[In celebration of the 10th issue of She Shreds, we will be posting some of our favorite selections from across our print catalog throughout April. The feature was originally published in the second issue of She Shreds Magazine, October 2012 and has been edited for timely accuracy. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 10th issue when it is released later this month!]
The Carter Family band, considered America’s first famous country group, was a family who played music for the pure joy, love and community of it. They were famous in a world-wide, thousands of fan letters per week, family drama and love affairs, rock-star kind of way.
In 1927, hailing from the humble town of Maces Spring, VA, the Carter Family grew to become the most influential family and band in country music’s history. Driven towards the business of music by AP Carter, they rose to fame very quickly and enjoyed a long career of recording, touring and evolving as family members joined and left from the band.
The original Carter Family band consisted of Maybelle Carter (guitar, vocal harmonies), Sarah Carter (lead vocals + autoharp), and Sarah’s husband at the time, AP Carter (songwriter, band manager + occasional vocalist). After Sarah and AP divorced, the matriarch of the band, Maybelle, kept the band going and added her daughters June, Anita, and Helen to the roster. Despite the band’s fame, the far-reaching influence of one of the key members has gone largely unnoticed.
At the core of the Carter Family’s music was “Mother Maybelle’s” utterly unique guitar playing. She played melody on the low E, A, and D strings, while also strumming the rhythm with her index finger. Her background playing banjo and autoharp inspired this kind of pick-strumming. Before Maybelle took the stage, the guitar had only been used as a rhythm instrument (think strumming along in the background of a big jazz band). After she invented this “Carter Scratch” guitar style, lead guitar became a part of almost every country, folk and rock band to follow. She single-handedly got Americans to take the guitar seriously. Legends such as Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash played in her band and took inspiration from her constant innovation. She loved to connect with other musician who were likewise pushing musical boundaries. Also a gear tastemaker, Maybelle’s beloved Gibson L-5 archtop held the tone that became the sought-after sound in country music.
Mostly self-taught, Maybelle was known for being completely dedicated to the pursuit of musical perfection and innovation. In addition to inventing and mastering her own playing style, she also learned blues, slide, and Hawaiian-style guitar. She gained a lot of inspiration from Leslie Riddle, an African-American musician and so-called fourth member of the Carter Family. Riddle traveled throughout the country with AP Carter, seeking out old songs and melodies the Carter Family could rework. AP secured the lyrics and Riddle memorized the melodies. He could remember almost everything he heard and would pass it on to Maybelle, who also soaked it all in by ear. She was a complete road warrior who loved driving the tour van herself and living the musician’s lifestyle – one of the earliest Queen of Country and Rock n’ Roll.
Learn how to play Carter style below:
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