The Carter Family consisted of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter traveled the South in the teens and twenties working and collecting folk songs. He supposedly met Sara as he wandered through Wise County, VA; she was singing "Engine One Forty Three." The story goes that A.P. brought her home, and his brother Ezra promptly went east met and married Maybelle and brought her back home to Maces Spring, VA too. The Carter Family had been performing together for ten years near their hometown when Ralph Peer came to Bristol, TN in 1927 to audition "hillbilly" talent for RCA Victor. The Carters had recently unsuccessfully auditioned for another company but impressed Peer who immediately recorded and released six of their songs.

The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, "the Singing Brakeman," were the only performers signed by Peer that day, and he was taken by the Carter's "wholesome, moralistic" songs and Sara's voice. The Carter Family also fit Peer's marketing strategy; Peer was capitalizing on the demand for "old-fashioned" or "hillbilly" music and was looking for artists that knew traditional songs that had not been copyrighted or who could write original songs that sounded old-fashioned. Perhaps the Carter Family's greatest contribution to country music is the vast number of traditional songs that A.P. preserved and copyrighted over the years. Although they did compose original pieces; most of their records were traditional ballads, many, as A.P. remarked, that were older than him, and no more than a handful of their songs have been attributed to them. Over the next several years, the Carters recorded for RCA Victor at six-month intervals, and they began touring the South performing and collecting material. They were not financially successful though; they never performed far from home, and they never associated with a large radio station, which would have given them much needed publicity. A.P. moved to Detroit for a time, and Ezra and Maybelle left for Washington, D.C. where he had gotten a job. The family only got together for their twice-yearly recording sessions.

Hear the Carter Family's "Worried Man Blues"

In 1938, the Carter Family began performing for XET radio in Mexico near Del Rio, TX. The 500,000 watt station broadcast the Carter's across the nation and into Canada. Around this time, Maybelle's daughters June and Anita joined the Carter Family on air. A.P. and Sara divorced in 1939, but the family continued to perform together until 1943. When A.P. and Sara retired, Maybelle and her daughters kept up the family name and continued to record for decades.

The Carter Family | Bill Monroe | Roy Acuff | John Lomax | Woody Guthrie

Hillbillies on the Radio | Country & Western | A National Culture?