Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Carters: A family of country musicians

Presented to the Monday Evening Club, May 12, 2008 by Albert E. Easton

Alvin Pleasant Carter, known as A.P., was born in 1891, the oldest child in his large family in the hills of southwestern Virginia. His father, Bob Carter, was one of two sons born to Nancy Carter, who had a weakness for pipe smoking and men. When asked about Bob Carter’s paternity, Nancy Carter just said: “Law, honey, when you run through a briar patch, you don’t know which one scratched you.” A. P.’s mother, Mollie Bays was a God-fearing woman who did her best at the task of raising eight children in the tiny town of Poor Valley. Poor Valley was so named not because the inhabitants were poor (although they were) but because the poor soil made it hard to earn a living from farming, the main occupation.

On the other side of Clinch Mountain was Rich Valley, with much better soil, and a somewhat better, but still modest standard of living. By 1914, A. P. was working selling fruit trees by walking from door to door. He didn’t mind walking, and one of his walks was over the mountain to try to sell some trees to Milburn and Melinda Nickels, distant relatives of his mother, and it was there that he met Sara Dougherty. Sara’s mother had died of typhoid when she was three, and the Nickels family had taken her in. Sara loved music, and when she was twelve, she had sold enough greeting cards to get an eight key autoharp. I’ll talk more about the auto harp in a minute. When A.P. met her, she was sixteen, and singing. He was enchanted. A year later, he married the 17 year old Sara.

I brought an autoharp, so you can see how it functions. The strings are tuned using a wrench, very similar to the tuning of piano strings. When the buttons designating the various chords are pushed, felt pads mute all the strings with notes not in the chord. Playing the autoharp is fairly simple, since it requires only that you be able to strum with your right hand, and push the buttons for the chord changes with your left. [Demonstrates]

A. P. had a younger brother, Ezra, called “Eck”, who was a real go-getter. Eck managed to land a job as a railroad mail clerk traveling from Bristol, Virginia to Washington and back. Eck bought the first automobile in Poor Valley, a Model A Ford. He also bought another modern convenience, a phonograph. In March, 1926, Eck, the most eligible bachelor in Poor Valley, married the girl of his dreams, Maybelle Addington. Eck met Maybelle through his sister-in-law, Sara, who was already teaming up with Maybelle to sing.

Maybelle Addington Carter was certainly a prize, even for the most eligible bachelor in Poor Valley. She could sing, dance, play the guitar, ride a horse or a motorcycle, and bake a banana cream pie to curl your toes. Like his brother A. P., Eck Carter chose a young bride. Maybelle was just sixteen when they slipped off to be married.

Maybelle’s guitar technique was an excellent and unusual one. With her thumb, she plucked the melody on the bass strings, and simultaneously strummed chords on the higher strings, bringing her fingers up to sound the chords, rather than down as most guitar players do. This distinctive style, now often encountered in country music, has become known as the “Carter Scratch”.

By the summer of 1926, A. P., Sara, and Maybelle began appearing together often in musical entertainments, singing the songs they had learned in the hills. With Eck out of town on the railroad about 4 days a week, Maybelle had plenty of time on her hands. In those days, there were very few phonographs, so musical entertainments at schoolhouses or church halls by small groups like the Carter family were very popular, and even at the low admission price of 15 cents, the musicians could go home with a few dollars in their pockets.

The Victor Company, primary producer of phonographs, had been famous for years as the premier source of high quality musical entertainment. Enrico Caruso’s exclusive American recording contract was with Victor, and they had recorded and marketed many other examples of excellent music for the parlor. But the top quality market they had served was saturated, and they had hopes of branching out into other fields. At this point, they hired Ralph Peer to seek out other kinds of music.

Ralph Peer haled from the Midwest, but was always seen wearing London tailored suits with a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. His personal tastes ran to opera and chamber music, but he was not averse to making a buck. Among other things, he is said to have coined the terms “race” and “hillbilly” to describe two types of music that were to become popular in the 1930’s. He claimed to despise some of the music he was recording, and was quick to exaggerate both the shortcomings of the artists and his own contribution to the effort. He made his fortune by launching the careers of two country music artists: Jimmie Rogers and the Original Carter Family.

