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.
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.
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.
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.