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The Carter Family
It was the granddaddy of all country music success stories, the pattern on which dozens of Music Row Cinderella tales would be founded. A local group, used to singing on front porches and at country churches, wanders into what today would be termed a talent call. More by accident than by design, the group gets an audition; the big-time talent scout can't believe his ears. A contract is signed; records are cut; in a matter of months, the group hears its records playing from the Victrolas rolled out in front of the appliance stores in its hometown. Across the country, millions hear the same music, and are charmed by its feeling, its simplicity, its soul. A career is launched, and soon the little country group is making it in the big time, on national radio, continuing to produce great music but struggling to ward off personal problems, divorce and changing tastes. It is a story almost as familiar as the music of the group or the name of the group: The Carter Family.
The interesting thing about legends is that some of them are true. Back on that hot August day in 1927, the big-time recording scout from Victor Records in New York was really not impressed with what he saw at the door of his studio. There were two women and a man, he recalled. "He is dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back therecalico clothes onthe children are very poorly dressed. They look like hillbillies." The man in overalls was Alvin Pleasant Carter, but they called him A.P. He was a lean, hawk-faced young man, with a pleasant,bemusedexpression not unlike that of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. With him was a woman holding an odd little instrument called an autoharp that she had ordered from Sears' mail order catalog and a seven-month-old baby named Joe. She was A.P.'s wife, Sara Carter. The third woman, the one holding the big guitar, staring around the studio with a surprising confidence, was Sara's cousin, Maybelle. They had spent the entire previous day driving an old Model A Ford down mountain roads and across rocky streams to get to the audition. They'd had three flat tires, and the weather was so hot that the patches had melted off almost as fast as A.P. had put them on. But they were here, and they were wanting a record tryout.
"Here" was the sleepy mountain town of Bristol, straddling the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. In an empty furniture store at 408 State Streetthe street that was actually the state linethe Victor Talking Machine Company had set up a temporary studio. It was late summer 1927, and country music didn't even have a name yet; Victor called its brand "Old-Time Melodies of the Sunny South." The company had only recently decided to get into the country music business. Field teams had been sent into the South to find authentic material and singers who would sound more soulful than their current big singing sensation, Vernon Dalhart. Heading this team, in fact heading all the teams that summer, was a fast-talking, moon-faced young man named Ralph Peer. Several years before, Peer had helped American record companies discover the blues; now he was doing the same with "hillbilly" music. For two weeks he had been at work in Bristol, auditioning talent and recording them on the spot in his studio; he had already recorded classics by the Stoneman Family, harmonica player Henry Whitter and gospel singer Alfred Karnes; soon he would produce the first sides by a young man named Jimmie Rodgers. Though he didn't know it at the time, he was in the middle of what Johnny Cash would later call "the single most important event in the history of country music."
The family auditioned for Peer on the morning of Monday, August 1, and that evening at 6:30 he took them into the studio. In those days, it wasn't uncommon to cut a session of four sides in three hoursand there were times during the course of the Bristol sessions when Peer managed to cut as many as twelve masters a day. Though the Carters were relatively young (Maybelle was only eighteen), they were full of old songs they had learned in their nearby mountain home of Maces Spring, Virginia. The first one they tried was "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," an old nineteenth-century lament that both girls had known since childhood. Peer at once realized that he had something. "As soon as I heard Sara's voice," he recalled, "I knew it was going to be wonderful."
And it was. Peer cut three more songs that night and asked the group to return the next morning to cut two more. These six sides became the start of one of the most incredible dynasties in American music. For over sixty years now, some part or offshoot of this Carter Family trio has been a fixture on the country music scene. The family's musical contributions have ranged from the pure folk sound of the original trio to the contemporary, rock-tinged sound of Maybelle's granddaughter, Carlene. "Carter Family songs" is a term that has become almost synonymous with old-time country standards, and parts of the Carter repertoire are revived in almost every generation by a wide range of singers and pickers, including Hank Williams (who toured with Maybelle and her daughters), Hank Thompson and Merle Travis (who added a honky-tonk beat to "Wildwood Flower" in the 1950s), Roy Acuff (whose anthem "Wabash Cannonball" was first recorded by the Carters), Johnny Cash (who married Maybelle's daughter June), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (who recorded the classic album Will the Circle Be Unbroken with Maybelle in 1971), Emmylou Harris, and dozens of others. Though their recording career lasted only fourteen yearsfrom that day in Bristol in 1927 until the eve of World War II in 1941the Carters managed to work for every major label and make some 270 records, among them some of the most influential recordings in country music history. "They didn't have gold records in those days," said modern publishing giant Wesley Rose. "But if they had, the Carters would have had a wall full." What the industry could do was vote them into the Hall of Fame, which it did in 1970.
