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The Carter Family didn't sing or play anything that couldn't be put on at a church. The group's Old Family Melodies, courtesy of Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Carters started small, singing in churches . . .
Alvin Pleasant Carter, born in 1891, sang in a quartet with two uncles and a sister in churches around Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. People called him A. P., or Doc. He learned to play the fiddle, but his religious parents would not allow the devil's box at home.
Sara Dougherty, born in 1898, lived right over Clinch from A. P. with an aunt and a fiddling uncle. She learned guitar and banjo and autoharp.
A. P. came over Clinch on a selling trip, drumming for a fruit tree company, and there over the mountain he found Sara accompanying herself with an autoharp as she sang "Engine 143." In June of 1915, A. P. and. Sara married.
A. P. had a brother Ezra. Sara had a singing, music-playing cousin Maybelle Addington. In 1926 Ezra Carter married the seventeen-year-old Maybelle. Sara sang a husky lead, Maybelle sang an alto harmony, and A. P. sang bass.
These three were the original Carter Family of Maces Springs, Poor Valley, Virginia.
The Bristol News Bulletin, Wednesday, July 27, 1927, announced that producer Ralph Peer from the Victor Record label would be in Bristol, the city split down [End Page 135] the middle by the Tennessee and Virginia state line, for a week to ten days, seeking local talent to make commercial recordings of country and mountain dance music and songs.
Brunswick Records had already offered "Fiddlin' Doc" and Sara a contract to record square-dance tunes, but they'd turned it down—hadn't wanted to upset A. P.'s churchy folks. But that'd been years before, and the Carter Family didn't sing or play anything that couldn't be put on in a church. It was family singing, truth telling, heartstring tugging. It wasn't dancing.
The Carters agreed. Yes, let's go. But Bristol was twenty-five miles away, over mud-holed, rutted dirt roads. Maybelle was seven months pregnant. Ezra Carter said no, but A. P. made a deal with him: you let Maybelle go with us to meet the record man and I'll nub out some new ground for you. Ezra gave in.
They loaded up Maybelle, swollen belly and all, and A. P. and Sara's eight-year-old Gladys and baby Joe, still at Sara's breast, and A. P. and Sara themselves all in a Model A Ford. They lit out over the bad roads and the family car broke down in the middle of a stream on the way. But it being summer and the streams being down that time of year, A. P. got out and got his feet wet and got the car to running again. Take more than a busted Model A to stop strong mountain stock like the Carters came from. They made it into Bristol and met Peer, who took them into his makeshift studios at 410 State Street, the old Anderson & Carr building, where he'd hung rugs on the walls for soundproofing . . .
In the first days of August 1927, they recorded "Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow" and "The Storms Are on the Ocean."
That was the beginning. A. P. scoured the hills looking for tunes for the Carters to record. Some folks outright gave A. P. tunes. Others sold him tunes for a few dollars—old tunes, pieces of tunes, ideas for tunes. And A. P. carried with him on these collecting jaunts a guitarist friend from Kingsport, Tennessee, a black man named Lesley Riddles.
Riddles helped Maybelle as she developed her thumb-brush, hammer-on, pull-off guitar style that became the instrumental stamp of the Carter Family's music. Maybelle...