Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mother Maybelle Carter & The Carter Family

I just wanted to look back and remember, for a moment, Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters, Helen, June and Anita, who joined the Grand Ole Opry on May 29, 1950, as "The Carter Family." Over the course of their time at the Opry, they would also be known as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, or just as Mother Maybelle Carter, with daughters in support roles. June Carter would also perform on the Opry as a solo act.

As everyone knows, Mother Maybelle was part of the original Carter Family from Maces Spring, Virgina and who, with Jimmie Rogers, were involved in some of the first recordings in country music, known as the "Bristol Sessions." The original Carter Family included A.P, Carter, his wife Sara Carter and Maybelle. A.P. and Sara were married for a time and their divorce contributed to the breakup of the original group. After they broke up in 1942, Maybelle started to work with her daughters.

As with most of the acts from this time period, they bounced around from radio station to radio station, and the cities that they lived in included San Antonio, Richmond, Knoxville and Springfield before moving on to Nashville.

It was during their time in Knoxville that Chet Atkins joined them as a guitar player, and he continued on with them to Springfield and then on to Nashville. Chet gave an interview at one time and talked about how the Carters ended up in Nashville and at the Opry:

"George Morgan was comin' up there to Springfield and doin' some syndicated radio shows and he like the girls a lot--he liked all pretty girls a lot--and through him we went to Nashville and auditioned for the Martha White portion of the Opry. They liked us and offered us a spot. Now, I was making fifty dollars a week at Springfield and they offered e seventy-five if I'd stay. I called Fred Rose--the greatest man that ever hit Nashville--and I said, 'Fred, what shall I do? Could you use me on some records as a sideman if I come down there?' He said, 'Yeah, come on down.' So I came down with the Carter Sisters and I worked the Opry, and right away I started working as a recording musician. Jim Denny didn't like that too much, but Jack Stapp kept me on."

While the Carters would remain on the Opry for a number of years, Chet left after about a year to pursue his own career.

At the Opry, the Carters were very popular backstage and made friends with many of the members, including Hank Williams. However, they did avoid Mom's, later to be known as Tootsie's. Most of the old-timers at the Opry knew Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family and they made sure that the younger Opry members treated Maybelle and her daughters with the respect expected. It was known that around Maybelle, they watched their manners and their language. They were always treated with respect.

Of the sisters, Anita Carter probably had the finest voice and did record some albums, but never achieved any great success. She did have some very nice duets with Hank Snow. June would become the most famous of the Carter Sisters, as she performed on the Opry both as a single singing act (although her singing left something to be desired) and as a comedienne, doing comedy with with an assortment of Opry members. June would also be married for several years to Opry star Carl Smith, a marriage that produced a daughter Rebecca, more widely known as Carlene Carter.

While they were very popular in the 1950s and occupied prime spots on the Opry, usually on the Martha White show, as the 1960s progressed, Mother Maybelle would be given less spots on the show, including being given only given one spot each Saturday night instead of the traditonal two. And, she would be on the less desirable portions. (gee, and many of you thought this was a new thing-the way veterans and legends are treated at the Opry).

After June became part of the Johnny Cash road show in the 1960s, the Carter Family would join the show and that included Mother Maybelle. And thanks to Johnny and his influence at Columbia Records, the Carter Family was able to make new albums which allowed them to once again play folk festivals and get back out on the road. Between those festivals and the appearances at Johnny's concerts, her Opry appearances became less and less. Opry management had little interest in promoting Mother Maybelle and scheduled her appearances to suit themselves. Dixie Deen Hall remember one time when Maybelle was trying to change an Opry date so that she could play a well paying folk festival in California but the Opry refused to do it. It was shortly after that when she would leave the Opry.

It was also Johnny who felt that it was an injustice that the original Carter Family had not been inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he would use his ABC television show to showcase Maybelle and would make a point of saying that the Carters were not in the Hall of Fame, while many acts that followed them were. On October 14, 1970, she was elected into the Hall of Fame, as a part of the Carter Family. Bill Monroe was also inducted the same night.

It should be noted that Maybelle lived in Madison and her two best friends were Minnie Snow, Hank's wife, and Dixie Deen, who would become the wife of Tom T. Hall.

Mother Maybelle Carter passed away on October 23, 1978, after several years of poor health. Oh, and one more thing. She picked up the nickname of "Mother Maybelle" back in the 1950s, when she was only in her 40s. It was given to her as a sing of the respect that she had achieved in the country music community.


  1. Great article on Mother Maybelle.

  2. Fred in Bismarck here.

    Really, really nice, Byron. I've been a country fan since the mid-1950s and learned a LOT of new stuff. Thank you!

  3. Byron, if I remember the story correctly, Maybelle basically introduced Tom and Dixie. As Ralph Emery told it, they were at the same table at a BMI dinner and as Dixie put butter on her potato, Tom helpfully asked if that was why she was fat, which almost inspired Maybelle to violence. Later, Ralph said, when they were dating, he asked her to wear the mink she wore to the dinner. She said it wasn't hers, and he wondered, since the fur wasn't even hers, if her teeth were real, so she bit him. Maybe she'll bite him enough times to get him to do the Opry.

  4. I had heard the same story also and it is a good one and one that I can picture Tom T as saying. (from Byron, because for some reason I am now unable to comment on my own blog!!!!!!)

  5. Byron, it acted up for me too!

  6. Who was the third singer with Helen and Anita behind Mother Maybelle on the Johnny Cash Show?