The “First Family of Country Music,” the Carter Family was perhaps one of the most influential of country groups switching the emphasis in the genre from hillbilly instrumentals to vocals and popularizing a style of guitar playing, “Carter picking,” the dominant technique for decades.
The original Carter Family consisted of A.P (Alvin Pleasant) Carter, his wife Sarah (lead vocalist and autoharp), and her cousin Maybelle (alto vocalist and guitar). A.P. was born on April 15, 1891 in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia. He learned to play the fiddle as a child and learned traditional folk songs. As a young adule, he began singing with two uncles and his older sister in a gospel quartet before moving to Indiana where he found work on the railroad. A.P. returned to Virginia in 1911 and soon he met Sara Dougherty. According to legend, she was on her porch playing the autoharp and singing "Engine 143" when he met her.
Like A.P., Sara learned how to sing and play through her family in Virginia where she was born and raised (b. July 21, 1898). As a child, she learned a variety of instruments, including autoharp, guitar, and banjo, and she played with her friends and cousins. The couple married on June 18, 1915 and settled in Maces Springs where they supported themselves with various jobs and singing at local parties and gatherings. The duo continued playing locally until 1926 when Maybelle Carter (who had married A.P.’s brother Ezra) was added on vocals and guitar.
With the richer sound of a trio, the group began auditioning for record labels and in 1927 they met and auditioned for legendary Ralph Peer, the A&R man for Victor Records. The Carter Family signed with Victor in 1928, and over the next seven years the group recorded most of its most famous songs, including the charted hits “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” (#10, 1928), “Wildwood Flower” (#3, 1928), “Keep on the Sunny Side” (#9, 1929), “Little Darlin, Pal of Mine” (NULL, 1929), “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” (#10, 1929), “Worried Man Blues” (NULL, 1930), “Lonesome Valley” (126, 1931) and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)” (#17, 1935).
By the end of the 1920s, the group had become a well-known national act, but its income was hurt considerably by the Great Depression. Eventually, all of the members became so strapped for cash they had to move away from home to find work. In 1929, A.P. moved to Detroit temporarily while Maybelle and her husband relocated to Washington, D.C.
In addition to the stress of the Great Depression, A.P. and Sara's marriage began to fray, and the couple separated in 1932. For the next few years, the Carters only saw each other at recording sessions, partially because the Depression had cut into the country audience and partially because the women were raising their families. In 1936, the group signed a lucrative radio contract with XERF in Del Rio, TX, which led to contracts at a few other stations along the Mexican and Texas border. Because of their locations, these stations could broadcast at levels that were far stronger than other American radio stations, so the Carters' radio performances could be heard throughout the nation, either in their live form or as radio transcriptions. As a result, the band's popularity increased dramatically, and their Decca records became extremely popular.
Sara and A.P. divorced in 1939, however the group continued to perform on Texas radio until moving to Charlotte, NC in 1941. The original Carter Family disbanded in 1943 when Sara retired and moved to California, A.P. moved back to Virginia where he ran a country store and Maybelle began recording and touring with her daughters Helen, June and Anita.
In 1970, the Carter Family became the first group to be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.