Maybelle Carter"Mother" Maybelle Carter (born Maybelle Addington; May 10, 1909 – October 23, 1978) was an American country musician and originator of the ”Carter scratch.” She is best known as a member of the Original Carter Family act in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and also as a member of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle.
BiographyMaybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington on May 10, 1909, in Nickelsville, Virginia. She was the daughter of Margaret Elizabeth (née Kilgore; 1879 – 1960) and Hugh Jackson Addington (1877 – 1929). According to family lore, the Addington family of Virginia is descended from former British prime minister Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth.
On March 13, 1926, Maybelle married Ezra Carter. They had three daughters, Helen, June and Anita.
She was a member of the original Carter Family, which was formed in 1927 by her brother-in-law A. P. Carter, who was married to her cousin Sara, also a part of the trio. The Carter Family was one of the first commercial rural country music groups. Maybelle, who played autoharp and banjo as well as being the group's guitarist, created a unique sound for the group with her innovative 'scratch' style of guitar playing, where she used her thumb to play melody on the bass and middle strings, and her index finger to fill out the rhythm. Her innovative technique, to this day known as the Carter Scratch, influenced the guitar's shift from rhythm to lead instrument. She revolutionized the instrument's role by developing a style in which she played melody lines on the bass strings with her thumb while rhythmically strumming with her fingers.
She was widely respected and loved by the Grand Ole Opry community of the early 1950s, and was popularly known as "Mother Maybelle" and a matriarchal figure in country music circles although only in her forties at the time. Maybelle and her daughters toured from the 1940s through the 1960s as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters" but after the death of A. P. Carter in 1960 the group revived the name "The Carter Family", frequently touring with Johnny Cash (her son-in-law from 1968 on); the group were regular performers on Cash's weekly network variety show from 1969–71. Maybelle briefly reunited with former Carter Family member, Sara Carter, during the 1960s folk music craze, with Sara singing lead and Maybelle providing harmony as before.
Maybelle Carter made occasional solo recordings during the 1960s and 1970s, usually full-length albums. Her final such work, a two-record set released on Columbia Records, placed on Billboard's best-selling country albums chart in 1973 when she was 64. Maybelle was also featured on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 recording Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Maybelle Carter died in 1978 after a few years of poor health, and was interred next to her husband, Ezra, in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Two of their daughters – Helen and Anita – are buried nearby in the same cemetery.
MusicianshipMaybelle Carter played a variety of stringed instruments but her primary instruments in terms of public performance were guitar, autoharp, guitaro, and banjo.
GuitarAccording to statements made by Carter during a transcribed public performance, she began studying guitar at age 13 when she acquired an instrument. She is often cited as a pioneering musician, being both an early female guitarist with national exposure and with regard to use of the guitar as a lead instrument in country music. Writers have identified at least three or four styles played by Maybelle Carter. She often tuned her guitar down, sometimes as many as five frets, but sometimes used a capo to increase the instrument's range. Her most famous and widely recorded style is sometimes called "the Carter Scratch" or "thumb-lead style." This technique involved playing a melody on the instrument's three bass strings while simultaneously strumming the three treble strings for rhythm. She used thumb and finger picks while playing.
Another style, later popularized by other musicians, was essentially the reverse of the thumb lead style. In this style, Carter finger-picked a melody on the three treble strings while brushing a rhythm on the bass strings with her thumb. It is often said that she first saw this style being played by African American musician Lesley Riddle. A third style of Carter's guitar playing involved rapid flatpicking in a country-blues rhythm. Her most obscure style was utilized on a few recordings by the Original Carter Family in the 1920s and early 1930s. It may be described as a Hawaiian-influenced slide technique that sometimes sounded like a modern dobro. Finally, if other musicians were playing a lead instrument, Maybelle would often strum chords on the guitar to accompany them. A little-known bit of historical trivia is that Maybelle Carter once filled in for Jimmie Rodgers during a recording session, perfectly mimicking his guitar playing style, in 1932. Rodgers was ill with tuberculosis at that time and had waning stamina during the session.
