The Carter Family: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you heard the songs Keep on the Sunny Side and Can the Circle Be Unbroken? Do you know who sang them first? In this lesson, we'll explore the Carter Family, their hit songs, and their impact on country music.

A Distinctive Style of Music

The Carter Family was an early twentieth century American folk and country music vocal trio. The family members were Alvin Pleasant (known as A. P.) Carter (1891-1960), his wife Sara (1898-1979), and her cousin Maybelle (1909-1978), who was married to A. P's brother Ezra. All were born in rural southwestern Virginia in the heart of the Appalachia region. They grew up in musical families and were influenced by the distinctive music they heard around them, including traditional melodies, gospel singing and shape-note singing, a simplified version of musical notation where different shapes represent pitches, resulting in a distinct sound.

A.P. wandered the region and collected folk tunes derived from Scotch, Irish and British immigrants who had settled there in the 1700s. Influenced by the music he heard in the region, he arranged the tunes in three-part harmonies for the group, in the process both preserving a piece of music's past and creating a unique sound for his group.

A. P. sang bass and played guitar. Sara sang the lead on most songs in a clear, unadorned soprano and played autoharp (a boxy stringed instrument where the player depresses keys to play chords) and guitar. Maybelle sang alto and, more importantly, played guitar with a distinctive style. She plucked the lead on the bass strings, which hadn't been done before. The style of guitar playing became known as Carter Picking or Carter Scratch, which tells you how influential it was. And by allowing vocals to take precedence over the instruments, the Carter Family was ushering in a new kind of music, although they certainly didn't know it at the time.

The Carter Family and Country Music

In 1927, the Carter Family went to a recording session and became a part of history. After seeing a brief newspaper notice, they traveled to Bristol, Tennessee to a temporary recording studio set up on the second floor of a hat-making factory by the Victor Talking Record Company, which was looking for new acts to add to its roster. This session later became legendary as the Bristol Sessions - some of the artists who recorded there turned into the first country music stars.

The Carter Family, in a 1927 Victor promotional photograph. Maybelle is in the front on guitar and Sara holds the autoharp.
Carter Family 1927

The Carter family's first Victor record featured the songs 'The Wandering Boy' and 'Poor Orphan Child,' just two of the many tunes A.P. had arranged. With Sara on lead and Maybelle's distinctive guitar, later songs also became hits, including 'Can the Circle Be Unbroken' (1927) (note that you also see this song title as 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' but in the original 1927 recording, the title starts with can); 'Wildwood Flower' (1928); 'Wabash Cannonball' (1929); and 'Keep on the Sunny Side' (1928), which became the group's theme song. Later, the Carter Family also recorded for American Record Company (ARC) and Decca.

It wasn't an easy life and they didn't make as much money as music stars do today. A.P. was gone a lot, searching for music, and his marriage to Sara eventually fell apart. After they divorced, she fell in love with and married A.P.'s cousin Coy Bayes. But the Carter Family continued to record as a trio.

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