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Volume 24, Number 3 — March 2017

Maybelle Carter was a 'Wildwood Flower'

Maybelle Carter in her heyday. (Photo courtesy of Ronnie Williams)
Maybelle Carter in her heyday. (Photo courtesy of Ronnie Williams)

A Rare Influence in Music and Life

By TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | May 05, 2009

*** Published: May 3, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

HILTONS, Va. Grandpa Jones often referred to folks with distinction as the flower of the flock. He may well have said such in regards to Maybelle Carter.

Carter, who died in 1978 at age 69, would have turned 100 on May 10, 2009. In loving recognition, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va., will honor her on May 9, 2009. Talent scheduled to appear includes Karl Shiflett, Lorrie Carter Bennett, Ronnie Williams and Leroy Troy.

Why the fuss, some may wonder.

"Gracious," said Rita Forrester, A.P. and Sara Carter's granddaughter and Maybelle's great niece and director of the Carter Fold. "She influenced country artists, rock artists, bluegrass and folk artists."

Indeed.

"Gosh almighty, 100 years old," said Chris Hillman of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group the Byrds. "Bless her heart."

Now, Maybelle Carter was not just the flower of the flock. She was and yet remains country music's wildwood flower the mother of country music.

"One of my friends showed me an article on her in Rolling Stone when I was a teenager," Forrester said on Wednesday afternoon, seated on stage at the Fold. "That's when I realized the impact she had on music. But to me, she was my great aunt and I loved her."

Dozens of Carter Family photographs rested on walls beside and behind Forrester. Included among them, just over her left shoulder, was a brilliant photo of a smiling Maybelle Carter.

"The face of all music today would be different without Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family," Forrester said.

THE ORIGINAL CARTER FAMILY

Maybelle Addington was born on May 10, 1909, to Hugh and Margaret Addington near Nickelsville, Va. While still a teenager, she began playing music throughout Poor Valley with A.P. and his wife and her cousin Sara Carter.

The Carter Family's break came in the summer of 1927 when they made their first recordings during what's now famously known as the Bristol Sessions. For $50 per song, they recorded six songs in two days in a building on State Street in Bristol, Tenn., for Victor Records under the direction of Ralph Peer.

So began a career that influenced generations of musicians. They include Kitty Wells, long known as the queen of country music and also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"I was a big fan of the Carter Family," Wells said by phone on Tuesday from her home in Madison, Tenn. "I loved to listen to the Carter Family. Maybelle had a great influence on me. I really admired her."

Perhaps surprisingly, so did many a rock musician.

"The Carter Family and Maybelle's guitar playing per se was a foundation of not only country music but also rock and roll," Hillman said. "If you could got "Wildwood Flower' down, then you were on your way."

Among the Carter Family's standards, "Wildwood Flower," stands out. In particular, Maybelle's guitar playing perked many an ear, including most profoundly a young Earl Scruggs.

"I owe my love for the guitar in country music to Maybelle Carter," said Scruggs, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of Flatt & Scruggs.

Most people know Scruggs best as the most innovative and influential banjo picker of all time. However, he also plays guitar extraordinarily well.

"Thanks to Mother Maybelle," he said. "She was the one who inspired me."

THE CARTER SCRATCH

Guitarist. Maybelle Carter forged the template upon which country music guitar was built. She played lead and rhythm simultaneously during an era when the guitar was not a lead instrument. She sounded like two guitarists in one.

"She was the primer course for anybody who got into country music," Hillman said.

Clean. Maybelle's guitar playing sounds neither cluttered nor showy. As on songs like "You Are My Flower," notes from her 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar sound deceptively simple thanks to her precise playing of the notes.

"She showed me the way to play "You Are My Flower' real pretty like," Scruggs said. "She was the greatest, I thought. She played the tune. You could tell what she was playing."

She used her thumb to play the melody on the bass and middle strings, while using her index finger to play rhythm. Her innovative style became known as the "Carter scratch."

"Gosh, probably the first thing I learned on the guitar was the Carter scratch," Hillman said. "The first tune I ever learned on the guitar was "Wildwood Flower.' "

In addition to Scruggs, Maybelle's guitar playing also influenced such legendary guitarists as Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed and Joe Maphis.

"She was very special," said Rose Lee Maphis, Maphis' widow and duet partner.

During the 1960s, the Maphis' wrote a song in her honor simply titled, "Mother Maybelle." Joe Maphis included it on an acoustic album that he recorded in much the same style as she innovated.

"He borrowed her old guitar," Maphis said, "the one in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and that's what he played on the record."

Maphis did not record with Maybelle, but Scruggs did. Even today, three decades after her death, Scruggs, the world's greatest banjo innovator lights up at mention of Maybelle's name.