Carter recorded her signature guitar piece, "Wildwood Flower," on numerous occasions, beginning with the original 1928 version. "The Cannon Ball," recorded with the Original Carter Family in 1930, is a good illustration of Carter's fingerpicking style with thumb/bass fill. Her final recording in the slide guitar style was "My Old Cottage Home" in 1931. "Coal Miner's Blues," recorded for Decca, is an excellent flat-picking illustration. Interesting use of the guitar by Carter on recordings she made with the Carter Sisters include "Fourteen Karat Nothing," "I'm Working on a Building," "Take Good Care of Him"—a rapid tempo re-recording of "Waves on the Sea"—as well as a contemporary-sounding revision of "I'll be All Smiles Tonight." Carter also played the guitar on many of her solo recordings. "Cumberland Gap," "Victory Rag" "Red Wing," and "Sweet Allie Lee" are good instrumental examples from her various solo albums.
AutoharpIn the earliest days of recorded country music the autoharp was quite obscure. The Original Carter Family often used the instrument for rhythm but it was played by Maybelle Carter's cousin and bandmate, Sara Carter, in her own intricate style. To the degree that the autoharp is currently played in country and roots music, Maybelle Carter is widely credited with its popularity. The autoharp was actually Maybelle's first instrument. She began tinkering with it as early as the age of four but did not turn a serious focus toward the instrument until around 1940. Traditionally the autoharp was strummed as a rhythm instrument. Maybelle developed (alone or perhaps independently of other musicians who did the same) a "pinch and pluck" technique that forms the basis of most modern autoharp playing styles. This technique allows for playing melodic lead notes on the instrument. Carter's style later evolved to add fill-in rhythm, similar to her guitar technique. While playing the autoharp, Maybelle would often press cord bars between notes. The effect was a sort of note slurring, a sound similar to that produced by a guitar hammer-on. It has been said that famed pianist Floyd Cramer was especially interested in these embellishments to Maybelle's playing and that they helped to shape his piano technique. As she began to feature her autoharp playing more and more in concerts and radio work, Carter became frustrated with trying to steady the instrument close enough to a microphone that was often shared by others. She utilized tables and music stands at first but later got the idea of holding the instrument, upside down, across her chest and playing along what was essentially the head of the harp (nearest the tuning pegs). Prior to that time musicians played below the cord bars at the opposite end. She discovered that this technique allowed more space for her complicated playing style and that it produced a sweeter tone. During at least one public performance Maybelle reluctantly and modestly admitted that autoharps began to be manufactured differently to accommodate the playing style she popularized.
Maybelle Carter taught at least one workshop on autoharp playing in conjunction with her various appearances at Newport Folk Festivals. A moderator at the workshop noted that Maybelle should be credited with the first finger-picked autoharp solo to be captured on commercial recording, referencing "Fair and Tender Ladies" recorded by the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle on Columbia Records about 1950. She often played the auotoharp in that group. Other examples include a simplistic but moving solo she added to "Mountain Lady" on the family's final album before her death. In addition to recordings with the Carter Sisters which featured her autoharp playing, Maybelle Carter often featured the instrument in her solo work. On her earliest solo album, in fact, she offered an old fiddle tune, "Liberty" which she claimed to have "worked up" specifically for the session. Later, Smash records issued a beautifully produced album of autoharp solos by Maybelle Carter, which included a few backing musicians and subtle background vocals by the Stephen Scott Singers. "Green Valley Waltz" and "Barbara Allen" were included along with 10 other titles. The bulk of her final solo album (from 1973) was composed of autoharp solos in which she was accompanied by a full band of studio musicians.
Mother Maybelle frequently found studio work with other artists anxious to capture the fresh sound she had created. She recorded at least two songs with Johnnie & Jack and at least two with the Wilburn Brothers. The later collaboration registered a top ten hit (on which Maybelle Carter was not credited) "Go Away with Me". She played autoharp on Carl Smith's "Sunday Down South" gospel album. A similar pairing with Flatt & Scruggs led to the "Songs of the Famous Carter Family" album on which Maybelle contributed mostly through her autoharp playing. In the 1960s Maybelle helped record an instructional record that was sold with an autoharp through a mail-order chain store. She contributed demonstration of the instrument and a small amount of dialogue.
