Sara Carter (1898–1979)


Sara Carter was a member of the Carter Family, a trio that helped to pioneer what became known as country music. Born and raised in Southwest Virginia, Sara Dougherty sang and played the autoharp from an early age. In 1915, she married the salesman A. P. Carter, who sang bass and collected and arranged songs. 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. With the Carter Family’s success, Sara Carter’s marriage became strained. In 1933 she and A. P. Carter separated; three years later they divorced but continued to perform together. In 1941, she remarried and the next year moved to California, leaving her three children in Virginia with A. P. Carter. Sara Carter spent the rest of her life in California, reuniting briefly with her former husband in the 1950s to perform with two of their children. In 1966 she recorded an album with Maybelle Carter. Sara Carter died in 1979 and was buried near her first husband in Virginia.

Early Years

Sara Elizabeth Dougherty was born on July 21, 1898, in Flatwoods, near Coeburn, in Wise County, and was the daughter of William Sevier Dougherty, a sometime sawmill operator, and Elizabeth Kilgore Dougherty. When she was about three years old her mother died, and she and an elder sister went to live in the Copper Creek community, in Scott County, with their childless maternal aunt Melinda Kilgore Nickels and her husband, Milburn Nickels. She attended a local school.

Dougherty, nicknamed Jake as a child, became interested in music and from a neighbor learned to play the five-bar autoharp. By age twelve she had purchased her own eight-bar instrument from the Sears Roebuck catalog by selling greeting cards. According to family lore, in the spring of 1914 Dougherty was singing the train-wreck ballad “Engine 143” and accompanying herself on the autoharp when a salesman, A. P. Carter, heard her. A romance quickly blossomed, and the pair were married in Scott County on June 18, 1915. The Carters lived initially in a two-room cabin A. P. Carter built but by 1919 had moved to Maces Spring in Poor Valley. They had two daughters and one son.

For the next decade the duo performed at churches, picnics, singing conventions, and other informal gatherings. They sang their repertoire of ballads, love songs, gospel music, and comic ditties to the accompaniment of Sara Carter’s autoharp. This musical blend appealed to their neighbors, and the pair performed as often as their busy family schedule permitted. In 1926 they unsuccessfully auditioned for a scout from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company record label who proved unenthusiastic about a woman singing the lead part and who displayed more interest in A. P. Carter’s fiddling.

The Carter Family

In March 1926 Sara Carter’s first cousin, Maybelle Addington, an accomplished guitarist and vocalist, married A. P. Carter’s younger brother, Ezra J. “Eck” Carter, and joined the informal singing group. Sara Carter, who never learned to read music, performed the lead vocal melody and played the autoharp, Maybelle Carter sang tenor harmony and played the guitar, and A. P. Carter sang bass, collected and arranged songs, and promoted and managed the family group.

Mural Honors Country Music Sessions in Bristol

During the summer of 1927 the trio traveled to nearby Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, in response to a newspaper advertisement in order to audition for the Victor Talking Machine Company. They impressed the talent scout Ralph Sylvester Peer, and in Victor’s makeshift studios on August 1, 1927, they recorded “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow,” “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” “Poor Orphan Child,” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean.” They returned the next day to lay down two more tracks, “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “The Wandering Boy.” Thus began a recording career that lasted until 1941. Their nearly 300 songs for Victor (later RCA Victor Records), Decca, and the American Record Corporation included “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Wildwood Flower,” and their signature song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

The popularity of the Carter Family was immediate, and the trio’s priorities quickly shifted to include more performing and biannual trips to Victor’s recording studios in Camden, New Jersey, or to the other temporary studios that Victor set up in southern cities such as Atlanta, Louisville, and Memphis. As the group spent more time on the road, Carter’s innate discomfort on the stage grew worse. The strain on the Carters’ marriage increased along with their success, a situation worsened by A. P. Carter’s frequent absences on song-hunting expeditions between performances. By 1932 Carter had begun an affair with her husband’s first cousin, Coy W. Bays (later Bayes). Early in 1933 Carter and her husband officially separated, and she returned to Copper Creek, leaving her three children with her husband.

A. P. Carter and Sara Carter remained professional partners even after they divorced on October 15, 1936. The Carter Family, expanded to include one of their children as well as three of their nieces, began to focus on radio work. Between 1938 and 1942 they lived for several months each year in Texas and performed over ultrahigh-power Mexican border radio stations, which enabled them to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners throughout the United States and overseas. On February 20, 1939, Carter married Coy Bayes in Brackettville, Texas. Two years later, on October 14, 1941, the group had their final recording session in RCA Victor’s New York studio, and in March 1943, following a several-month engagement with radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, the three original members of the Carter Family finally split.

Later Years

By 1942 Sara Bayes and her second husband had settled in Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California. Except for trips back to Virginia to visit her children (all of whom remained in Southwest Virginia), she lived in California for the rest of her life. She continued to perform occasionally. Between 1952 and 1956 she, A. P. Carter, and their children Janette Carter and Joe Carter, performing sometimes as the Carter Family and sometimes as the A. P. Carter Family, recorded nearly 100 sides for the Tennessee-based Acme Records label, a venture that proved musically successful but a commercial failure. In 1966, at the urging of Johnny Cash, Bayes reunited with Maybelle Carter for a Columbia Records album. (Cash later married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June Carter.)

The Carter Family in Virginia

Interest in the Carter Family renewed following A. P. Carter’s death in 1960 and the folk revival that swept through popular music circles early in the 1960s. Although somewhat overshadowed by the role of her more famous cousin, Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter’s status as a pioneering figure in country music increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970 the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville inducted the original Carter Family. The group’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.

Sara Carter Bayes died on January 8, 1979, in Lodi, California, and was buried in Mount Vernon United Methodist Church Cemetery in Maces Spring, two rows away from her first husband’s grave. In 1985 the Maces Spring home she had shared with A. P. Carter was placed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

July 21, 1898
Sara Dougherty is born in Flatwoods, near Coeburn, in Wise County.
June 18, 1915
A. P. Carter and Sara Dougherty marry in Scott County. They will have two daughters and one son.
By this year A. P. Carter and Sara Carter have moved to Maces Spring, in Poor Valley.
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.
By this year Sara Carter Bayes and her second husband have settled in Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California.
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.
November 7, 1960
A. P. Carter dies in Kingsport, Tennessee. He is buried in Mount Vernon United Methodist Church Cemetery in Maces Spring.
At the urging of Johnny Cash, Sara Carter Bayes and Maybelle Carter reunite for a Columbia Records album.
The Carter Family is the first musical group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, Tennessee.
January 8, 1979
Sara Carter Bayes dies in Lodi, California, and is buried in Mount Vernon United Methodist Church Cemetery near her former husband A. P. Carter in Maces Spring.
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.
  • Lornell, Kip. “Carter, Sara Elizabeth Dougherty.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 90–91. 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:
Lornell, Kip & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Sara Carter (1898–1979). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/carter-sara-1898-1979.
MLA Citation:
Lornell, Kip, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Sara Carter (1898–1979)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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