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The Carter Family

The Carter family has interested me for some time. I delved into their history, where they came from, how they evolved into a grass roots folk group.

Their origin started in Maces Spring, Virginia. Maces Spring was called ‘Poor Valley’ with a small number of houses close to the Clinch Mountains.

Maybelle Addington Carter, her brother-in-law A.P. Carter and his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter made up the first family Carter group and developed an incredible list of music over the years.

This website states the Carter Family was the most influential group in country music switching their emphasis from hillbilly instrumentals to vocal harmonies, which became part of the standard country music canon.

Carter Picking, developed by Maybelle, became well known and was widely used for many years. A.P. was instrumental in gathering hundred of British/Appalachian folk songs. Many of which we play today, never seem to get old over the decades, and are considered public domain. Happy to say one of my favorites I’ve mentioned before came from the Carter Family, Keep on the Sunny Side.

From the original group Maybelle played a bass-strings lead guitar, Sara was on the Autoharp, and A.P. sang with his bass or baritone voice. The depression of the 30’s impacted their ability to perform until 1939 when Sara and A.P. divorced which was the beginning of the breakup of the group. They disbanded in 1943.

Maybelle regrouped and included her three daughters June, Helen, and Anita as the new Carter family. They appeared on “The Johnny Cash Show” and Johnny eventually married June. The girls played a number of instruments, but were formally trained on piano. They played on radio and performed at the original Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Maybelle’s ‘Carter Picking’ or Scratch is a method that uses picking and strumming, frailing, or brushing strings. She used finger picks on the bass strings of D, A, and E and then frailing on the other strings. . Here is a link to a YouTube lasting about 6 minutes showing the technique with a little history added in.

What is interesting is some Dulcimer players use a very similar technique, playing a melody note and then strumming the rest of the strings. I love the sound of Carter’s Picking and wonder she influenced mountain dulcimer playing too.

Then, “In 1970, the Carter Family became the first group to be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is a fitting tribute to their immense influence and legacy.”

So Keep on the Sunny Side and the music in the air!

NancyJ VP


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