It was music that first drew A. P. Carter and Sara Dougherty together. Family lore relates the story of how A. P. was working as a salesman of fruit trees in 1914, and he came upon Sara’s house when she was singing “Engine 143” and playing the autoharp. A. P. was so captivated by her clear, haunting vocals as she sang the ballad’s verses that he asked her to sing it again for him. Romance followed, and they were married in 1915.
Maybelle Addington was Sara’s first cousin and showed talent on a variety of instruments at a young age – she learned songs and music from her mother, a banjo player, and other family members, and she performed informally with her family’s band. She married A. P.’s brother Eck in 1926.
Maybelle, Sara, and A. P. began performing as The Carter Family, and in 1927 they traveled to Bristol to record for Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. These recordings set the stage for the Carter’s later success, leading to nearly 300 further recordings, radio appearances, and numerous paid performances. Together they took familiar songs – hymns and gospel songs, Appalachian ballads, music from the rural work camps and urban factories – and made them their own. Within the group, the guitar is where Maybelle truly made her mark, building on a finger-picking style she learned from Lesley Riddle and developed into her famous “Carter Scratch.” Her driving playing style helped propel the guitar into being the lead instrument in country music.
After The Carter Family disbanded in the early 1940s, Maybelle continued performing with her daughters Helen, June and Anita as Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters. Starting as a novelty act on a Richmond, Virginia radio station, the family moved on to WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1948 where they joined up with country artist Chet Atkins and his “Famous Guitar.” Performing on the radio and continually touring for live shows, they developed a repertoire of comedy, traditional Carter Family songs, and newer country and popular music, which proved very successful.
By 1950, Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters had been invited to Nashville for a segment on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, and they soon became regular show performers. This period led to commercial success, public appearances and a host of recordings, and the girls, especially June, began branching out as solo acts.
In the 1920s, Sara and Maybelle didn’t know the huge impact that The Carter Family and their talent, sound, and songs would have on old-time music and its commercialization into the hillbilly genre and later country. Today they are known as “the first family of country music,” and musicians from a variety of genres honor them as influences.