Chapter OneThe Music of the Mountains
Just a village and a homestead on the farm,
A mother's love to shield you from all harm,
A mother's love so true, and a sweetheart brave and true,
A village and a homestead on the farm.
- A. P. CARTER
"Homestead on the Farm"
the Original Carter Family
November 22-24, 1929
Mom and I were sitting on the porch of the Virginia house. She was talking,
and mostly I was just listening, an arrangement that was quite common
in our relationship. She always had a lot to say. I was in my late teens and was
eager to leave and go squirrel hunting with my cousin Shane. But Mom held
me there a little while longer. She had another story to tell me.
"Your Grandfather Ezra was the first to bring electric power to this valley,"
she began .
Ezra Carter, also known as Eck, or Pop, was a descendant of some of
the earliest and most fiercely independent settlers in Poor Valley, a little
community at the foot of Clinch Mountain. He had grown up with four
brothers and three sisters (another child died young) in a one-room
cabin some two miles away from where Mom and I sat on the porch
that day. In 1926 he married Maybelle Addington, a petite, sixteen-year-old
beauty he'd met a few months earlier when she came from her
home on the other side of the mountain to visit her first cousin, Sara
Dougherty Carter. Like Ezra, Maybelle was descended from a long line
of intrepid mountain folk, including a Revolutionary War veteran who
settled in Virginia in 1773. Mom always liked to remind me that one of
Grandma Maybelle's ancestors, Henry Addington, had been the prime
minister of England.
For a while the newlyweds lived with Ezra's parents, Robert and Mollie
Bays Carter, and their younger children in the Carters' tiny cabin. A short
while later, Ezra built a slightly larger home nearby for him and Maybelle to
move into. But their privacy didn't last long before his parents moved out of
their old, weathered cabin and into the new house with Ezra and Maybelle.
Although Ezra and Maybelle undoubtedly needed their privacy, love and
unity of family were most important. I don't remember ever hearing about
anyone disliking the arrangement.
Mom had often described my great-grandmother, Mollie Bays Carter,
as a strong and vivacious character, a tough mountain lady with leathered
hands and burdened back. She was an enthusiastic singer of songs; Mom
used to say on Sundays you could hear Grandma Mollie singing a half
mile away from the church, drowning out all the other voices. Mollie loved
to dance; she could "cut a rug" dancing a jig. And she had an intense
faith in God.
She was also a midwife who attended the home births of many of her
own grandchildren, including Helen, Maybelle and Ezra's first child, born
September 19, 1927.
It was the custom in those days for people to share music both at
home with their families and in community "conventions," "schools,"
and performances. Sometimes while they visited on each other's porches
someone would pull out a fiddle or a banjo and sing for friends and neighbors.
Other times music lovers scheduled singing meetings or held special
events in schoolhouses and other community centers. Sometimes a hat
might be passed to collect donations for the performers' benefit; other
times a token fee was charged at the door. Music was a strong, beautiful
thread that tied the people of the mountains to their traditions, history,
and folklore. Not everyone in the mountains had a gift for making music,
but almost everyone had a love for hearing it.
Eleven years before Ezra and Maybelle were married, Maybelle's cousin
Sara Dougherty had married Ezra's older brother, Alvin Pleasant Carter
(known as A.P. or Doc). Sara had a beautiful voice and could play the autoharp,
the guitar, and the banjo. A.P. was a jittery man who could never sit
still. Mollie Carter had been pregnant with A.P. and was standing under a
tree when it was struck by lightning; she always blamed her son's constant,
lifelong fidgeting and shaking on that prenatal incident.
During their brief marriage, Sara and A.P. had discovered that folks
were willing to pay a little money to hear Sara sing. And when she occasionally
performed with her cousin Maybelle, who had a unique style of
guitar playing, picking out the melody and strumming the rhythm simultaneously,
the resulting music was something people remembered and
talked about. Occasionally, A.P. jumped in to join them with his inimitable
In the summer of 1927, A.P. noticed an ad in the Bristol, Tennessee,
newspaper announcing that the Victor Company was bringing a recording
machine to town for a few days. A.P. was excited to learn that the record
company's agent would pay an amazing fifty dollars for every song deemed
worthy of recording.