After they made the six sides for Peer that day in 1927, the trio drove back to their mountain farm, and A.P. returned to his old job of selling fruit trees. In September the first batch of recordings from the Bristol sessions was released in the new "Orthophonic Victor Southern Series." Big ads appeared in the Bristol papers. As A.P. scanned the list, his heart sank; no Carter records had been selected for release. Another batch appeared in October; again, no Carters. A.P. had about given up hope when, in November, the local furniture store dealer who had the Victor franchise hunted up A.P. to tell him that "The Wandering Boy" had finally been issued, and that he had a nice royalty check for him. A few months later, a second record, "The Storms Are on the Ocean," came out. At this point, Peer realized that Carter music was catching on; soon their records were outselling all the others recorded at the Bristol sessions, including those of Jimmie Rodgers.
Not long afterward, Peer sent the group expense money to come to the New Jersey studios for more sessions. Here they cut twelve more songs, including such standards as "Little Darling Pal of Mine," "Keep on the Sunny Side" (an 1899 Sunday school song adapted from The Young People's Hymnal No. 2 that eventually became the Carter theme), "Anchored in Love" (another taken from an old church songbook; it wound up selling almost 100,000 records), "John Hardy" (a famous badman ballad), "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" (a latter-day favorite with bluegrass bands), and a simple piece called "Wildwood Flower." In this one, Maybelle figured out a way to pick the melody on the lower strings of her guitar while she strummed the chords on the higher strings. This technique, soon known as "the Carter lick," became the single most influential guitar style in country music. It wasn't hard to master, and soon every kid who could get his hands on a guitar was being told, "First you've got to learn to play 'Wildwood Flower.'" The song itself was another old one A.P. had learned in the mountains; though he didn't know it at the time, it was actually an 1859 sheet music song that had been a vaudeville favorite since before the Civil War. At Peer's suggestion, A.P. filed copyright on this and dozens of other older songs he arranged, rewrote, or adapted. Many of them still appear in the Peer-Southern catalog.
If there had ever been any doubt about the Carters' popularity, "Wildwood Flower" ended it. Not only was it sold by record stores around the country, it was peddled by Sears, Roebuck in its catalog and later issued on the Montgomery Ward label for sale in that company's catalog; a later 1935 remake was sold in dime stores across the land on labels such as Conqueror, Melotone, Vocalion, and others. It was easily the best-selling of all the Carter records and one that remained in print well into the LP era.
Unlike Jimmie Rodgers, Peer's other big find at Bristol, the Carters seemed oddly unable to capitalize on their record success. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, while Rodgers was playing the big RKO vaudeville houses in Dallas and Atlanta, the Carters were setting up plank stages and hanging kerosene lamps for shows in remote mountain coal towns. While Rodgers was in Hollywood making films, A.P. was nailing his own homemade posters to trees and barns announcing Carter Family concerts and asserting, "This program is morally good." While Rodgers stayed in deluxe hotels, the Carters went home with fans who invited them to spend the night and "take supper."
Things got so bad in 1929, at the peak of their recording career, that the Carters were not even performing together full-time. A.P. went north to find work in Detroit. Maybelle and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. Tension began to grow between A.P. and Sara. For a time, in 1933, they even separated, eventually getting back together to perform with the group. Both women, who did most of the actual singing on the records, were busy raising their young families, and nobody was really making a living with the music. At times it was hard to get together, and A.P. would on occasion use his sister Sylvia to replace Sara or Maybelle if one of them couldn't get free.
The great records continued. There were "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" and "Wabash Cannonball" in 1929; "Worried Man Blues" ("It takes a worried man to sing a worried song") and "Lonesome Valley" in 1930; "Gold Watch and Chain" in 1933; and then, in 1935, "Can the Circle Be Unbroken?" This was the first recording of the classic song in the form we know it today. The Carters had actually recorded it for Victor in 1933, but the company didn't think enough of it to release it. After they signed with the American Record Company in 1935 (the company that eventually became Columbia), the Carters re-recorded it, with much better results. The song was a textbook case of how A.P. could take an older song and make it relevant to a new audience. This one started out as a rather stuffy gospel song copyrighted by two famous gospel songwriters, Ada R. Habershon and Charles H. Gabriel, under the title "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" A.P. took the chorus to this song and grafted onto it a new set of lyrics about death and bereavement. The version was issued and reissued throughout the 1930s, eventually appearing on ten different labels. When singers like Hank Williams and Roy Acuff began singing the song in the 1940s, they reverted to the use of the word "will" in the title and the chorus; their usage stuck. But in every other respect, the song was the Carters'.