Ralph Peer and the recording industry grew up together. In 1892, when Ralph Peer was born, phonographs were offered by the Edison Company for $190, making them exclusively a rich man’s toy. But less then two decades later, the price was down to $10. Abraham Peer, Ralph’s father, sold a good many from his furniture store in Independence, Missouri. Ralph was sure he had a future in the recording business, and began working in it when he was only 18. By 1921 he was recording all kinds of foreign language records: German, Polish, Swedish, etc., catering to the immigrant groups in the Midwest. The records were marketed by a label called “Okeh”, a subsidiary of Columbia. This was his background for the assignment he assumed for the Victor Company.

In July of 1927, A.P. Carter saw an ad in the Bristol, Virginia newspaper for the local Victor Phonograph dealer proclaiming “The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records – Inquire at our store”. A.P. believed that the musical heritage of the hills was a valuable one, and he hoped to prove it. After inquiries, he learned that a man named Ralph Peer would be in Bristol, paying the enormous sum of $50 for every song he liked well enough to record. He borrowed Eck’s car, and also Eck’s wife, Maybelle, who was 8 months pregnant, and the Original Carter Family (A. P., Sara, and Maybelle) set off for Bristol and their destiny.

I’m going to play a copy of the first song they recorded that day – “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow”. In it, you can hear just about everything the Carter Family had to offer – Maybelle’s guitar technique, Sara’s autoharp, and the vocal harmonies of Sara on lead, Maybelle in the alto range, and A. P. on Baritone. (#3) I’ll also be passing around a picture of the group at the time of that session. If you look closely, you can see Sara with her eight key autoharp, probably the one she had gotten ten years earlier selling greeting cards, and a very pregnant Maybelle.

The Carters recorded six sides at that session, held in a warehouse loft with blankets hanging on the walls, and took home the amazing sum of $300, plus a promise of future royalties. A.P. Carter is credited as the composer on almost all the music the Carters recorded. Even though most of the songs were commonly performed in the hills, Peer copyrighted them all, and paid royalties to A.P. A.P. managed the finances, and split all the income three ways. Several of the songs sold fairly well, and Peer arranged another recording session the following May, this one at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey.

The Model A had had three flat tires on the short trip from Poor Valley to Bristol in July, 1927, so no plans were made to drive the 500 mile trip to Camden that May. Instead, the Carters went by overnight train. They had rehearsed about a dozen songs, working hard on the harmonies, and making sure they had versions that came in between 2 ¾ and 3 ¼ minutes, the available time on a Victor 78. That twelve song session in Camden made the Carters’ reputation. Many of the songs they cut that day have been recorded over and over, by various country and folk artists.

The first one I want to play for you became the Carters’ biggest hit, their only record to sell over a million copies. The song was one Maybelle and Sara had known since they were children, originally on a parlor song published in 1860 by Maud Irving and J. P. Webster, who also wrote “Lorena”. The original words were:

“I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets of my raven black hair
The lilies so pale and the roses so fair
The myrtle so bright with an emerald hue
And the pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue.

By the way, so far as anyone knows, there is not and never has been a flower or plant called “aronatus” No wonder the words had been changed by the time the Carters learned it to “the pale and the leader”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make any sense either. Sara sings this one alone, backed up by Maybelle’s guitar. (#1)

A. P. even wrote a song himself for the session. I heard a cover of this by Joan Baez during the folk music years of the 60’s. (#5) You can hear all three of the Carters joining in on this one.

