Sunday , June 16 2024

Relics: Mother Maybelle Carter’s Guitar

One of the most influential single instruments in popular music history – Mother Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 acoustic – has been donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum:

    Philanthropist Bob McLean donated $1 million to the Hall of Fame to purchase the guitar, saying historic instruments such as Carter’s guitar belong in the museum.

    “Not because they’re fancy, expensive instruments but because the world was changed by the music created with them,” he said. “They belong here because people need to connect with their past.”

    Carter bought the guitar, then a top-of-the-line model, for $275 in 1928 and played it until her death in 1978. She used it on most of her recordings and to pioneer a playing style in which she picked the melody on the lower strings while strumming the chords on the higher ones. The technique, called the “Carter Scratch,” has been widely imitated.

    “`Mother Maybelle’ Carter is really the person who introduced the guitar as a lead instrument in country music,” said Hall of Fame Director Kyle Young. “She belongs to a small group of blues, country and other roots musicians whose playing style and instrumentation provided a foundation for nearly every genre of popular music.

    ….McLean, an amateur musician who described himself as a “behind the curtain-type guy,” was coaxed onto the stage at the Hall of Fame for Monday’s announcement of the acquisition. He picked a bit of the Carter Family classic “Wildwood Flower” on Maybelle’s guitar with Vince Gill and Marty Stuart. [AP]

The Carters were discovered and recorded by the great Ralph Peer (1892-1960), the single most important figure in the establishment of roots music (“race” and “hillbilly,” aka “blues” and “country”) as commercially viable in the ’20s as a talent scout, producer and music publisher. Peer was born in Kansas City and helped his father sell sewing machines, phonographs and recordings as a teen. After high school he went to work for Columbia, followed by service in the U.S. Merchant Marine during WWI.

Peer was hired as recording director of the Okeh label in 1920. Success came almost immediately when he produced Mamie Smith’s aforementioned “Crazy Blues” in New York. More important than the urban blues sung by the likes of vaudeville entertainer Smith were Peer’s field recordings where his feet found the talent, his ear sorted out the best material and his personality brought out relaxed, confident performances by blues and country greats Sara Martin, Fiddlin’ John Carson (the first genuine country recording “The Little Old Cabin In the Lane” in ’23), Ernest “Pop” Stoneman (“The Titanic,” ’25, one of the biggest sellers of the ’20s), Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, and Sippie Wallace, all for Okeh.

Peer went to Victor in ’25, where in addition to founding the modern country music publishing business with Southern Music (his deal with Victor allowed him to solicit publishing rights for any song he recorded), he produced an incredible series of blues and country records on the road in Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Charlotte with Jimmie Davis, Sleepy John Estes, Alberta Hunter, Tommy Johnson, Furry Lewis, Blind Willie McTell, Frank Stokes, and countless others.

But his most famous discoveries took place in Bristol, Tennessee, in August of ’27, where he found Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) and the Carter Family.

Peer’s recordings with the great Rodgers included the various “Blue Yodels,” “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” “Waiting For a Train,” and the rest of the Singing Brakeman’s classic catalog before his death from tuberculosis in ’33.

Perhaps the single most important song to arise from the Bristol Sessions (as they have become known), though, was actually recorded in Camden, NJ. A.P. Carter (1893-1960) was a roving church singing instructor and fiddler/guitarist from western Virginia when he met singer/autoharpist Sara Dougherty (1899-1979); they were married in 1915, and in ’26 joined by Sara’s guitar playing cousin Maybelle (1909-78, she was also married to A.P.’s brother) to form a performing trio.

The trio recorded six songs at the Bristol session and were called up to Victor’s Camden studios (where Rodgers also recorded) for a second session, where they recorded one of the most influential records in country music history, a Civil War-era song adapted by A.P., “Wildwood Rose,” featuring Sara’s haunting vocal and Maybelle’s finger picking style – the “Carter lick” – which became the very foundation of country rhythm guitar playing.

The song reached No. 3 on the pop charts in ’28 (there was no country chart until ’44) and sold over one million copies (check out Mike Ness’ rocking but faithful rendition).

After the original Carter trio split up in 1943, Maybelle and her daughters — Helen, June and Anita — performed as the Carter Family. June, of course, later married Johnny Cash. Both died last year.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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