Dynamic performer and musician Cousin Emmy was born Cynthia Mae Carver; she grew up on a sharecropping farm with her parents and seven siblings. With many musical family members around her, she began playing music young, eventually mastering the fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica, ukulele, and even the musical saw, a novelty instrument. She started out performing on the radio with two Carver cousins, and soon branched out to other radio shows and live performances, touring with her own group called “Her Kinfolks.” In 1935 Cousin Emmy won the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest – the first woman to take the top prize. She later joined the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago and recorded for Decca Records. Being a consummate entertainer, Cousin Emmy embraced comedy and often dressed outrageously – including gingham dresses and boots along with her platinum blonde hair – which made a big impression on stage.
In addition to her own success, Cousin Emmy influenced the career of Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw regular Grandpa Jones, teaching him to play the banjo and convincing him to develop his Grandpa character on stage. She also appeared in two Hollywood films. She met the New Lost City Ramblers in the 1960s, recording The New Lost City Ramblers with Cousin Emmy on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Her later career included appearances on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television show – where she played the rubber glove like a musical instrument, the Newport Folk Festival, and prominent music clubs.
Cousin Emmy’s song “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man,” which she composed to the tune of “Reuben’s Train,” has become a bluegrass standard. Proving herself to be a smart and forward-thinking businessperson, she retained the copyrights to all of her songs. She also joked about herself, saying “I’m the first hillbilly to own a Cadillac.”