Perhaps the most remarkable of Maybelle’s many talents was her skill as a guitarist. She revolutionized the instrument’s role by developing a style in which she played melody lines on the bass strings with her thumb while rhythmically strumming with her fingers. Her innovative technique, to this day known as the Carter Scratch, influenced the guitar’s shift from rhythm to lead instrument.”
(Holly George-Warren, “Hillbilly Fillies: The Trailblazers of C&W,” quoted in Helen Reddington, The Lost Women of Rock Music, 2007)
When asked to name the most influential American guitar players in history, we instantly say Chet Atkins, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, particularly missing from that list is the often unnoticed and greatly gifted guitar pioneer, Mother Maybelle Carter. Maybelle was the musical backbone of country music’s first “superstar” vocal group, the Carter Family trio. Of the more than 300 songs they recorded, the family group is best known for “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” and “Wildwood Flower.” Following their disbandment in 1944, she toured with her daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Eventually, she represented the Carter Family stage name, which she carried until her death in 1978.
The “Carter Scratch”, A Prominent Style
Within the Carter Family trio, Maybelle was the only consistent guitar player. Her cousin, Sara, often played supplementary on the autoharp. Therefore, in order to make their songs more energetic, Maybelle invented a guitar technique that sounded as if numerous guitars were being used at the same time. This unique style has collected a variety of epithets over the years: thumb–brush, the church lick, the Carter lick, the Carter Family Picking, and perhaps most widely the “Maybelle Carter Scratch”. In their distinct brand of “mountain gospel music”, Maybelle sang in accord and played clear rich guitar parts. Moreover, flawlessly merging together walking bass lines, chord strums and fills. This guitar mastery is one the most rivaled guitar styles in the United States. Also, it influenced Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Clarence White and countless others.
Mother Maybelle’s Biggest Opportunity
A combination of Maybelle’s country and folk fame and Johnny Cash’s budding interest in her daughter, June, started it all. In 1968, June Carter married Johnny Cash. This led to the long-term bond between Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters to appear on the self-contained Johnny Cash touring package and ultimately his network TV show. From the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters opened for Johnny Cash tours. From time to time, they sing as back-up to Johnny and would also perform their own set. Feeling the pain of arthritis in her fingers, Maybelle passed her lead guitar playing over to daughter Helen and stuck mostly to autoharp.
Death of the Well-Known Influential Guitar Star
Regardless of the protests of her daughters, Johnny Cash, and Chet Atkins, Maybelle decided to retire from music. The death of her husband Ezra in 1975 greatly affected her. Her health seriously depreciated in 1978 and she died serenely in her sleep on October 23 of that year.
The nation noted her passing, but it is likely that the calm, diligent, and well-loved Maybelle Carter never fully understood the extent of her influence upon the world’s musical heritage.