By then Sara was the mother of three-eight-year-old Gladys, five-year-old
Janette, and infant Joe-and Maybelle was eight and a half months
pregnant with Helen. In an interview before she died in 2006, Janette told
me about that day in 1927 when the carload of Carters set off without her
to audition for the recording company in Bristol.
"The car was full," she said. "It was Mommy and Maybelle and Daddy
and Gladys-she went to tend to Joe. I still remember standin' at that gate,
a-screamin' and a-cryin' why they couldn't take me.
"Daddy said to Mommy, `What is wrong with that young'n? She's ascreamin'
and a-cryin'. Why are you leavin' her here? Take her. You're takin'
"And Mommy said, `No, there just ain't room for us all.' And they left
me. I've never forgot them a-runnin' off and leavin' me and takin' the
others," Janette said.
It took A.P. all day to drive Ezra's borrowed, jam-packed car over the
sweltering, twenty-five miles of unpaved roads from the Carters' homes at
Maces Springs, near Hiltons, to Bristol. There, in a makeshift studio, the
three of them performed for Victor agent Ralph Peer, who ended up
recording six of their songs and paying them three hundred dollars.
They went back home to Maces Springs and heard nary a word about
their recordings-until several months later when Ezra and Maybelle happened
to be in town and heard what turned out to be the Carter Family's
first phonograph record being played over a store's loudspeaker.
The outside world was beginning to hear the music that had wafted
through the Appalachian Mountains for generations, the same ballads and
hymns and whimsical verses that had filled the Carters' homes daily.
In addition to remarkable musical talent, there also was great humor
and laughter in the Carter clan. According to Janette, her mother, Sara,
was quite a prankster. Sara's most famous escapade occurred one day
when Maybelle had put her new baby to sleep and had gone outside to get
water from the well just a few yards from the door. While Maybelle was
away, Sara sneaked in and took the baby, cradle and all, and hid the quiet,
slumbering child high in the closet. Maybelle returned, found the child
missing, and according to Janette, "fainted dead away."
She was hurriedly revived to the sound of Sara's mischievous laughter.
With rascally delight, Sara lowered the cradle into Maybelle's arms as the
distraught young mother, still a teenager at that point, furiously and tearfully
admonished Sara. It may have been upsetting at the time, but this kind
of family humor and teasing were common among the Carters. A love of
laughter and comedy would later become most obvious in the spirit of Eck
and Maybelle's fun-loving middle child, June.
The first songs recorded by A.P., Sara, and my Grandma Maybelle were
well received, and soon the three began recording more music under contract
with Victor. Maybelle was recognized as the most talented guitar
player in the family, while Sara had the strongest voice and played the
autoharp as they sang. In the fall of 1928, Maybelle became pregnant once
again, and the baby within her must have heard the steady rhythm of the
guitar daily, must have been attuned to the sound of Appalachian music
coursing through her bones and muscle from her earliest moments. With
her Grandma Mollie serving as midwife, Valerie June Carter was born on
June 23, 1929, in Maces Springs, Virginia, into what would become known
as the First Family of Country Music.
Grandma Maybelle was a devoted mother, but she had trouble producing
enough breast milk for baby June, perhaps because by that time she
had to travel frequently to perform and record with A.P. and Sara. As a
result, June spent quite a bit of time at the bosom of her Aunt Ora, the
wife of Eck's brother Ermine Carter. At the other breast was June's first
cousin Fern. This was common practice in those days, since there were no
supermarkets or baby formula.
Recently Fern recalled a memory her mother often shared about how
that came to happen: "When June and I were both little babies, Mama said
to Aunt Maybelle one day, `That child don't look like she's gettin' enough
milk.' And Aunt Maybelle said, `I don't think she is.' Mama said, `Well, just
let me nurse her too.' See, Mama was nursing me, and she had so much
milk she couldn't handle it all. So she nursed June and me both, and she
kept June a lot when Maybelle was working." The close bond that began
between June and Fern as infants would last a lifetime.