A.P. was officially the leader of the group, but his real role was that of manager and song-finder or songwriter. He also did emcee work for most of the stage shows and acted as front man, cutting most of the deals. Most of the music, however, was really the work of Sara and Maybelle. Years later, Maybelle recalled of A.P.: "If he felt like singing, he would sing, and if he didn't, he would walk around and look at the window." In one sense, then, the Carter Family could be thought of as country music's first successful female singing group, since most of the records focused on Sara and Maybelle's work. A.P.'s great talent was finding songs; he would travel far into the mountains looking for them. For a time, in those days before tape recorders, he hired a black blues guitarist named Lesley Riddle to go with him; A.P. would write down the words to songs he liked; it was Lesley's job to memorize the music. His association with Lesley gave A.P. a love of the blues, evidenced in hits like "Coal Miner's Blues."
In 1938 the Carters hit big-time radio, moving from the Virginia mountains to the dusty border town of Del Rio, Texas. Here, every morning, they would go into the studios of XERA, a radio station whose transmitter stood across the border in Mexico, and do a show for the Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation. Border radio stations like XERA aimed their broadcasts into the southern and midwestern parts of the United States, blasting out with a power of over 100,000 wattsa far stronger signal than any legally authorized United States station. The Carters could now be heard throughout much of the country, and their fans multiplied by the tens of thousands. By now, the children were getting old enough to join the act. Sara and A.P.'s daughter, Janette, began her career here, as did Maybelle's three little girls, Helen, June, and Anita. Many of the recordings of these radio showsknown as transcriptionshave since been issued on LP. They give a fascinating picture of wonderful, informal, music-rich broadcasts, replete with commercials for tonic medicines.
Thousands of fan letters poured in, and record sales skyrocketed. By now the group was recording for Decca and doing some of its best work. But bad luck set in again. In 1939 A.P. and Sara split for good; Sara moved to California. Then, in 1941, XERA went off the air. One last chance arose to get togethera six-month contract with radio station WBT in Charlotte. A photographer from Life magazine came down to do a major photo spread on the threesome. For a moment, it looked like the big national break might come after all. The photographer filled up a wastebasket with flash bulbs, but the Carters waited in vain for the story to come out. The story, they eventually found out, had been displaced by an even bigger one: the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This was the final disappointment. Sara really called it quits, and A.P. went back to his home in the mountains of Virginia, where he eventually opened a country store. Maybelle started up a new act featuring herself and her daughters, eventually finding her way to Springfield, Missouri, where she teamed up with a young guitar player named Chet Atkins. All the Carters would keep their hand in the music for another twenty years, and all would eventually make more records, but none of these recordings featured the original trio. The act was history. A.P. died in 1960, Maybelle in 1978, and Sara in 1979. Their legacy was a hundred great songs, a standard for duet singing, and a guitar style that helped define the music. As music historian Tony Russell has put it, "Whenever singers and pickers gather to play 'Keep on the Sunny Side' or 'Can the Circle Be Unbroken,' Sara, Maybelle, and A.P. are there, benign and immortal spirits."
The Carter Family on Border Radio
It was October 1938, and another hot afternoon in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. A few miles away was the Rio Grande, and across it the Mexican town of Las Vacas; off to the northwest ran U.S. Highway 3, the "scenic route" that led through Devil's River. To the east, Highway 3 turned back into gravel and dirtwhat the maps called an "all-weather road"and wound some 150 miles to the nearest large town, San Antonio. On the steps of Del Rio's biggest hotel, the Grand, a man named Harry Steele stood waiting, looking up the road toward San Antonio. He was a radio announcer, working for the Consolidated Royal Chemical Company out of Chicago, a company that made various patent nostrums like Kolorbak (a hair dye) and Peruna (a cough medicine). He was a long way from Chicago now, though, down here in this arid corner of Texas, working on a strange new radio station called XERA. His bosses had found that they could sell boxes and boxes of their products by advertising on the station, especially when the programs featured country singers. Steele was waiting for the newest act on the Consolidated roster, a trio from Virginia named the Carter Family.
The leader of the group, a man named A.P. Carter, had just called to say they were just a few miles out, and Steele had gone out on the porch to wait. Consolidated had sealed its deal with the family by buying them a big new Chevrolet, and eight days before they had started out for Texas from their mountain home in Maces Spring, Virginia. Their first broadcast was scheduled for this evening, and to meet the date, A.P. had been driving ten hours a day over chunky, Depression-era roads. Steele knew they would be exhausted. Finally he saw a big Chevrolet driving slowly down the street, stopping in front of the hotel. It was the dustiest car he had ever seenmuch of the road to San Antonio was not then pavedand strapped to the back was something that looked like a motorcycle. (He found out later it belonged to shy little Maybelle.) Steele was not sure this was the right car, but a tall, lanky man got out and squinted up at the hotel. Two women got out of the other door, and a teenage girl from the back. Then Steele was sure who they were. He started down the steps with his hand out to greet them. The Carter Family had arrived in Texas.