Mother Maybelle Carter added her voice to many records she made with the Original Carter Family, with her later group known as the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle (and later known as the Carter Family) and with other versions of the family group. She made many solo recordings featuring both her singing and playing. Finally she collaborated with a few other artists as a singer and musician.
Original Carter FamilyThe moniker "Original Carter Family" actually predates the breakup of the original group by several years in that it was used during the period of their radio programs on Mexican border stations. Apparently, other groups were using the name "Carter Family" so adding "Original" helped distinguish the trio. Later the name "Original Carter Family" has helped to differentiate between the original trio and later versions of the group, particularly Maybelle and her daughters. Maybelle Carter worked with the Original Carter Family from about 1926 until about 1943 (when the group officially disbanded) on personal appearances, radio shows and commercial recordings. The group reunited for a performance in May, 1953 at the first Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival. They sang two songs with A. P. Carter serving as emcee for their portion of the program. The performance was captured on a home movie camera but the film deteriorated in storage. An audio recording of the performance does survive. Maybelle sang harmony on two or three of the first six songs recorded by the family in 1927. Her vocal contributions to the group were subdued in the beginning but she gradually took on a more prominent role. It became routine for her to harmonize with the whole trio. She and Sara Carter frequently sang duets without A. P. In 1937 the two recorded a duet on "Hello Stranger" which featured both voices equally in an unusual call-and-response vocal arrangement. Maybelle sang opening phrases for all verses on the group's 1940 recording of "I'll Never Forsake You". During their final commercial session Maybelle's voice was slightly dominant to Sara's on selections such as "Why Do You Cry Little Darling," "You Tied a Love Knot in My Heart," and "You're Gonna be Sorry You let Me Down." On radio shows she would rarely sing lead for the group but sometimes played and sang solos. In the mid 1960s through the early 1970s, Maybelle and Sara would periodically reunite for personal appearances and television work. They recorded an album for Columbia during this time as well.
Carter Sisters and Mother MaybelleFollowing A. P. Carter's death in 1960, the group previously known as the "Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle" assumed "Carter Family" as their official band name. Maybelle Carter performed with this group, mostly with her three daughters but in various other versions of the group as well, from the late 1930s and early 1940s almost until her death in 1978. They toured, did many radio programs and TV appearances, and made a number of commercial recordings together. As the Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle the group made their first commercial recordings for RCA Victor in 1949. The sales were better than average but produced no major hits at the time. Some of the songs have long endured as favorites among fans and have demonstrated significant influence over time. Those recordings were among the very first to be issued on the new 45-rpm single format. Maybelle sang lead on a number of the RCA recordings including "My Darling's Home at Last," "Why do You Weep Dear Willow," "Walk a Little Closer," "Don't Wait," and "I've Got a Home up in Glory." One of the more popular recordings of that era to feature Maybelle was "Someone's Last Day." On a radio transcription the emcee notes that "she gets more requests for it than any of them". By the early 1950s the group changed labels to Columbia. In that era Maybelle frequently sang a verse on a song with her daughters singing others. Likely the most popular recording from that era was a single featuring "Fair and Tender Ladies" one side and "Foggy Mountain Top" on the other.
In the early 1960s the group featuring Maybelle and her daughters (now simply called the "Carter Family") moved to the Liberty label where they had an album and at least one single released. Shortly thereafter they returned to Columbia where the group remained under contract throughout Maybelle's life. It was on Columbia that most all the group's significantly successful discs were released. Maybelle's role as a vocal soloist was diminished during this time but she did a lot of harmony singing on those recordings and would periodically sing whole songs or verses within songs. Examples include "Homestead on the Farm" on the group's "The Country Album," "Picture on the Wall" from the "Three Generations" collection and a particularly enduring rendition of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" on their "Keep on the Sunny Side" album.
