In honor of Mother’s Day, today’s Adventures in Feministory is about one of the “mothers” of country music and modern guitar playing: Mother Maybelle Carter.
Born in 1909 in Nickelsville, Virginia, Maybelle formed the iconic Carter Family folk music group with her in-laws A. P. and Sara Carter in 1927. Here’s some audio of the first song they recorded, “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree,” set to black and white images of the trio. Click here for the lyrics.
The Carter Family was influential for many reasons—they were the first vocal group to become country stars; they changed mainstream perceptions of gospel, bluegrass, country, and pop—but perhaps their most notable legacy is the guitar stylings of Mother Maybelle. Her signature “Carter Scratch” is described as “a style of fingerstyle guitar … in which the melody is played on the bass strings, usually low E, A, and D while rhythm strumming continues above, on the treble strings, high E, B, and G.” The Carter Scratch is credited for turning the guitar from a rhythm instrument to a lead instrument. Did you catch that? Not only was the first well-known lead guitarist a woman, she was a woman playing country and folk music. Sure, female rock’n’rollers may have picked up the guitar-playin’ torch in later years, but it all started with the Carter Family. Thanks, Mother Maybelle!
Mother Maybelle also kicked ass at the banjo and the autoharp!
After the dissolution of the the Carter Family trio in 1943, Mother Maybelle started a new family singing group with her three daughters—Helen, June, and Anita—called Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. They were popular on the radio throughout the late 1940s and in the ’50s they became a staple of The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the most popular country show in the nation at that time. Here’s a clip of Mother Maybelle and her daughters playing their hit song “Wildwood Flower” on the show (you can find the lyrics here).
Here’s another version of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters performing the song on The Johnny Cash Show (Cash was married to Mother Maybelle’s daughter June Carter Cash) that includes an interview with Maybelle about recording the first Carter Family album in 1927. This performance took place about 20 years after the Grand Ole Opry video above, evidenced by the satin dresses and poufy updos the Carters are sporting. Talent! Style! Stage presence! They’re bringing it all!
Mother Maybelle passed away in 1978, but her influence is still felt today, and not just in country music. Her pioneering spirit and super guitar skills paved the way for female (and male) lead guitarists in pop, rock, bluegrass, country, and gospel—just to name a few. Her guitar, a Gibson L-5 archtop acoustic, was purchased by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004 for $575,000. If you’re near Nashville, check it out and pay tribute to one of the great “mothers” of modern music.