With Ralph Peer paying a royalty of ½ cent per record, in addition to regular fee of $50 a song, the Camden session made A.P. one of the most prosperous men in Poor Valley. He bought himself a house and a new red Chevrolet with the share he and Sara got. They had three children by now, and the room was welcome. The Carters were traveling around the hills now every week or so, doing entertainments in church halls and theaters, which helped to sell records and brought in some extra money. And Ralph Peer had no intention of letting things rest. He scheduled another Camden session for February 1929, and still another in Atlanta in November. Here is one more song from the Atlanta session. It’s another song that A.P. seems to have adapted himself, based on one by a mountaineer named Will Hayes. On this one, Sara sings alone, and Maybelle backs her up with some outstanding guitar. (#16)

A.P.’s fortunes rose and fell like a tide. With the depression, the royalties began to dry up. Ralph Peer was willing to record more numbers, but A.P. couldn’t come up with any more good material. A.P. began taking long trips through the hills, looking for songs. While he was away, he left his younger cousin, Coy Bays, in charge of the house. The inevitable happened. By the time he got back from a long trip, it was obvious that Coy and Sara were in love.

There were a lot of Carters and Bays in Poor Valley in that time, and they were outraged when they became aware of the situation. Finally, it was agreed that Coy would go to live with his mother in California, and he and Sara would see no more of each other. Problem solved? Of course not! Sara was distraught. Within a few weeks, she filed for divorce from A.P. When Ralph Peer learned of all this, he was not happy at having his gold mine dry up. Somehow, he managed to persuade Sara to continue with the group “for professional purposes only”.

Sara did stay with the group, and Maybelle’s three daughters, Helen, June and Anita began making occasional appearances. Ralph Peer booked them in to Radio City Music Hall in 1933 for a live radio broadcast. Radio was a good fit for the Carters. By 1938, they had moved to Texas and booked a contract for a weekly show on a 500,000 watt station XERA, just over the Texas border in Mexico. The most powerful commercial stations allowed today are 50,000 watts, so you can imagine the effect of a 500,000 watt transmitter. It was heard from Maine to Guatemala.

Station XERA was the pride and vehicle of Doctor John Brinkley. Doctor Brinkley’s story is an interesting one itself. In 1915, it was possible to get a license to practice medicine in Kansas by completing six weeks of study at the Kansas City School of Eclectic Medicine, and Doctor Brinkley had done so. He was an impoverished country doctor until one of his patients came to him complaining of “having lost the pep in his marriage”. Brinkley experimented with grafting goat gonads onto the patient, and for some reason, it worked. As a result, his fame spread.

Brinkley repeated this simple procedure on literally thousands of patients: Under general anesthetia, he would punch a hole in the patient’s testicle, and insert an appropriate sized section of goat testicle. He never worried about connecting nerves or blood vessels. He advertised his availability on his own radio station, KFKB. Even in the 1920’s Kansas had a Medical Society, and they eventually managed to put the doctor out of business. There were also, of course, a number of lawsuits resulting from patients who had become infected and died in the course of having their virility restored. At this point, Doc Brinkley moved his medical practice to Mexico, and obtained a license from the Mexican government for station XERA.

It was while broadcasting from Mexico one night that Sara, about to sing a song she had recorded many years before, announced: “This song is for Coy Bays, wherever he is.” (#11) Coy Bays happened to be listening in California, and when he heard this he set out to find Sara. He caught up with here in Texas, and they were married within a week; six years after their involuntary separation back in Poor Valley.

After being married to Coy, Sara’s involvement with the group began to dwindle. A new treaty between the US and Mexico shut down the 500,000 watt border stations, and the law finally caught up with Doctor Brinkley. A.P went into retirement and died in 1960. Maybelle and her daughters became a fairly famous country act. (At this point, Maybelle became known as “Mother Maybelle”. June Carter, Maybelle’s second daughter, married Johnny Cash in 1964, and is probably the best known member of the Carter family at the present time. Maybelle and Sara died within a few months of each other in 1978.

Photo of Maybelle Carter via Wikipedia.


  1. Music Video by Brinley Addington--He has ties to SW Virginia and this video was made in Gate City, VA. Go to Youtube and type in Brinley Addington. The song is "Why I Never Will."
    Click on it and enjoy!! He is a 20 year old Country singer from Kingsport, TN--his grandfather is a relative of Mother Maybelle.

  2. Brinley Addington is really a great country singer and songwriter!!

  3. There continues to be so much musical talent here in southwest virginia