It had been just about eleven years before that the odyssey of the Carter Family had begun, with the release of their first Victor record. It had come from that famous session in Bristol, where talent scout Ralph Peer had auditioned both the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers within the space of a few days. Now Rodgers was dead, and the contract with Victor only a bitter memory; they had done over 120 sides for the company, seen some handsome royalty checks, and were still seeing those tunes reissued on Victor's new Bluebird label and through the Montgomery Ward label. But the record checks had been about their only dependable income; the big-time vaudeville and motion picture contracts that had come to Jimmie Rodgers had eluded them; while Rodgers was headlining RKO, A.P. was still booking schoolhouse shows in the mountains, and tacking up posters on trees and barns. Ralph Peer, who was still serving as their personal manager, had been aced out of his job with Victor, but still had a wealth of contacts and was determined to get the Carters a decent gig. He got them record deals with ARC (the American Record Company, now Columbia) and with Decca. Shortly after the last Decca session (in Charlotte in June 1938), Peer called A.P. with the best deal yet; as good as records were, the real money now was in big-time radio, and Peer had an offer from Consolidated to work six months on the border radio stationfrom October to March, the coldest and most bitter months in the mountainsand then have six months' vacation. For this each member would get $75 a weekboth working and on vacation. As a bonus, there was the car. Not only was it decent money, Peer reminded them, but it was a chance at a national radio audiencea chance to expand their audience beyond the Southeast. In spite of the relocation problems, and the growing families of both women, no one had to think very long. Texas it was.
Just why South Texas had become the country music radio capital in the mid-1930s was another story. It all started with a "radio doctor" named John R. Brinkley, who got in trouble in Kansas for selling a goat gland remedy (for virility) over the air. In 1932, to escape prosecution, he set up a new radio station, XER, with studios in Del Rio, Texas, but with a transmitter across the border in Mexico. At that time, the Federal Radio Commission had a limit of 50,000 watts for all American stations; Mexico did not, and XER had soon boosted its power to an incredible 500,000 watts. With this, it could blanket most of the continental United States, drowning out and overriding many of the domestic stations. XER changed its call letters to XERA in 1935, and was soon joined by a host of other "X" stations using a similar technique; by the time the Carters arrived in 1938, there were no fewer than eleven such stations. They became outlets for dozens of American companies offering a wide range of dubious mail-order products: cancer cures, hair restoratives, patent medicines like Crazy Water Crystals ("for regularity"), baby chickens, "Resurrection plants," and even autographed pictures of Jesus Christ. It didn't take the advertisers long to figure out that their long-winded pitches worked best when surrounded by country music, and by the mid-1930s a veritable parade of record stars were making the long drive down Highway 3. The Pickard Family, formerly of the Grand Ole Opry, came down in 1936; Jessie Rodgers (Jimmie's cousin) came, as did Cowboy Slim Rinehart. J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, fresh from their success with "Maple on the Hill," came down to work for Crazy Water Crystals.
The Carters soon found themselves at the center of this hectic new world. The very night they arrived, they were asked to make out a list of songs they could do on the spot, and then were rushed into the studio. At 8:10, the Consolidated Chemical Radio Hour took to the air live; it ran for two hours, and was filled with a bizarre variety of singers, comedians, and announces. The Carters were not on mike the whole time, but they were the stars, and they carried the lion's share of the work. Their sound was pretty much the way it had been on records: Sara played the autoharp, Maybelle the guitar. Now, though, there were fewer duets between Sara and A.P.the pair had been separated for several years and would get a divorce in 1939and A.P. himself sang more solos and even began to feature his own guitar playing on the air. There was more trio singing now, and more plugging of records, including the recent Decca sides like "Coal Miner's Blues" and "Stern Old Bachelor" and "Little Joe." Janette, A.P. and Sara's teenage daughter, began to do an occasional solo. (Later, Maybelle's children would join them as well.)
The family soon found that they would be earning the salary, and that, regardless of how glamorous it sounded, regular radio broadcasting could be grueling. Their contract called for them to broadcast twice a day, six days a week; afternoons were taken up with rehearsals, and some mornings were given over to cutting transcriptions for the station to play for their early morning show; one hard morning's work would yield enough recorded programs to allow the group to sleep in the other days. Then, every evening at 8:10, there was the live show to do; "You hardly had any time to yourself," Maybelle recalled. Though Maybelle's husband, Eck, was able to come down and join them later that year, Maybelle missed her children, whom she had left with relatives in Virginia. The first year in the big time was rougher than they had ever imagined.