"She played the fire out of the guitar," Scruggs said. "I just loved Mother Maybelle Carter the best."

MOTHERLY MOTHER MAYBELLE

Unfortunately and despite her widespread influence, by the 1950s, Maybelle was not exactly raking in the cash. In addition to working shows with her daughters, she also worked a day job.

"Aunt Maybelle had it rough," Forrester said. "I remember Johnny Cash said that when he met June that she was sitting with old people to make enough money to make ends meet. He said it was a travesty."

And yet, Maybelle was something of a magnet for musicians.

"She was a mother to a lot of musicians," Forrester said. "She sewed buttons for Elvis Presley."

In particular, though, Maybelle made sure that her three daughters looked their best when they performed. If a dress needed mending, she mended it. If a ribbon for their hair needed to be tied, she tied it.

"Johnny Cash said she'd press his shirts," said Ronnie Williams, a longtime friend and devout fan of the Carter Family. "She mothered people. She was a sweet person, very kind, very caring."

Williams met her when he was 11, befriended her, studied and eventually learned to play Carter Family music in their style.

"The first time I met her, it was like she had known me all her life," Williams said by phone recently from his home in Spotsylvania County, Va.

They initially became phone buddies, followed by Williams visiting Maybelle in her home in Madison, Tenn.

"She was a grand lady," Williams said, "but Maybelle didn't want you to think she was anything special."

FUN-LOVING MAYBELLE

Carter loved games and gambling. She played bingo whenever possible, blackjack and occasionally poker, bowling and slot machines, and a game called "Don't Get Mad."

"Oh my goodness, she was a bowling fiend," said Lorrie Carter Bennett, Maybelle's granddaughter. "The night she passed away, she played bingo at the VFW."

Then, there was Maybelle's driving.
"Oh my gosh, she drove like a bat out of hell," Bennett said, laughing.

Maybelle had to, and she loved to. She was the designated driver during the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s while on the road with her daughters and other family. She wheeled them many a night from one show to another, hammer down.

"A lot of my memories of her are of her just driving, driving, driving," Forrester said.

Grand memories. However, Forrester said that perhaps her fondest memory of Maybelle is also the funniest.

"I asked her about meeting [1960s folk pioneer] Joan Baez," Forrester said. "She whispered to me, "She didn't wear underclothes.' "

GRANDMOTHER MAYBELLE

In addition to all three of her daughters, several of Maybelle's grandchildren also have made impacts on music, most notably Carlene Carter and John Carter Cash.

Like Carlene, Lorrie Carter Bennett actually toured and performed with Maybelle for a time during the early 1970s.

In 1973, Bennett debuted as a member of yet another version of the Carter Family, which also included Maybelle, Helen and Helen's son David Jones.

"The first show we did was opening for George Jones and Tammy Wynette at Cobo Hall in Detroit, and guess who didn't show? George Jones," Bennett said.

So instead of a few minutes, the Carters had to play for about two hours. No problem for old pro Maybelle.

"There were 12,000 people there. It was the first time I was on stage, and I was nervous," Bennett said. "But Grandma said, "Don't worry. Just grin 'em down.' "

Bennett also got to see another side of her grandmother while riding the roads from show to show. Maybelle loved to listen to music, so she kept a supply of 8-track tapes on hand.

"She liked the Allman Brothers' "Eat A Peach' tape," Bennett said.

Oh yes, Maybelle Carter liked rock music.

"She loved the Allman Brothers, Poco, Mac Davis, Waylon Jennings," Bennett said.

And everyone loved Maybelle.

MOTHER MAYBELLE CARTER

Memories of Maybelle from fond to funny reverberate even three decades after her death. Speak to anyone who knew or was related to her.

Their memories run far deeper than mere recollections of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

From the famous ...
"She was a sweet lady," said Earl Scruggs.

From her friends ...
"I just thought there was nobody like her," said Ronnie Williams.

And from her family, Mother Maybelle Carter did not simply play the "Wildwood Flower." She was the wildwood flower, a sweet mountain lady from Virginia.

"She was a grand old girl," Bennett said.


IF YOU GO

- What: 100th Birthday Tribute to Maybelle Carter featuring Karl Shiflett and Big Country, Lorrie Carter Bennett, Ronnie Williams, Von Ferguson, High Valley, T.J. McCloud, Gary Mitchell, Liz Kilgo and Leroy Troy
- When: May 9, 3:30 p.m.
- Where: Carter Family Fold, A.P. Carter Highway, Hiltons, Va.
- Admission: $15 for adults, $1 for children ages 6-11, and free admission to kids under age 6
- Info: (276) 386-6054 or (276) 645-0035
- Web: http://www.carterfamilyfold.org

A! ExtraTopics: Music