Solo careerThe first commercial recording to feature Maybelle as a headliner was the album "Mother Maybelle Carter" on the Briar label. It was recorded in 1959 but was not released until a couple of years later. Maybelle recruited the help of her daughters Helen and Anita as backing vocalists. Group members often utilized other family members on their various solo recordings. Some singles were released from the album. Further, a slightly edited version of the album was later released under the title "Queen of the Autoharp" on the Kapp label. That transaction offered more robust distribution. Maybelle sang several interesting selections including "Sweeter than the Flowers" and "My Native Home." Someone had the idea of adding the Carter Scratch to a reverberating electric guitar on some of the tracks. The strange effect was a sort of "Carter Family beach music" sound. Maybelle filled out the album with other vocal performances and some interesting instrumentals.
In the early to mid 1960s Maybelle Carter's solo work was recorded by Mercury Records and released on its subsidiary labels Smash and Cumberland. There were three albums and at least one non-album single. Representative solo vocals from those recordings include "Faded Coat of Blue," "Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood," and "Nobody's Darling on Earth." A single "Strumming My Guitaro" also featured Maybelle's work on a new autoharp-like instrument called the guitaro. Finally, "Foggy Mountain Top," an album cut, stands out as being apparently the only commercial recording Maybelle sang with her own banjo accompaniment.
By the late 1960s Maybelle Carter and the entire family had re-signed with Columbia records. The label released another solo album on Maybelle, "Living Legend," shortly thereafter. Vocal examples from that album include "Give Me Your Love and I'll Give You Mine," "We All Miss You Joe," and "A Letter from Home." One single from the album "I Told them What You were Fighting For" was a small chart hit. A double album of instrumentals, discussed above, was also released.
Collaborations with other artistsAs part of the Carter Family, and as a soloist, Maybelle often sang and/or played as a guest on other artists' recordings. Many times she went uncredited on the label. Likely her most commercially successful venture in this realm was her collaboration on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's album "Will the Circle be Unbroken" from the early 1970s. Maybelle contributed dialogue during the sessions. She also sang lead and played on "Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes" and "Wildwood Flower." On the album's title track she played throughout the song and sang the first solo verse. She received a Grammy nomination and her only gold record for the performances. The album was a commercial success, peaking at number 4 on the country charts, as well as making a respectable showing on the pop charts. It was eventually certified at platinum sales. Maybelle and Johnny Cash released a top 40 single in 1973. "Pick the Wildwood Flower" featured her guitar playing and brief dialogue. The single's B side, "Diamonds in the Rough" was a vocal duet accompanied by Maybelle's guitar playing.
Maybelle Carter is credited with writing, co-writing, arranging and collecting numerous songs throughout her lengthy career. To help readers understand the processes by which she amassed her song catalog it may be helpful to review how her brother-in-law and Original Carter Family bandleader (A. P. Carter) amassed his. Many scholars, family members and music industry insiders have documented the fact that A. P. Carter dealt with songwriting and collecting at every possible graduation along a continuum. At one end of the continuum he would often file for copyrights on songs he collected which were clearly written by others. At the opposite end of the spectrum, A. P. Carter would compose and copyright songs that were entirely, wholly original. If pressed for details about a particular song, A. P. would openly and freely tell everything he knew about its origins. All indications are that Maybelle Carter followed A. P. Carter's pattern in her "songsmithing." Also of note is the fact that she often took on the role of arranging songs for recording prior to a session.
In interviews Maybelle noted that, as far as the catalog of the Original Carter Family was concerned, most of the songs were written or collected by A. P. Carter. She did add that she and Sara Carter collaborated with him on several titles but were usually not credited on record labels or copyright filings. An illustration may be found in the Carter Family classic "You Are My Flower" which is widely credited to A. P. Carter. During an interview, at which Sara Carter was present, Maybelle explained that she and Sara found a set of printed words or poetry called "The Grass is Just as Green" from which lyrics to "You Are My Flower" were derived. She said that the two of them "picked out and put together" the song's verses using the sheet of printed words. Next, Maybelle explained, she wrote an original tune to accompany the lyrics. It is interesting to note a trend that some Carter Family songs have been credited to all three group members in recent years.
