Maybelle Carter (second from right) in 1974 with her daughters (from left) Helen, Anita and June. GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images
Maybelle Carter (second from right) in 1974 with her daughters (from left) Helen, Anita and June.
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images
Maybelle Carter apparently made a mean chicken gizzard soup, which called for chicken livers, necks and backs, besides the gizzards. Her daughter June Carter Cash published that recipe, along with a host of others, in Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook: A Kitchen Visit With America’s First Family of Song in 1989, a little over a decade after her mother’s passing. Only those who’d had the privilege of being guests in Maybelle’s home had witnessed what she could do with soup pots and frying pans in the name of painstaking hospitality. Even so, the notion of being able to purchase the recipes for her homecooked meals fit with how the public knew her — as the musical matron who put her Gibson L-5 archtop guitar, autoharp and long memory to use holding her rightful place in professional communities she helped inspire.
There was really no precedent for Maybelle Carter, not at the beginning nor by the end of her five-decade career. In the late 1920s and ’30s, when she was starting out, people who hadn’t seen her perform live, had only heard her on Carter Family records and radio broadcasts, scarcely believed it could be a young woman supplying the trio’s primary accompaniment on guitar. Late in her performing tenure, throughout the ’60s into the ’70s, she was both a grandmotherly figure, demure in her high-collared dresses and greying bob, and an instrumentalist sharing her technique and repertoire, and the spotlight, with mostly male, star musicians a generation or two her junior.
Society tends to treat woman of a certain age like they’re irrelevant, even invisible, their ways antiquated and their powers, skills and accomplishments long forgotten. Even in the realm of country and folk music, each defined in relation its own idea of preserving noble cultural lineage, Carter’s enduring presence was striking. She was still out there working, in an industry vastly changed from the one she started in, still taking unpretentious pride in her abilities, when she finally came to be recognized as a foundational figure, an originator.
In her bucolic southwest Virginia youth, she got her hands on a mail order guitar and proceeded to absorb and apply musical ideas from an array of sources, beginning with her mother’s banjo picking. Maybelle would spend much of her life on the opposite end of that exchange, making herself an approachable source to her literal and figurative progeny.
First, though, she focused on her own development. The guitar playing approach she devised combined the brisk, swinging rhythms of strummed chords and terse, melodic lead licks, and she was serious about its execution. In Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music, authors Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg describe how much it irked Maybelle when record man Ralph Peer wouldn’t allow her a do-ever in the studio to fix a mistake or elected to release a flawed take anyhow for sake of “authenticity.” Decades on in a promotional interview, she sounded both pleased and amused by folkloric appraisals of her playing. “When I started playing the guitar,” she recalled, “I didn’t have nobody to play with me, so that’s how I developed this style of pickin’, and the rhythm too. They call it the ‘Carter scratch’ now,” she goes on, starting to chuckle, “some of ’em do.”
Listeners connected with the Carters as a family delivering sacred and sentimental tunes with accessible directness, even if they weren’t clear on the exact nature of the group members’ relations — that Maybelle had been drafted in her late teens to round out the singing duo of her older cousin Sara and her song-collecting spouse A.P., big brother to Maybelle’s husband Ezra. After the latter two started their own family, Maybelle encouraged the musical aptitude she saw in her daughters Anita and Helen and helped their less tunefully advanced sister June find a performing role by purchasing her an autoharp. When the original Carter trio permanently parted ways in 1943, following the long disintegration of Sara and A.P.’s marriage, Maybelle and her brood carried on, billed as the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. She was 34 years old at the time, and the “mother” prefix would be attached to her name forever after.
The Carters picked up Chet Atkins, whose jazzy guitar playing hadn’t yet taken him very far, as a sideman. On transcriptions of radio segments they recorded together, Maybelle’s role was a supporting one — supplying solid rhythm guitar and harmony singing — except when she stepped forward to honor a request for an old, familiar song from the Original Carter Family repertoire. The dynamic continued after Maybelle and by-then grown Anita, June and Helen made it onto the Grand Ole Opry; Maybelle was as likely to delegate soloing duties to her daughters as to take solos herself.
Her mothering reputation grew as she looked after first Hank Williams, then Johnny Cash, rash, self-destructive, perpetually strung-out young stars who’d show up at her home for steadying succor and hot meals. Cash, who’d developed a strong attachment to June in particular, brought all four of the Carter women on his thriving tours. Carter biographers Zwonitzer and Hirshberg relished pointing out that for all the importance Maybelle placed on setting a good example, she was also known as a speed demon behind the wheel and, as time went on, an avid gambler.
Eventually, Maybelle’s daughters dispersed on separate professional paths. Their success genuinely pleased her, though the tapering off of the sisters-and-mother act, along with country music’s increasing reliance on electrified sounds, left her resigned to supplementing her musical income with overnight nursing shifts. But she would increasingly find herself looked to as a matriarch by male stars, all of them at least a generation younger than her and almost all from outside her family circle. Their interactions, whether folksy or formal, began to bring more serious attention to her musicianship and vast knowledge of songs from a bygone era.
