by Marcus K. Dowling
“As far as guitar playing [in country music] goes, there’s Maybelle [Carter], then there’s everybody else.”
The ancestral history of country music’s rolling melodic stringed instrumentation originates with one person and one style: Mother Maybelle Carter’s iconic “Carter Scratch” technique. Whether favoring the autoharp, banjo, or guitar as your favorite timeless country music instrument, if asking who the virtuoso that birthed the style beloved by your favorite artist is, it’s the sister-in-law of the Carter Family’s iconic founding father, A.P. Carter.
Maybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, Virginia, on May 10, 1909. Within four years of acquiring her first guitar, she was married to Ezra Carter and was already developing as a groundbreaking guitarist. She’d learned the instrument initially from her mother and songs like “Wildwood Flower” (which the Carter Family would later record). Maybelle once explained that her mother informed her of the importance of the lineage of these songs by saying she’d “learned them from her mother before her, who had, in turn, learned them from her parents.”
Maybelle quickly joined her brothers’ band and played at square dances until dawn. As well, she played with her cousin Sara, who was married to A.P. Carter. The threesome played schoolhouses in nearby Maces Springs — Sara on autoharp and lead vocals, Maybelle on guitar, and A.P. on bass. At one of those shows, Maybelle met A.P.’s younger brother Ezra J. “Eck” Carter. At 17, Maybelle eloped with Ezra.
By 1933, Maybelle and Ezra had become the parents of three daughters, Helen, June, and Anita Carter. As well, the trio of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle continued to hone their craft, eventually recording songs for RCA Records’ Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee. These recordings were popular upon release, selling a total of 300,000 copies between 1927-1930. The group of relatives, rechristened as “The Carter Family,” became pop-aimed hillbilly music’s top-selling trio.
The “Carter Scratch” involved using thumb and finger picks to play the melody on the three bass strings while simultaneously strumming the three treble strings for rhythm. It carried elements similar to the banjo’s use as a solo melody and percussion instrument. When Maybelle’s style blended with re-composed English folk tunes familiar to Carter Family singalongs, including “Wandering Boy” and “Single Girl, Married Girl,” they became stars. When Maybelle’s style was embellished upon by African-American singer-songwriter Lesley Riddle — and he bequeathed the family tunes like “Cannonball Blues,” “Hello Stranger,” “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome,” “Let the Church Roll On” — the Carter Family’s renown grew.
However, within that same group of songs, the Carter Family recorded a classic Black Pentecostal church hymn, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” Rewritten and re-arranged as “Can The Circle Be Unbroken,” it is often referred to as the one song that elementally signifies country music’s root emergence. Equal parts gospel, bluegrass, and folk, it’s Maybelle’s Carter Scratch technique that stands out, underpinning the laconic yet soulful and easily digestible lyrical phrasing with a four-on-the-floor rhythm that hooks the listener.
Maybelle Carter’s playing techniques continued to evolve as she toured, both nationally and worldwide, with her family. In an NPR remembrance of Maybelle’s life, Rita Forrester — granddaughter of A. P. and Sara Carter, and the Carter Family Fold executive director — noted that she had staying power in the music industry because she could “chase the music.”
By 1938, “chasing the music” found Carter and family at medicine show huckster “Doctor” John Romulus Brinkley’s million-watt radio station XERA in Del Rio, Texas. They played on a program that aired twice daily, throughout the American south and midwest, plus across the Mexican border. Maybelle’s stylistic influences now also reflected bits of rhythms familiar to the dobro, a steel resonator guitar famous in America’s South and Southwest. “Maybelle loved Mexican guitar styles and incorporated them into her playing,” writes NPR Music’s Liz Tracy. Continuing, writer Deborah Vargas notes in a 2019 NPR piece that, “In other words, while Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing styles and innovations are credited as forming the foundations of ‘American’ country music, the very boundaries of this ‘American’ construction are reshaped by these Mexican guitar playing styles.”
This habit would continue throughout Maybelle Carter’s life. From the 1950s at the Grand Ole Opry as an influencer to country stars like Chet Atkins to touring with and profoundly influencing Johnny Cash, her sound and style gained influences perpetually and spawning careers that influenced musicians into the modern era.
Johnny Cash modeled his similarly iconic guitar playing on Mother Maybelle’s style and often referenced her as “the greatest star I’ve ever known.” Even deeper, on an episode of his Johnny Cash Show TV variety program, he introduced her by saying, “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. 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.”
By 1972, California-based singer-songwriters raised as musicians on a steady diet of hillbilly and folk music began to mirror both the “countrypolitan” styles emerging from Nashville, as well as wanting to turn back the clock to the Great Depression and country music’s root sounds. Long Beach, California’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was one such act. They called upon Maybelle to join other essential Nashville artists, including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, and Norman Blake, to create a triple-album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The album’s title track, a cover of the Carter Family’s near half-century-old classic, featured Maybelle and led the album to become a platinum-seller. Regarding working with the Grammy-nominated quartet (on a song that also earned Carter a Grammy nomination), she said, “Well, I guess I’ll go down there with those Dirt Boys. They seem real nice.”
At the time of Maybelle’s death on October 23, 1978, she’d become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, with her music recorded, for eternity, by the Smithsonian Institution. Regarding her legacy, journalist Billy Edd Wheeler noted in a 1973 Country Music Magazine feature that Maybelle humbly “cut a half-century wide” shadow across country music’s history. He continued to state, “digging facts out of her is like digging clams on a rocky, clammed-out Maine shore at high tide, because many of these facts would sound like compliments to herself and she is not, and never has been, on an ego trip.”