Sara and Maybelle Carter: Country Music’s Most Influential Women

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Long before Miranda Lambert was around to discuss talking with Charlie, or Kacey Musgraves could encourage us to follow our arrows, two women from deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains were building the foundation of country music and setting up the path for generations of artists, especially females, to follow today.

Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter didn’t set out to be the matriarchs of modern country music, but when you’re rich in talent and strong in spirit, that’s what happens.

The beginning of country music’s story (and these influential women) goes that in 1927 Ralph Peer, a talent scout from New York City, arrived in Bristol, Tennessee looking for people who sang “hillbilly” music. He set up shop and offered $50 for the recordings. The Carter Family– AP, Sara, and Maybelle– answered the ad. (And so did Jimmie Rodgers, but that is another story entirely.)

Before their fateful trip to Bristol, the trio had tried out for another scout, but were passed over because Sara was the lead singer. The scout told the Carters that a musical group with a female lead singer would never sell. It likely didn’t help that Maybelle was the lead guitarist.

Almost instantly, Sara, and AP and Maybelle proved their critics wrong. The group’s first two songs, “Poor Orphan Girl” and “Wandering Boy,” followed a few months later by “The Storms Are on the Ocean” and “Single Girl, Married Girl,” sold so well that Peer, realizing the Carters’ star potential, called for another recording session. It was during that recording session that “Wildwood Flower,” was recorded. The song went on to be named as one of the 100 “most important American musical works of the twentieth century” by National Public Radio.

During this time Sara laid the groundwork for modern country music. This backwoods, real-life country girl from nowhere Virginia was at the forefront of bringing the sounds of everyday American life to the masses.

Like female country singers today, Sara was overshadowed by male singers of her time, but her independent and fierce spirit blazed the trail that country music is still following today. Sara’s voice was sincere and honest. Fans related to her unrefined delivery and her words, which resonated with struggling people across the country during the nation’s Great Depression. Sara was a maverick, yet she was just like everyone else, a struggling, small town girl trying connect with others through her music.

While Sara won over the the masses with her voice, Maybelle created her own way of playing the guitar. It was called scratch and she used her thumb to play melody on the bass and middle strings, and her index finger to fill out the rhythm. Eventually, everyone started calling this unique method ‘Carter Family picking. It was this technique that influenced the guitar’s shift from rhythm to lead instrument, a style that, save Billy Joel or Elton John, almost everyone is still using today.

As most families do, the Carter Family had its share of ups-and-downs, but eventually Maybelle continued on the family’s musical stylings with her own daughters (Helen, June and Anita). They traveled the country spreading country music, and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as a part of “Country Music’s First Family” in 1970.

The foundation of country music has always been the story, not the style. The roots of country music have always been in the real world– the work, the tragedies, church and everything in between. And behind those stories and the works and the tragedies are strong-willed, independent women, two women in particular– Sara and Maybelle.

Image Source: Carter Family Museum, PBS

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