Earl Scruggs, easily the best known bluegrass instrumentalist on the planet by the early ’60s, made it known that he considered her a guitar hero when he and his duo partner Lester Flatt made an album of Carter Family favorites. On it, Scruggs attempted to emulate Maybelle’s distinctive parts. Zwonitzer and Hirshberg noted that that was easier said than done, even when Maybelle, who was mostly playing autoharp on the sessions, offered the use of the archtop she’d used on the original recordings. “He had trouble reproducing Maybelle’s unique tones and nuances,” they wrote, “no matter how perfectly he copied her notes.” During one of her televised appearances with Flatt & Scruggs, the announcer instructed the audience, “Pay attention to the real high notes that Earl’s picking. He said Mama Maybelle taught him these chords.” Scruggs seemed to look for her approval after one melodic instrumental interlude.
Cash, who’d become a son-in-law to Maybelle upon marrying June, faithfully championed her skill and the Carter Family’s historic contributions to commercial country music, which couldn’t have hurt the case for their 1970 induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame, belated as it was, coming nine years after their contemporary Jimmie Rodgers went in as part of the inaugural class. Cash gave her an affectionately ceremonious introduction on an episode of his television show. “Whether country music is played in New York City, as we are tonight, in an American rural crossroads town or in a foreign land, this next lady is loved and respected, and you can’t really measure her influence in our business, so important she’s been,” intoned the imposing, black-clad host. “She’s been recording now for 46 years, and I hope her new record with a young singer named Johnny Cash doesn’t hurt her career too much.”
His droll self-deprecation drew a grin from her. She gave a slight nod toward the audience to acknowledge its applause and, still smiling, kicked off her spry, signature guitar figure from the Carter standard “Wildwood Flower,” leading Cash’s band into a song descended from it, “Pick the Wildwood Flower.” Eventually Cash strode over to his mother-in-law, leaned over her shoulder and watched her fingers move. He urged her to demonstrate her licks once more, pointed his microphone at her guitar and played up his own ineptitude by comparison. “I see the way you do it,” he said, “but I can’t ever get it going, mama.”
His stage patter brought to life a mother figure’s paradoxical truth: Just because she passes her knowledge along doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to replicate her unique touch.
In the parallel world of the urban folk revival, far from Nashville’s Opry, collegiate listeners had taken an avid, studious interest in music and music-makers that had been around long enough to seem unsullied by the pursuit of profit or popularity. That included Maybelle, the sole still-active member of the original Carter Family. The young, New York-based string band New Lost City Ramblers invited her to join them for an L.A. folk club residency, then for Newport Folk Festival appearances, where she gave workshops on guitar and autoharp. (Her autoharp held special appeal for folkies, who associated it with rustic, front porch music-making, plus it was easier on her arthritis.)
Despite Maybelle’s lifetime of performing experience, these were curious, new settings for her, and she savvily adjusted to expectations, receiving the attention as something she hadn’t necessarily envisioned but had earned nonetheless. Of drawing twenty-something crowds that lapped up her stories and waited politely while she tuned her instruments, she said, “I would have never believed it ’til I done it.”
The names and cover art of albums she released from the early ’60s on hold clues about how her presentation evolved. They had titles like Mother Maybelle Carter & her Autoharp Plays Famous Folk Songs, Queen of the Auto-Harp and A Living Legend. On the front of the latter LP, she’s seated in a stately parlor, a Tiffany-esque lamp on a marble-topped table next to her. Another, from 1973, depicted her in a more idyllic setting, perched on a quilt-draped chair in a patch of grass and wildflowers, and included her studio banter with Nashville A-list session musicians, who marveled over her by-then vintage Gibson. When she mentioned the name of one jaunty, old tune, the players egged her on, “Show us how you did it.”
At the beginning of the ’70s, the long-haired, California country-rockers in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band invited Maybelle, by then in her 60s, along with Scruggs and a slew of other musical elders, to be venerated guests on what became the sprawling, generation-bridging landmark of an album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Maybelle’s granddaughter Carlene Carter was then in her teens, and the members of the Dirt Band were only about a decade older. In a 2018 interview with NPR, she described how easily her grandmother once more slipped into a matriarchal role at the request of a group of studious, enthusiastic young musicians. Carlene laughed heartily recalling the conversation: “She was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll go down there with those Dirt Boys. They seem real nice.’ It was just so cute.”
After the album took off, the Dirt Band decided to bring a third incarnation of the Carter Family, featuring Maybelle and various configurations of her daughters and grandchildren, on tour. They knew that there could be no substitute for the presence of a musical mentor who taught everyone what they needed to know to move the picking tradition forward.
Carlene shared the stage with her grandmother those nights. “I think she always amazed people when they actually heard her play live, because she was such a perfectionist about it,” she observed with a mixture of affection and admiration. “And as simple as everything might seem, it’s not that simple. You ask any guitar player if you try to mimic it. They’ll always put way more notes in than they need to and they’ll miss the nuances of the smaller things.”
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