The Far–Reaching Influence of Guitarist Mother Maybelle Carter

When asked to name the most influential American guitar players in history, our minds immediately flit to people like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Chet Atkins.

But notably missing from that list is the often overlooked and immensely talented guitar pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter. The unique and often–copied playing style that Maybelle developed and popularized in the late 1920s quickly became the benchmark for country and American folk guitar players all over the country.

Maybelle played as a part of the original Carter Family trio from 1927 through their disbandment in 1944, toured with her daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and eventually reprised the Carter Family stage name, which she carried until her death in 1978.

The Original Carter Family

The Carter Family

Maybelle Addington was born on May 10, 1909 in Nickelsville, Virginia. Seventeen years later, she married Ezra Carter. Shortly after they were married, Ezra’s brother, A.P. Carter, started playing music with Maybelle and his wife — Maybelle’s cousin — Sara. The trio called themselves The Carter Family and soon became one of the most popular and historically recognized acts in all of early country and American folk music.

From their first recording session in Nashville in 1927 to their eventual disbandment in 1944, it is estimated that the Carter Family recorded and released around 300 sides for various record companies.

Sara’s strong soprano voice led the group vocally, accompanied by Maybelle’s gentler alto harmonies. The cousins’ sweetly complementary vocals are best showcased on the Carter Family recordings released between 1936 and 1938 when they worked with Decca Records.

Their renditions of songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep On the Sunny Side,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and “Wabash Cannonball” have all since become synonymous with the modern genres they influenced.

Interestingly, A.P. Carter was one of the first individuals in country music to protect his work by copyrighting his music. However, many songs that he is listed as the legal author of are songs that he didn't actually write himself. Rather, he collected them.

Throughout the '30s, A.P. would frequently go on what he called "song hunting trips." The mission would be listen to folks from all over the South sing him songs that had been passed down orally to them, write them down, and bring them back to Nashville for the Carter Family to cover.

Although perhaps not the authentic author of some of these seminal works, it's likely that these songs never would have survived without A.P. and the Carter Family's recordings.

An Influential Style

1939 Gibson L-5 PN Arch Top

Within the Carter Family trio, Maybelle was the only regular guitar player. Her cousin Sara often played accompaniment on the autoharp. So in order to make their songs more dynamic, Maybelle devised a guitar technique that sounded as if multiple guitars were being used at the same time.

Maybelle’s distinct style has collected a variety of nicknames over the years: thumb–brush, the church lick, the Carter lick, the Carter scratch, and perhaps most widely, Carter Family Picking.

On the Gibson L–5 guitar Maybelle was famous for playing, she would use her thumb to pick the melody of a tune on the bass strings, while rhythmically downstroking with her other fingers on the treble strings. She usually accomplished this by wearing a thumb pick on her thumb and a finger pick on her index finger.

The Carter Family didn’t tend to tour far and wide. In fact, their performances were often small, relegated to local churches, schoolhouses, and movie houses in the Upland South. But this didn’t stop their music from spreading to places they had never visited.

The Carter Family’s popularity spread throughout the States, mostly due to their record releases and the fact that their music was broadcasted over the radio through the powerful Mexican border stations. These broadcasts influenced guitarists and musicians like Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins.

The Later Years

Though the marriage between A.P. and Sara dissolved in the early ‘30s, the trio continued to play together until their eventual disbandment in 1944. But Maybelle never once put down her Gibson L–5.

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Maybelle toured with her daughters under the name Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. In fact, Chet Atkins served as their guitarist for a while back when he was relatively unknown. He has Mother Maybelle to thank for continuously vouching for him and his chops to Nashville folks who were skeptical about letting him perform.

After A.P. Carter passed away in 1960, Maybelle reclaimed the Carter Family name, which she performed under until her death 18 years later. During the '60s, the revived Carter Family became a major part of the popular American folk music wave that swept the nation.

In 1968, Maybelle’s daughter, Valerie June Carter, married Johnny Cash. For the next 10 years, the Carter Family was a frequent installment on Cash’s weekly variety show, and would often accompany Cash on his tours to serve as his opener.

Mother Maybelle on the Grand Ole Opry Show with Flatt and Scruggs

In 1970, Mother Maybelle Carter was inducted into the Country Hall of Fame. She released her last album Mother Maybelle Carter in 1973, and it climbed to number 44 on the US Country charts. Her death in 1978 inspired Johnny Cash to pen the song, "Tears in the Holston River."

Posthumously, Maybelle has continued to receive accolades. She appeared on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the Carter Family in 1993, was initiated into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 2001, and was ranked as the 8th "Greatest Woman in Country Music" in 2002 by CMT.

In 2007, Maybelle was honored by the Library of Virginia as one of their recognized “Virginia Women in History” for her long and successful music career.

If still with us today, Mother Maybelle would have just celebrated her 108th birthday, and surely would have been flooded with phone calls and cards this upcoming Sunday. A matriarch and guitar legend wrapped in one, Maybelle’s unique guitar style and enduring career has established her as one of the most influential institutions in the history of the guitar world.

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