash’s urging, a 1966 reunion album with Sara Carter and other releases on the Columbia Records and Kapp labels.

After leaving the Grand Ole Opry in 1967, Carter continued to appear at leading venues of the 1960s folk music revival, including the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, often playing the autoharp rather than the guitar. Between 1969 and 1971 she performed regularly on the ABC television variety show of Johnny Cash, who in March 1968 had married Carter’s twice-divorced daughter June Carter. Maybelle Carter won favor among a younger generation of fans, who gave her the moniker the Mother of Country Music. In 1970 the Carter Family was the first group voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Carter’s participation in the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark all-star album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972) secured her reputation as one of the most distinctive and revered musicians in country music history. 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” received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998 and 1999, respectively, as enduring works of historical significance.

Ezra Carter, who worked as a mail clerk for a railroad company during the Great Depression and later served as manager of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, died on January 22, 1975. Maybelle Carter, having endured both arthritis and Parkinson’s disease in her last years, died suddenly of a respiratory ailment in a Nashville hospital on October 23, 1978, and was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park East (later Hendersonville Memory Gardens) in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Her Maces Spring home is on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

May 10, 1909
Maybelle Addington is born in the Copper Creek community near Nickelsville, in Scott County.
June 18, 1915
A. P. Carter and Sara Dougherty marry in Scott County. They will have two daughters and one son.
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.
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.
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.
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters perform first on WRNL and then on WRVA, in Richmond.
March 1943
The Carter Family's contract with WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina, ends, and the musical act disbands.
May 29, 1950
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters perform for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
December 1961
Johnny Cash invites Maybelle Carter and her three daughters to tour with him.
At the urging of Johnny Cash, Sara Carter Bayes and Maybelle Carter reunite for a Columbia Records album.
Maybelle Carter leaves the Grand Ole Opry.
March 1, 1968
Johnny Cash and June Carter marry in Franklin, Kentucky. They will have one son.
June 1969—March 1971
The ABC television variety program The Johnny Cash Show runs for two seasons and regularly features Maybelle Carter and her daughters.
The Carter Family is the first musical group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, Tennessee.
January 22, 1975
Ezra J. "Eck" Carter, the husband of Maybelle Carter, dies.
October 23, 1978
Maybelle Carter dies in Nashville, Tennessee, and is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park East (later Hendersonville Memory Gardens), in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
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.
  • Olson, Ted. “Carter, Maybelle Addington.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 79–81. 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:
Olson, Ted & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Maybelle Carter (1909–1978). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/carter-maybelle-1909-1978.
MLA Citation:
Olson, Ted, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Maybelle Carter (1909–1978)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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