By 1929, the Carter Family-A.P., Sara, and Maybelle-were becoming
increasingly popular and traveling around the country performing their
music. When they came home from their travels, A.P. would leave again for
weeks at a time, usually traveling alone, searching the hills for folks to visit
and songs to record.
By 1933, when their third daughter, Anita, was born, Ezra and Maybelle
had moved into a large home just over the hill from Mollie and Robert. It was
on the porch of this house where Mom and I were sitting that day. Mom's
Virginia childhood home was a place we visited as often as we could.
To us, it has always felt like sacred ground.
Mom described Grandpa Eck as a resourceful, deep-thinking man who
loved tinkering and working with his hands. He always saw intriguing
possibilities where others saw difficulties. He supported and believed in
Maybelle's music and her amazing ability to play her guitar, but he had his
own career, and as Mom liked to point out, he was an important man in
the valley. He worked as a railroad postal agent, collecting, sorting, and
delivering the mail along the train route from Bristol to Washington, DC.
His job either required or allowed him (I'm not sure which) to carry a
gun. He was exceedingly intelligent, able to memorize hundreds of
postal codes, addresses, and routes, and he was also inventive when it
came to ways to spread his paycheck around the valley. He hired others
to work for him at assorted projects and jobs, some of which may have
seemed a bit outlandish at the time. His three daughters grew up watching
him help his neighbors and share his blessings, and they learned to
do the same.
Eck loved to read, and apparently he was inspired by what he read
about the latest developments with electricity. He even dammed up the
little creek that ran alongside their house and somehow put together a
contraption that could generate electricity to light up their nine-room residence.
That's how the Carter home became the first to have electricity in
Poor Valley. But it wasn't enough. Eck wanted more.
Just more than a mile from Maybelle and Ezra's home, as the crow flies,
the Holston River runs, strong and constant. Between the house and river,
however, there are two quite tall, mountainous ridges, or "knobs," as they're
known in that area. Others might have seen the rugged landscape as an
impediment between them and the river. Grandpa Ezra, a man of vision,
Unbelievably, he built a dam across the Holston River and constructed
a large turbine to generate electricity. Then he ran a line from the turbine
over the knobs to his home (and apparently to a couple of neighbors'
homes too). Before long, the power company in Bristol bought him out,
and soon electricity was available to a wider area. But it was Grandpa Eck
who first brought it to the valley. That's the story Mom told me that afternoon
as we sat on the porch.
I really can't remember how our time together ended that day. Maybe I
was impatient to get into the woods, standing and pacing as Mom neared
the end of the story. Maybe I stayed longer, enjoying getting to spend some
quiet time with her. Either way, as I think back on that long-ago afternoon,
I can feel the peace of that quiet homeplace embracing me once more.
Things were different there. They still are. And we are different when we
June Carter left the Poor Valley at a young age to travel the world. Yet
somehow it stayed within her throughout her life, whether she was performing
before thousands on the other side of the globe or talking with the girl
at the grocery-store checkout . whether she was dining with the president
and first lady in the White House or having dinner with her cousin Joe Carter
back in Maces Springs . whether she was flying in a little Cessna 180 over
the Alaskan wilderness or entertaining the troops in a war zone or meeting
the U.S. ambassador in Poland . wherever she was, whatever she was doing,
she was, at heart, the same endearing, simple mountain girl she'd always
been. Her first cousin Ester Moore said June was "always happy, always full
of herself. It seemed like everyone wanted to be around her."
She was kind and generous, humorous and excitable, loyal and strong.
One of her friends, Lisa Kristofferson, would say about her later, "June
was a bright, sparkling star . universal love made incarnate in a pretty,
talented, frisky package."
This girl from Poor Valley would change in many ways after she left the
mountains and went on to what some would describe as great success. But
her heart, her character, remained unchanged. Throughout her life she
would try and succeed, try and fail, try again. She would enjoy success
while enduring great heartache and greater loss. And through it all, she
never lost her identity as a simple, God-fearing child of the mountains. She
knew no other way.