Why Mother Maybelle Carter’s Work Was Never Done

Country singer songwriters The Carter Family (Maybelle Carter on Guitar, Helen Carter on accordion, Ernie Newton on Bass with dancers June Carter Cash and Anita Carter) on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1951 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bob Grannis/Getty Images)

In rural America in the early part of last century, women who did full-time labor to keep households and farms running while raising children were considered unemployed unless they earned a wage. Country music pioneer Mother Maybellle Carter often did double duty, laboring at home by day, raising children, and playing shows at night for years. When she and her daughters formed a singing group called “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters,” Maybelle took the girls on the road, sometimes playing two shows a day, six days a week, washing and pressing clothes and preparing the girls to sing and play on stage. Her double duties — which never really ended for the duration of her life —  included looking after Johnny Cash and helping him overcome addiction. At NPR, Jessica Wilkerson examines the many labors of Mother Maybelle and the women of her time.

The success of the Carter Family band also hinged on women’s labor. Maybelle may have abandoned wage work in the mills that attracted a generation of Appalachian girls, but she did not give up on the idea of earning a living. Modern working women, Maybelle and Sara blazed a new path in popular music and flouted gender conventions as front women in a band, with Sara on lead vocals and Maybelle lead guitar, unheard of at the time. But that path wasn’t always easy or glamorous.

Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters “were a self-contained road show,” doing all the work to set up a live show, without staff. Maybelle sewed many of the matching dresses the girls wore, pressed them before showtime and did the girls’ hair. June Carter Cash recalled, “We never went onstage with a wrinkle or uncurled hair.”

When you listen to Maybelle play the guitar, you can hear a lifetime and more of labor. It’s the work of her mother passing down the songs that accompanied mountain women as they weeded the garden or rocked a baby to sleep. It’s the work of Sara and Maybelle stealing moments to create music, of the mill girls working at a warping machine in the new textile factories, the life that Maybelle escaped. It’s the work of A.P. Carter and Lesley Riddle collecting songs, and Maybelle catching the songs in her fingers, recreating them for new audiences. Those songs provided moments of respite, too, for people who flocked to concerts or tuned in on the radio after hours of work on a farm or in the coal mines. The Carter Family worked so that people could relax. We can hear the work of soothing the weary, through gospel songs that promised better days ahead and old ballads that reassured listeners that they were not the first to suffer. Maybelle’s melodies supported her family, providing them a comfortable life when few women could say the same. Maybelle Carter chased the music and worked herself to the bone to give the world country music. And when those melodies were no longer as valuable, she patched together other kinds of work to make ends meet, because that’s what people like her do.

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