It was doing wonders for the Carter Family music, though. For a time, it was hard to tell just how well the shows were going over. At the end of their shows, however, announcer Harry Steele reminded listeners to send in box tops from Consolidated products to get free gifts, such as a Bible or a picture. (The idea was to build a mailing list.) Soon the Carters were generating some 25,000 box tops a weekto the delight of the company. June Carter later recalled that during this time you could hang a tin can on any barbed-wire fence in Texas and hear the Carter Family. But the signals carried far beyond Texas; when the group got back to their home in Virginia after that season, they found 5,000 fan letters waiting for them. Their Decca and ARC record sales boomed as never before; tens of thousands were sold on the dark red Conqueror label through Sears catalogs. Suddenly, the Carters were America's singing group.
Delighted with these results, Consolidated quickly signed the family on for a second season, to run from October 1939 to March 1940. This season saw a host of changes. For one thing, both Maybelle and Sara decided they wanted their children with them. Before the end of the first year, Maybelle's youngest girl, Anita, had joined them, as well as Janette, then fifteen. In an era of child stars on the radio (like Little Jimmie Sizemore), six-year-old Anita had emerged as a special favorite with fans, and letters had poured in praising her. The older kids back in Virginia were understandably jealous. June recalled: "At night we listened to the powerful signal coming up from Texas, lying on our stomachs with our chins in our hands, me and Helen. Then Anita's voice would come over the air, and at first we didn't believe it was her.... It didn't seem right that Anita should be down in Texas with Mother, singing so well on the radio." Both June (now ten) and Helen (now twelve) wrote letters to Del Rio, begging to come down, and now Maybelle agreed. June would play autoharp and guitar, and Helen guitar, and all three of Maybelle's children would sing together as an act. The only problem was that June didn't really want to sing, and Maybelle was not sure she could carry her share; June remembers her mother saying, "If you're gonna be on the world's largest radio station with uswe'll need some kind of miracle."
But the second season was a miracle of sorts, and all the Carter children found parts on the show. A new announcer had arrived, Brother Bill Rinehart, and it was he who emceed the shows and often delivered a moral at the end of the songs. A typical show would start off with the whole family opening with their theme song, "Keep on the Sunny Side," and then go into a favorite like "Goin' Back to Texas," with A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. Then Maybelle and Sara might do a duet like "Cowboy Jack," and A.P. a solo like "Diamonds in the Rough." Then June, Helen, and Anita would do a piece like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," and Janette a solo like "The Last Letter," then a current hit. There was usually time for an instrumentalSara and Maybelle doing "Shortening Bread" or "Red Wing"and then another gospel standard like "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul."
By now the family was putting more and more of its programs on big sixteen-inch electrical transcriptions. This gave them a little more time off, and allowed Maybelle and her daughters to live in San Antonio. This was convenient, because most of these transcriptions were recorded in the basement of the San Antonio home of Don Baxter, the station's engineer. From a thirty-minute show on disc, Baxter could then dub off copies, and send the transcriptions to other border stations such as XEG and XENT. This helped "network" the Carter music even further, and their fame continued to rise. (After the demise of the border stations, many of these big shiny transcriptions were tossed out, and for years farmers in the area used them to shingle their chicken houses.)
For the family itself, though, things were becoming as uncertain as the war clouds that were gathering in Europe. The break between Sara and A.P. had become permanent, and on February 20, 1939, Sara married A.P.'s cousin, Coy Bayes, at Brackettville, Texas. Family tales tell of A.P. standing at the back of the church, staring vacantly at the ceremony. As Sara's new husband prepared a home for them in California, she boarded with Maybelle and her kids. A.P. and his children lived in Alamo Heights. Though he still arranged songs with his customary genius, he began to take less and less interest in choosing repertoire for the shows; for a time, he got involved in directing a choir for the local Methodist church, sometimes even arranging old Carter Family songs for it.
By March 1941, XERA was off the air, and the colorful era of border radio was coming to an end. It also meant, for all practical purposes, an end to the original Carter Family. A.P. would return to Poor Valley, never to remarry, never to match the fame he had had on XERA. Sara would retire from the business and go to California. Maybelle would remain in radio, working her children into her act, and eventually make her way to Nashville. There would be an aborted comeback in 1943, but basically the Carter Family was ended. But the border radio years had been invaluable for themand for country music. It was here that their wonderful harmonies had made their impact on a national audience, and helped spread classic country singing styles across the land. It was here, too, that the Carters passed the torch to their next generation, and set the stage for later careers of Joe, Janette, June, Helen, and Anita. Though the old transcriptions with Brother Bill Rinehart might be rusting on dilapidated chicken houses, the Carter Family sound would live on.
