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The Carter Family Tree

A look at the first family of American country and folk music

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People often ask what the difference is between traditional country and folk music. The best place to start is with some of their common ancestors. Back in the 1920s, as recorded music was enjoying an early heyday, the Carter Family from Virginia started making records in Bristol, Tenn. Led by husband and wife AP and Sara Carter and AP's cousin Maybelle (who would become known as Mother Maybelle), the Carters set spinning a family legacy which would influence Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and innumerable others. Learn more with this family tree.

1. AP Carter

AP Carter
Carter Family press photo
The patriarch of the Carter Family legacy, Alvin Pleasant Delaney (AP) Carter was born in Maces Spring, Virginia in 1891. He married Sara Dougherty when he was 24 (in 1915) and, in 1927, the couple joined with Sara's cousin Maybelle (who was married to AP's brother Ezra) to form the Carter Family band. AP was an avid song collector and became so renowned for the songs he selected for his family to sing, he gets credit for writing them (even though he didn't). In fact, AP spent so much time roaming Appalachia looking for new songs for the band, his absence eventually did his marriage in. He and Sara separated in 1932. Nonetheless, they continued to perform together with Maybelle as the Carter Family through the early 1940s.

2. Maybelle Carter

Maybelle Carter
Carter Family press photo
Maybelle Carter was born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, VA, in the spring of 1909. She married Ezra Carter in 1926 and had three daughters - Helen, Valerie, and June. A year after her marriage, she joined her cousin Sara and brother-in-law AP to start the Carter Family. Maybelle played autoharp and banjo, and later picked up guitar, develop a picking technique which became known as the Carter Scratch - a style which picks the melody on the bass and middle strings and uses the index finger to keep the rhythm. It was an early indication of the guitar's move from supporting instrument to lead. After AP Carter left the Carter Family, Maybelle continued as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters during the 1950s and '60s. She died in 1978.

3. June Carter Cash

June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash
photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images
June Carter was the third daughter of Maybelle and Ezra Carter, born June 1929. She was a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and actor who started performing with the Carter Family when she was only 10 years old. By the time she was 16, the family was performing as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and June was working as a radio announcer for Martha White and other companies. She married three different men, having a child with each, and developed a famous love affair with singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. The two were married in 1968 and remained married until her death from complications around heart surgery in 2003. She and Johnny won a number of Grammy Awards and June won a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy in 2000 and 2004.

4. John Carter Cash

John Carter Cash
photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
John Carter Cash was born in March 1970, two years after his parents Johnny Cash and June Carter were married. Though he's a singer-songwriter and performer, Cash is best-known as a producer. He produced June's 1999 Grammy-winning album Press On and then got a job working as a producer with Rick Rubin on Johnny Cash's American album series. He's also produced for Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Rodney Crowell, John Prine, and others. He wrote a book about his mother (Anchored in Love) and has released a number of children's books

5. Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter
photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Carlene Carter was born Rebecca Carlene Smith in September 1955, the daughter of June Carter's first marriage to Carl Smith. She started making music as a solo artist in the 1970s, releasing her debut in 1978. About 10 years later, she joined her mother and aunts for a tour as the Carter Sisters, but it wasn't until 1990 that her career really took off. Her 1990 album I Fell In Love (which came after her divorce from UK singer-songwriter Nick Lowe) earned her a Grammy nomination. Since then, she's only solidified the Carter Family legacy, bouncing back and forth between acting and music. She's released a dozen albums since her debut in '78 and peaked at #3 on the US Country Music Chart with "I Fell In Love" (purchase/download).
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