When you think about the most important people in country music history, who comes to mind? No doubt names like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, and George Strait are on that list. You may also think of folks like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, or Jimmie Rodgers. Each of those people left an indelible mark on the genre. However, without Maybelle Carter and The Carter Family, the country music world would be a much different place.
Maybelle Carter was the mother of June Carter who later became June Carter-Cash. Before that, though, Mother Maybelle was an innovator at the epicenter of a musical revolution.
Today, Mother Maybelle Carter would have been 112 years old. To celebrate her birthday, we’re going to briefly look back at her career and contributions to the music world.
Maybelle Carter and the First Family of Country Music
Mother Maybelle Carter was the matriarch of country music and a member of its first family. That’s not just a nickname tacked on to her legacy. Those are just plain facts. The Carter Family was the first group to record what would become country music. In fact, they recorded their first record the day before Jimmie Rodgers pressed his initial recording.
They took part in what many have called the “Big Bang” of country music. The company that would later become RCA Victor set up shop in Bristol, Tennessee for ten days. During that time, Ralph Peer was tasked with finding and recording new talent. The music industry was in its infancy. Peer was on a mission to fuel its growth. So, on August 1, 1927, The Carter Family made the trip from Maces Springs, VA to Bristol to take part in the recording event, according to NPR.
The Victor Talking Machine Company released the Carter Family’s first record in November of that year. The disc included “Wandering Boy,” and “Poor Orphan Child.”
That group consisted of Sara Carter, her husband A.P., and Sara’s sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. Sara sang lead and Maybelle sang harmony for the most part. However, her biggest contribution to the group and to music as a whole was her distinctive guitar style. Watch this video or Mother Maybelle playing the country standard “Wildwood Flower,” to see a great example of her playing style.
How Maybelle Helped to Transform the Guitar
It’s hard to imagine a time when the guitar wasn’t an integral part of country music. Today, the instrument is front and center on most recordings. Whether it’s the twang of a Telecaster or the warm wood-born tones of an acoustic guitar, the instrument is at the forefront of the genre. However, that may not be true without Maybelle Carter. She, at the very least, changed the way people looked at the instrument.
Before folks like Mother Maybelle Carter and Jimmie Rodgers became prominent guitarists, the instrument was largely overlooked. Much of the old-time music out of which country music formed was played on banjoes, fiddles, and even accordions. It was only after the era of the Bristol Sessions that the instrument became a staple in both roots music as well as popular music, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Even then, the guitar was limited to a rhythm instrument. Maybelle Carter helped to develop a style of playing that allowed her to play melody or “lead” as well as rhythm at the same time. That style, known today as the “Carter Scratch,” or “Carter Family Picking,” had a huge impact on American music as a whole. You can hear her influence just about everywhere. In fact, it has been said that Maybelle Carter is the most-imitated guitarist of all time. Her innovative sound is part of what made The Carter Family so popular.
The Legacy of Maybelle Carter
Maybelle Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 69. Over the course of her life, she was part of The Carter Family as well as the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. The latter group introduced the world to June, Anita, and Helen Carter.
Maybelle Carter was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 as part of the original Carter Family. In 2001, the group was inducted into the International Bluegrass Association’s Hall of Honor. She was an innovator, and without her American music wouldn’t be the same.