The Carter Family: First Family of Country Music

The Carter Family: First Family of Country Music
Photo: AP
Autoharp player Janette Carter is the daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter.

STEVE EMBER: I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I'm Shirley Griffith with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the Carter Family, the First Family of country music.

STEVE EMBER: It was August second, nineteen twenty-seven. The news had spread fast. A man named Ralph Peer was coming to the city of Bristol, on the border between Virginia and Tennessee. He wanted to make recordings of local people singing and playing musical instruments. And he said he would pay fifty dollars for each song recorded. That was a lot of money in those days.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Many people came to Bristol that day to play for Mr. Peer. But one group seemed to have just the sound that he was looking for. They were a man named A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and her cousin, Maybelle. They had traveled more than one hundred twenty-five kilometers from their home in the mountains of Virginia. They called themselves the Carter family.


John Carter Cash holds up his grandmother Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5 guitar during a celebration at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville.
John Carter Cash with his grandmother Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5 guitar.

STEVE EMBER: Sara sang lead, the loudest and highest notes. A.P. sang bass, the lowest notes. Maybelle sang harmony, somewhere in between. She also played the guitar in a new and unusual way. It sounded almost like two people were playing at the same time. She played the main part of the songs on the lowest guitar strings. And then she quickly strummed by playing all the strings at once. This kind of playing became known as the "Carter Scratch." Guitarists around the world would soon begin to copy her style.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Those first recordings were sent to radio stations throughout the United States. Many listeners were surprised at what they heard. Instead of classical or jazz songs that radio stations usually played, a new sound was born.

The Carter Family sounded different. They did not sound like they had taken music lessons. But it did not matter. The people in poor rural areas thought they sounded just like their neighbors, or the people who sang in their churches.

Up until then, they had never heard people like themselves perform on the radio. Soon the Carters were being called country singers, because their music came from rural country areas and not big cities.

STEVE EMBER: The Carters sang songs about living in the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. They sang about the love of a young man for a special girl. They sang about the beauty of nature. They sang about dying and sadness. And they sang religious songs that told of hope for a better life after death.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: A.P. Carter sang in the group and also searched for new songs. He often traveled long distances to small towns in the southeastern United States. He wanted to hear the songs that local people sang in their communities. He wrote down the words but kept the music in his memory. When he returned home, he helped Sarah and Maybelle fit them to the Carter Family musical style.

Country music legend Johnny Cash performs with his wife June Carter Cash, a member of the famous Carter Family.
Country music legend Johnny Cash performs with his wife June Carter Cash, a member of the famous Carter Family.

STEVE EMBER: The Carter Family soon became famous. They recorded more songs. They traveled to many cities and towns in the eastern United States to perform. Thousands of people heard them sing and bought their recordings.

Some people estimate that within three years, the Carter Family sold three hundred thousand recordings.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In the early nineteen thirties many Americans were poor. The Great Depression had begun. Many people had no jobs. But somehow they found enough money to buy the recordings of the music they loved. A.P., Sarah, and Maybelle Carter knew that the economy was very bad. They knew what it was like to be poor. So they always tried to sing a few songs to make people feel happy.


STEVE EMBER: The Carter Family continued to make recordings and perform their music live for several years. In nineteen thirty-eight, they traveled to Texas. A very powerful radio station was a short distance across the border in Mexico. It could broadcast much farther than any radio station in the United States. The Carters performed on the station twice each day. Now people from all over America and in some foreign countries could hear them.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: As a musical group, the Carter Family was a great success. But there were problems that the public did not know about. For years, A.P. and Sarah had not been happy with each other. Finally, their marriage ended in divorce. Three years later, Sarah married A.P.'s cousin. The group continued to perform together, but it was not easy. And then, in nineteen forty-three, it all came to an end. Sarah and her second husband moved to California. A.P. Carter also stopped performing, and moved back home to Clinch Mountain to live out the rest of his life.


STEVE EMBER: So now the Carter Family was down to one. Maybelle Carter was the only one left to perform. She decided it was not yet time to retire to her "Old Clinch Mountain Home." She continued to play her guitar and sing. She also played the autoharp. She appeared many times on the live radio program "The Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville, Tennessee. She became known as Mother Maybelle, the mother of American country music.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In the nineteen fifties and sixties, her daughters performed and made recordings with Mother Maybelle. They appeared many times with the famous country music singer Johnny Cash. June Carter, one of Maybelle's daughters, married Johnny Cash in nineteen sixty-eight. They all sang together until Mother Maybelle's death in nineteen seventy-eight.

Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, speaks at the 12th Annual Bluegrass Music Awards.
Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, speaks at the 12th Annual Bluegrass Music Awards.

STEVE EMBER: The Carter Family is remembered today as the First Family of American country music. Their most famous song is still played today. It is about love that did not last. It is called "Wildwood Flower."



He told me he loved me and called me his flower

That blossomed for him all the brighter each hour

Though my heart is now breaking, he shall never know

That his name makes me tremble, my pale cheeks to glow

I'll sing and I'll dance and my laugh shall be gay

I'll charm every heart and the crowd I will away

I'll live you to see him regret the dark hour

When he won and neglected this frail wildwood flower

STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Jim Tedder and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I'm Shirley Griffith. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.