It was the granddaddy of all country music success stories, the pattern on which dozens of Music Row Cinderella tales would be founded. A local group, used to singing on front porches and at country churches, wanders into what today would be termed a talent call. More by accident than by design, the group gets an audition; the big-time talent scout can’t believe his ears. A contract is signed; records are cut; in a matter of months, the group hears its records playing from the Victrolas rolled out in front of the appliance stores in its hometown. Across the country, millions hear the same music, and are charmed by its feeling, its simplicity, its soul. A career is launched, and soon the little country group is making it in the big time, on national radio, continuing to produce great music but struggling to ward off personal problems, divorce and changing tastes. It is a story almost as familiar as the music of the group or the name of the group: The Carter Family.
The interesting thing about legends is that some of them are true. Back on that hot August day in 1927, the big-time recording scout from Victor Records in New York was really not impressed with what he saw at the door of his studio. There were two women and a man, he recalled. “He is dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there—calico clothes on—the children are very poorly dressed. They look like hillbillies.” The man in overalls was Alvin Pleasant Carter, but they called him A.P. He was a lean, hawk-faced young man, with a pleasant, bemused expression not unlike that of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. With him was a woman holding an odd little instrument called an autoharp that she had ordered from Sears’ mail order catalog and a seven-month-old baby named Joe. She was A.P.’s wife, Sara Carter. The third woman, the one holding the big guitar, staring around the studio with a surprising confidence, was Sara’s cousin, Maybelle. They had spent the entire previous day driving an old Model