- Historic Sites
Grand Ole Opry
The story of the world’s longest-running radio program and the extraordinary American music it helped make popular
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
In July of 1927, one Ezra Carter forbade his wife Maybelle to accompany A.P. and his wife Sara, who was Maybelle’s cousin, into Bristol, Virginia, for a recording session. A.P. had contacted Ralph S. Peer to audition for a tryout. The money was to have been fifty dollars per song; there was no guarantee of even doing one. But Ezra told Maybelle the twenty-five miles was too far and that there was too much to do around the house. A.P. finally volunteered that he would clear out a patch of weeds from Ezra’s yard if he would let her go, and Ezra gave in. A.P., Sara, and Maybelle loaded up their Model A Ford with instruments, and with Gladys Carter as a baby-sitter and Baby Joe, who was still being breast-fed by Sara, they set out for the twenty-five mile ride to Bristol. The rest is history. With Sara’s great voice and Maybelle’s guitar and Autoharp virtuosity and A.P., who did the harmony and “worked up” the songs, they were an immediate hit. Within a year they had recorded songs that will be with us forever: “Wildwood Flower,” “John Hardy,” “Forsaken Love,” “Diamond in the Rough,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” and on and on. Back home in the Clinch Mountain Valley they continued playing at the high schools and the churches, and A.P., always the organizer, tacked up posters on the pine trees: “Look! Victor artists A.P. Carter and the Carter Family will give a musical program at Elm Hill School August 10th … This program is morally good. 25 cents adults … 15 cents children.”
The Carters are virtually unique in country music in that unlike other groups who try to find out what the public wants, or what will sell, they stuck to what they knew and what they loved. Close harmony became their trademark.
The Carters’ most famous song is “Wildwood Flower,” and many of its rhythms and phrasings can be found running through most of their music. Every few years a songwriter tries to set new lyrics to “Wildwood Flower,” but the Carter arrangement is too formidable and too familiar and the public quickly rejects it. Even Woody Guthrie tried changing it to “Reuben James,” but “Wildwood Flower,” which is considered the national anthem of Nashville, won out, and “Reuben James” is rarely heard these days. Another Carter song that Guthrie reworked was “Little Darling Pal of Mine.” He rewrote the lyrics, and called it “This Land Is Your Land.” A.P. Carter, probably knowing how fast his favorite lyrics were being changed and forgotten, saved his favorite song title for his tombstone. In 1960 he was buried in Maces Springs, Virginia; the legend under his name and dates is the simple and straightforward “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Maybelle Carter’s daughter June having married Johnny Cash, the Cash-Carter line may produce great music forever.
Popular music in the twenties was heading in a dozen ‘directions at once. And even in the Appalachians, stretching from West Virginia to South Carolina—where they were still reading the Bible by kerosene light and playing hymns and ballads—radio and the recording industry soon spawned a different kind of country music. People now wanted more than Uncle Jimmy Thompson sawing away on “Old Zip Coon” and “Down Yonder”; they wanted voices they could hear and words they could follow. Many wanted the songs and singers they’d seen on the medicine shows that had rolled through their small towns, and many wanted the music of Jimmie Rodgers.
The story of Jimmie Rodgers has become a country legend. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, he left school at fourteen to work full time as a water carrier on the railroad. Later the gandy dancers’ ringing lines would find their way into his music. “Hey, little water boy, bring that water round. / If you don’t like your job, put that water bucket down.” Most of Rodgers’ adult life was spent on the railroads of Mississippi and Texas, but in 1923 he tried the medicine-show business. Blacking his face, he set out with a road show as a singer. He was a born entertainer and with the money he made he invested in his own “Hawaiian Tent Show” and made his bid for the big money. But a high wind blew the tent down and in a matter of hours he lost everything he had. Forced to pawn his banjo to get back home to Carrie, his wife in Meridian, he arrived in time for the funeral of his six-month-old daughter, June Rebecca. One year later, broke and back on the railroad, he discovered he had tuberculosis, and spent the next three months in a charity hospital. Tuberculosis forced him finally to quit the railroad at twenty-nine, and he decided to make his living doing what he loved best, writing music and playing it.