The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Carter Family Sunday

The Carter Family was country music's first vocal group and recorded songs from the beginning of country music in 1927 on through the '30s until they disbanded in 1944. The members included Alvin Pleasant (A. P.) Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter who was married to his brother Ezra (not in the group). Sara and Maybelle were also cousins. All were raised in Southwestern Virginia, in the Clinch Mountains in an area called Poor Valley.

Sara sang the lead vocals, Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group with her eventually famous and influential "Carter Scratch" style of guitar playing. A. P. usually sang harmony and background vocals but sometimes sang lead.

They recorded first in Bristol, Tennessee, in August of 1927, under the direction of Ralph Peer. The Victor Talking Machine company released some of their records that fall; by 1930 they had sold over 300,000 records.

Sara divorced A.P. in 1936, remarried and moved to California with her new husband's family. The group continued making music but finally disbanded in 1944. The second generation of the Carter Family consisted of Mother Maybelle and her daughters Anita, June, and Helen. They, along with their electric guitar player, a fellow named Chet Atkins, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.

Mother Maybelle and her daughters (minus Atkins) carried on the Carter tradition in the late '50s and '60s, riding the folk wave. Their appearance on Johnny Cash's second TV show in 1969 (June married Johnny in 1968) introduced their traditional style to an even larger audience.

The song "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was written in 1926 and was first recorded by the Carter Family in 1936. This was the year that Sara left A.P. but that's her voice and Maybelle's on the harmonies. In this great video, put together by shallowford, you can see a sad wistfulness in Sara's face and resignation in A.P.'s.

Sara, it seems, was not as ambitious or driven as was her husband A.P. who was gone a lot during the early days of their marriage, traveling Appalachia looking for songs. Plus, he had a temper. In A.P.'s absence in 1933, Sara fell for a fellow named Coy Bays. They had a somewhat public courtship (people knew about it) that went on for almost three years.

So it's clear that there were already strains and tensions in the marriage when the Carter Family recorded "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in 1936. I suppose it's one of those rare instances when the emotion of a song is very close to the emotional state of (at least two of) its performers.
(By the way, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was released again in 1950 by orchestra leader Blue Baron (Harry Freidman) and reached #19 on Billboard's chart. Baron's version added the spoken narration that Elvis Presley used in his hit 1960 recording of the tune.)

I've selected what is arguably the Carter Family's most famous song "Wildwood Flower" to serve as an example of the second generation's work. It was originally recorded in their May 27, 1928, session, but Mother Maybelle and her daughters continued to perform it regularly throughout their career.

It's also the first song I learned to pick on the guitar and remains a favorite of mine. The main reason I used it as an example here though, is to illustrate Maybelle's "Carter Scratch" guitar technique. She has the capo way down the neck but the style is unmistakable.
Finally, let's hear an old country gospel tune to close out Sunday's Carter Family post. Besides suggesting that the '30s were the "end times," "No Depression in Heaven" also presents the idea that in heaven Christians will transcend and triumph over the economic Depression which had wracked the entire country and caused tremendous suffering. "No Depression" was also recorded back in 1936 and was written by James D. Vaughn of Giles County, Tennessee. On a personal note, this is the county where Joyce and I met at Martin College.

Over time "No Depression" has become a most famous Carter tune and has been covered by many artists from the New Lost City Ramblers to Sheryl Crow. The 1936 recording features both Sara and Maybelle on guitars and A.P. sings the lead.


  1. Sara was a very handsome woman; her pictures in the "Are You Lonesome" vid are extraordinary.

    I really, rilly like your country music tutorials, Dan.

  2. Buck, Sara was a beauty all right, but it was mixed up with a kind of sadness that, IMHO, made her even more beautiful. Thanks for the kudos, I enjoy and learn more about these artists when doing the research.

  3. George, I noticed S. Carter spelled her name like your Sara. I first thought it was unusual to not have the "h" on the end, but now I think it's probably a lot more common than I realized.