An interviewer, who had obviously seen a writer's credit for Maybelle on "Wildwood Flower," asked her about the song: "Didn't you write "Wildwood Flower?" "No, I didn't. My grandmother sang "Wildwood Flower." Maybelle hesitated, then added "Now, some of the words we probably did." Other interviewers, asking about different songs got answers like "I wrote them [the lyrics and music]. That IS mine....I just took that from scratch...the words and everything". Maybelle's own evaluation of her songwriting skills was that writing lyrics was not her strength but writing music was. In the early years of Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle group, Carter followed a common practice of the day in which she would purchase lyrics from writers (such as Arthur Q. Smith or Ruby Moody), write accompanying music and then copyright the resulting song in her name.
Examples of songs from Maybelle Carter's "songsmithing" catalogue include "Fair and Tender Ladies," "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," "I've Got a Home up in Glory," "Just You and I," "Troublesome Waters," and "Letter from Home" among dozens of others. From recent years it is of note that one of Maybelle Carter's titles "In the Highways" found its way onto the multi-million selling soundtrack from the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou" while another "Jukebox Blues" (cowritten with her daughter Helen Carter) was used in the "Walk the Line" movie soundtrack
Awards and recognitionAt a public appearance in 1954, A. P. Carter noted that the Original Carter Family had sold approximately 10,000,000 records. Despite that success, Maybelle Carter received very little in the way of tangible accolades during her lifetime. Instead she endured having her name misspelled on her own album covers. Examples included such errors as Maybell, Mary-Bell and Mabel. Her first major award from an organized music body came in 1966. She was lured to the speaker's podium under the cover story that she was to present an award to another artist. Maybelle wept profusely as she explained that the Music City News Award she was receiving marked her first award after 39 years in the music business. The trophy read "Mother of Country Music".
Maybelle Carter was elected with the Original Carter Family to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. She and band-mate Sara Carter became the first female performers to be inducted (simultaneously) into the institution.
Maybelle Carter was nominated at the 15th Annual Grammy Awards (1972) in the category of Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (Album).
The Carter Family (Maybelle, Helen, June, and Anita) received the "Favorite Country Group" trophy from the American Music Awards in 1973. The following year Maybelle was individually honored with the first Tex Ritter Award by the International Fan Club Organization at Fan Fair in Nashville TN.
The Smithsonian Institution recorded Maybelle, her daughter Helen and grandson David Carter Jones in 1975
Maybelle Carter was inducted as part of The Original Carter Family in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970.
Following Maybelle Carter's death the CBS network aired a television special called "The Unbroken Circle: A Tribute to Maybelle Carter" in 1979. The following year she and her daughters were given the "Gospel Act of the Year" by the Music City News Cover Awards Show. Maybelle received the "Acoustic Pioneer Award" from Frets Magazine in 1986.
By 1992 Carter was inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame
In 1993, her image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the Carter Family. She would rank No. 8 in CMT's 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002. In 2005, she was portrayed by Sandra Ellis Lafferty in the Johnny Cash biographical film Walk the Line. Actress Frances Conroy portrayed her in the 2013 TV Movie "Ring of Fire". Carter has also been depicted in musicals such as "Keep on the Sunny Side and "Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story" by actresses and singers such as Joy Lynn White, Gina Stewart and Teresa Williams
She was the subject of her granddaughter Carlene Carter's 1990 song "Me and the Wildwood Rose". Her death was the subject of Johnny Cash's song "Tears in the Holston River". Numerous other tribute songs have been written and recorded about Maybelle Carter.
The Original Carter Family (with Maybelle) were inducted into the International Bluegrass Association's Hall of Honor in 2001 and were -given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2005.
In 2007 Carter was honored as one of the Library of Virginia's "Virginia Women in History" because of her musical career.
In 2010, Lipscomb University in Nashville named the stage in Collins Alumni Auditorium after her.
The A. P. and Sara Carter House, A. P. Carter Homeplace, A. P. Carter Store, Maybelle and Ezra Carter House, and Mt. Vernon Methodist Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as components of the Carter Family Thematic Resource.