The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle
It was the winter of 1942-43, and the Original Carter Family was making its last stand over radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Since 1927, when they made their first recordings at the famous Bristol sessions, A.P. and Sara Carter, along with their younger cousin Maybelle, had dominated the new field of country harmony singing. They had recorded their classic hits like "Wildwood Flower," "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," "Keep on the Sunny Side," and "Gold Watch and Chain" for every major record label, and since 1938 had spread their music all around the nation over the powerful "border radio" stations along the Rio Grande. But times were changing; Sara Carter had divorced A.P., remarried, and moved to California. Maybelle had married at sixteen to A.P.'s brother, Ezra (Eck) Carter, and had started her family: three daughters named Helen, Anita, and June. The big border stations had closed down, and the record business, beset by shellac shortages from the war, was a shadow of its former self. Small wonder that when a company called Drug Trade Products offered A.P. a twenty-week contract to work the winter at WBT, he accepted. WBT was a 50,000-watt station with a huge coverage and a good cast of other musicians, and the money was too good to pass up. For the last time, the Original Carters gathered together again, moving into the Roosevelt Hotel on South Tryon Street in Charlotte because of the housing shortage.
Maybelle Carter was forty-five that year; she had blossomed from the shy, small, dark-eyed guitar player into a seasoned and confident musician and songwriter, and had even contributed several original songs to the last Carter Family Victor session the year before. Her husband, Ezra, had recently taken early retirement from his job on the railroad (due to low blood pressure) and was interested in seeing Maybelle form her own group with her girls. By now the two oldest, Helen and June, were in high school, and Anita, the baby, was barely eleven. All three had gained entertainment experience when their mother had brought them onto the border radio shows in 1939. Helen sang and played the guitar, June the autoharp, and even little Anita would sing and play guitar. The old radio transcriptions from XET showed the kids doing their own specialties on the showJune strumming the autoharp and singing "Engine 143," all of them together doing "Give Me the Roses While I Live" and "Somewhere a-Working for My Lord." The Carter Sisters, as they were starting to be called, had decided they wanted to try for a career as they finished school, and Maybelle was agreeable. All this took on a new excitement when Life magazine sent down a photographer to document the family's music at Charlotte; for a time, it looked like a cover story and a chance for the Original Carter Family to get the national publicity it had been needing. But after doing a long series of photos, both in Charlotte and back home in Poor Valley, the magazine decided war news was more pressing, and the project was scrapped. The last hope of keeping the original group together had vanished. Thus when the contract at Charlotte expired, A.P. decided to return to Virginia, while Sara went back to the West Coast with her new husband. "It really wasn't all Dad's decision," recalls A.P. and Sara's son, Joe. "Maybelle had been wanting to strike out with the girls for some time. When she got that offer to go up to Richmond and be on the radio, they thought it was a good deal."
Maybelle's group returned to Maces Spring that spring for some R&R, and then in June 1943 headed for Richmond. At first they did a commercially sponsored program for the Nolde Brothers Bakery over WRNL as "The Carter Sisters." Then, in September 1946, the group was asked by WRVA's leading star, Sunshine Sue, to become members of a new show that was starting up, to be called the Old Dominion Barn Dance. Sunshine Sue Workman was a native of Iowa, and had won a solid reputation appearing on various Midwest programs through the 1930s. She had arrived at WRVA in January 1940, and was a natural choice to be host of the new barn dance program; in doing so, she became the first woman emcee of any major barn dance show. Her music featured her own accordion and warm, soft voice doing songs like "You Are My Sunshine." Like Maybelle, she was juggling being a wile and mother with being a radio star; she also, by the late 1940s, was planning the Barn Dance shows and organizing touring groups.
By March 1947 the new barn dance was doing daily shows from a local theater from 3 P.M. to 4 P.M.; soon, though, it moved to Saturday nights, where WRVA's 50,000 watts of power sent it up and down the East Coast. In addition to the Carter Sisters, who were now getting headline billing, the early cast included Sunshine Sue's husband, John Workman, who with his brother headed up the staff band, the Rangers; Joe and Rose Lee Maphis (with the fine guitarist being billed as "Crazy Joe"); the veteran North Carolina band the Tobacco Tags; and local favorites like singer Benny Kissinger, champion fiddler Curley Collins, and the remarkable steel guitar innovator Slim Idaho.
