From the late 1920s all the way through the 1950s, she was a familiar presence on American radio and a powerful influence on the course of country music. First as part of a trio in partnership with her cousin Sara and her brother-in-law A.P., and later alongside her own three daughters, Helen, Anita and June, she helped make the Carter family of southwestern Virginia the “First Family of Country Music.” Known universally by her affectionate nickname, “Mother” Maybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington near Nickelsville, Virginia, on May 10, 1909.
Music was an ever-present part of Maybelle’s childhood, as it was for so many popular-music pioneers born in the first half of the 20th century. Without any thought of music as a career path, Maybelle and other members of her extended family learned to play instruments and sing close-harmony and mastered a wide repertoire of traditional mountain folk songs. It was not until technology and economics drove the massive growth of the American recording industry in the 1920s that a set of talents like Maybelle’s had any real commercial value. In 1927, after performing together for several years at various local events, Maybelle, cousin Sara and Sara’s husband A.P. Carter—who became Maybelle’s brother-in-law in 1926 when she married his brother Ezra Carter—answered an advertisement calling for interested local musicians to come and be recorded in nearby Bristol, Tennessee, by a visiting producer for the Victor Talking Machine Corporation
“The Bristol Sessions,” as they later came to be called, are often referred to as the “Big Bang of country music,” not just for launching the career of the Carter Family, but also for capturing the first-ever recording of country-music titan Jimmie Rodgers. Over the course of the next year, the Carter Family recorded a body of songs that are a significant part of the country and bluegrass canon—songs like “Wildwood Flower” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).” Those recordings earned the Carter Family a shot at their first regular live radio program, and those live radio programs influenced an entire generation of country and rock-and-roll stars, including Maybelle’s future son-in-law, Johnny Cash.
After A.P. and Sara’s divorce in 1943, Maybelle carried on the Carter family name by bringing her three young daughters into the act. Under the new name “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters,” this second incarnation of the Carter Family performed and recorded for the next 35 years, until Maybelle Carter’s death on October 23, 1978.