By 1950 the cast had grown to a hundred, and included major national figures like Chick Stripling, Grandpa and Ramona Jones, Toby Stroud, and Jackie Phelps. The station's general manager, John Tansey, worked closely with Sunshine Sue to make the Old Dominion Barn Dance a major player in country radio. At the end of its first year, it was filling its 1,400-seat theater two times every Saturday night, and by December 1947 it could brag it had played to 100,000 "paid admissions." The Carters realized they were riding a winner.
As always, success on radio also meant a bruising round of weeknight concerts in schoolhouses and small theaters. Eck Carter did a lot of driving in his Frazier, and on the way there was time to rehearse new songs. June Carter recalls: "The back seat became a place where we learned to sing our parts. Helen always on key, Anita on key, and a good steady glare to remind me that I was a little sharp or flat.... Traveling in the early days became a world of cheap gas stations, hamburgers, tourist homes, and old hotels with stairs to climb. We worked the Kemp Time circuit, the last of the vaudeville days, and the yearning to keep on singing or traveling just a little further never left." And in spite of their growing popularity, the sisters continued to hear the border radio transcriptions of the Original Family over many of the stationsproof, it seemed, the old Carter sound was not yet as passé as some thought it was. By now Helen had learned to play the accordion (à la Sunshine Sue), and Anita was standing on a box and playing the bass fiddle.
The early days at Richmond were especially hard on June. Helen had already graduated from the high school back in Hiltons, but June was just coming up on her senior year, and she would be spending it in a large Richmond school called John Marshall High School. She was self-conscious about her accent (in which a touch of Texas drawl had been added to her Poor Valley dialect), her looks, and the way in which she would be hoofing across some theater stage at night instead of doing homework. She remembers: "I took a good look at myself. My hair went just where it wanted to go, and I was singing those hillbilly songs on that radio station every day and somewhere on a stage every night. I just didn't have the east Virginia 'couth' those girls had." In response to her problems with singing on pitch, and her natural volubility, she began to turn to comedy. "I had created a crazy country character named Aunt Polly Carter, who would do anything for a laugh. She wore a flat hat and pointed shoes and did all kinds of old vaudeville bits." She also sometimes wore elaborate bloomers, since in her dance steps her feet were often above her head. And for a time, part of the act had her swinging by a rope out over the audience. But she managed to have a great senior year at her new schoolshe learned to read "round notes" and to sing in the girls' choir, and to make new and lasting friends. But in 1946, when it was all over, she cried because there was no way she could follow her friends off to college.
The Carter Sisters spent five good years in Richmond, and by the time they left, the girls had all become seasoned professionals, and the group was no longer being confused with the Original Carter Family: it had an identity, and a sound, of its own. In 1948, they took a new job over WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, where they played on the evening show, the Tennessee Barn Dance, and the daily show, the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.
Though the former dated from 1941, and the latter from the 1930s, the station was hitting its stride in the late 40s and was being thought of as a AAA farm club for the national shows like the Opry. Regulars included Archie Campbell, Homer and Jethro, the Bailey Brothers, Wally Fowler and the Oak Ridge Quartet, Carl Smith, Pappy "Gube" Beaver, the Carlisles, the Louvin Brothers, Cowboy Copas, and such strange novelty acts as Little Moses, the Human Lodestone. One of those who was amazed at the popularity of the Carters was a young guitar player named Chet Atkins: "They were an instant success. Crowds flocked into the auditorium every day to see them; the crowds were so heavy at the Barn Dance on Saturday night that you had to come early even to get in." He was thus surprised and pleased when Eck came to him one day and offered him a job traveling with the group. "We'll cut you in for one-sixth of what we make," he said. "That's equal shares for each of us."
Soon Atkins was crowding into the back seat of Eck's Frazier as they headed out after the Saturday Knoxville show to play in one of the big music parks in Pennsylvania. During all of this time, the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, for all of their success in radio, had not recorded on their own. This was finally remedied on February 2, 1949, when the entire ensemble traveled to Atlanta to record a double session for RCA Victor. They produced eight sides; the first two issued were "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," which was credited to them, and "My Darling's Home Again," which they had gotten from Johnnie and Jack. More popular were "Why Do You Weep, Dear Willow," from Lynn Davis and Molly O'Day, and "Someone's Last Day." June added a couple of novelties, "Root Hog or Die" and "The Baldheaded End of the Broom." The sales were above averagesome of the sides were among the very first to be issued by RCA on the new 45 rpm "doughnut" recordsand the band was quickly scheduled for another session later that year. In the meantime, on May 17, 1949, June lent her comedy talents to the first RCA session by Homer and Jethro. In New York City, they did a takeoff on the pop song "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It got onto the charts, established Homer and Jethro as comic "song butchers," and established nineteen-year-old June as a comedienne in her own right.
June 1949 saw the troupe once again uprooted, this time headed for KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. The small towns around southern Missouri and northern Arkansas offered new audiences for personal appearances, and the Radiozark company was making the station into a center for transcribed shows. Helen recalls: "We did two or three radio shows a day, worked every night, and got up in the morning and started all over again."
Chet Atkins was still with them, though the girls were increasingly concerned about his debilitating asthma attacks. June remembers: "Chester and I set up the public address system, and he'd have those asthma attacks and I'd have to lug the stuff in." But two things of lasting interest happened in the year they stayed in Springfield: they cut a series of thirty-nine fifteen-minute transcriptions which featured a good cross-section of their repertoire, as well as some fine Atkins solos. (Copies of these have survived, and deserve reissue.) And Helen, the oldest of the girls, got married, in March 1950, to a young man named Glenn Jones.
In June 1950 the group, with Atkins, got an offer to join the Opry and moved to Nashville. Things got complicated in the next few years, as the other two girls got married as well. Anita chose a young, hot fiddle player named Dale Potter, while June said yes to a young singer she had met in Knoxville who had just joined the Opry, Carl Smith. While the three sisters still got together with their mother for recording sessions and radio shows, each began to be interested in a solo career. June created a band called the Bashful Rascals and made her first solo try on RCA in August 1950 with a single called "Bashful Rascal." At the same session, Anita tried her first solo with a song called "Somebody's Crying." Helen tried her hand with the new independent label, Tennessee, cutting a duet with Opry announcer Grant Turner ("Heaven's Decision"), another one with Don Davis ("Sparrow in the Treetop"), and a couple of solo efforts (including "Fiddling Around"). In February 1952, all of them signed with Columbia, where they would largely remain for the next two decades.
In 1951 Anita also began working as a duet partner to RCA's hottest current star, Hank Snow; their version of "Bluebird Island" reached Number Four on the Top 10 charts. A little later Anita would become duet partners with singers like Johnny Darrell and Waylon Jennings. In 1955 RCA producer Steve Sholes paired her with Rita Robbins and Kitty Wells's daughter, Ruby, to form a rockabilly trio called Nita, Rita, and Ruby. No big hits resulted from the experiment, but they did some of the earliest female rockabilly, and recorded songs that ranged from pieces by the Everly Brothers to Cindy Walker ("Give Me Love").
Mother Maybelle continued to work on the package shows, including several of Snow's, where she met and took a shine to a young Elvis Presley. June recalls: "She'd drive all night getting us in from somewhere and we would be exhausted, but she was wanting to go bowling at some all-night lane." By the early 1960s, Maybelle had been discovered by the young college audiences of the "folk revival," and she began to make some solo appearances at places like the Newport Folk Festival, performing the older songs and conducting guitar and autoharp workshops. (She had begun to play the autoharp after moving to Nashville.) June, for her part, took her solo career in a different direction: she moved to New York to studying acting with Elia Kazan, and eventually landed acting roles in TV shows like Gunsmoke and Jim Bowie. By 1963, after a second marriage to Rip Nix, she had joined Johnny Cash's show.
Throughout the 1950s, labels like Columbia and RCA kept cutting singles of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle as a group and as individuals. When A.P. Carter died in 1960, Maybelle felt comfortable in taking the name "the Carter Family" for her organization, and in 1962 used it on the cover of their first real LP, The Carter Family Album on Mercury. Many of these early LPs were filled with versions of old Carter songs from the '20s and '30s, though a superb 1963 solo album by Anita contained a bevy of new songs done by modern Nashville tunesmithsincluding the first recording of "Ring of Fire." In 1963, the Carter Family as a group joined Johnny Cash's successful road show, and celebrated the event by cutting their first Columbia record, "Keep on the Sunny Side" (with Johnny Cash). June and Johnny married in 1968.
Albums of all sorts now began to flow during the late '60s and '70s, many with the full family, some featuring Maybelle, some featuring one of the girls, some featuring other groups like Flatt and Scruggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. By 1974, yet a third generation of Carters was making its mark, with the Columbia LP Three Generations. June's daughter, Carlene, started a solo career in 1978, achieving great success in recent years. Maybelle herself began struggling with arthritis and a type of Parkinson's disease, and by the mid-1970s her legendary energy was beginning to run down. There was time for one last album, Country's First Family, cut at the House of Cash studio in February 1976; it was an engaging mix of old Carter songs and new Nashville ones. Maybelle died on October 28, 1978, knowing that there were new generations of Carters to carry on the work.