For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set The Standard And Broke The Mold

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 9:18 am

When Rolling Stone surveyed the 100 greatest guitar players of all time in 2015, two women made the list: Bonnie Raitt at No. 89, Joni Mitchell at No. 75. Most guitar player lists fare worse for women; Joni makes it in around No. 50 maybe, but not always. Spin's 2012 list is slightly brighter: Nine spots out of 100 go to women, with Carrie Brownstein at No. 39 and PJ Harvey cresting at No. 27. But no other women break even the top 50, and not a single woman makes the top 25. Guitarworld's list of the Most Badass Guitar Players contains not a single female. No Sister Rosetta Tharpe. No Elizabeth Cotten. No Bobbie Gentry. No Maybelle Carter.

As a woman making music for nearly two decades, most of my working life has been spent in a van with a group of men or in studio with a group of men, or on a stage with a group of men. And for the most part, those men have been my brothers, friends and supporters. I can play and drink beer with the best of them; I can change clothes in a car, do my makeup in the rearview mirror, sleep on a bus, talk pedals and amps — I love being in a band. The difficulties of musical life I have met are necessary by-products of pursuing what I loved, not of the circumstance of being a woman. At the end of the day, the music business views all its musicians as packaged products — sales numbers, follower numbers, dollar numbers. The answer to any scary question about one's value in the music business is readily available to both sexes and always obvious: You just aren't good enough.

But that question doesn't apply to the legendary Maybelle Carter; the significance of her musical contribution is not up for debate. The Carter family is credited as a primary creator of country music as an art form, members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and celebrated on a U.S. postage stamp. So why doesn't Maybelle make any of these lists? This glaring oversight, that so few women are credited for their contributions to the guitar, sends a cold chill through my body. How does women's work, in the 21st century, remain so invisible? Are we incidental? Are we no good? Or are our musical judges in the business more often an echo chamber of male voices: musicians, agents, festival owners, DJs and managers who see themselves in each other? Women remain garden varietals of girl singer: one or two per festival stage, one or two per radio hour, three or four per 100. Are we still fighting in a man's game as we try to build viable careers? If Maybelle Carter — mother of country music, without whom country and rock and roll guitar would not exist — can't make the great guitar player list, how can women musicians expect to be seen at all?

Though among the most indispensable guitarists of all time, Maybelle Carter was a quiet revolutionary. She moved in and out of her genius without fanfare and would most likely concern herself with the guitar player lists about as much as she concerned herself with celebrity — which is not at all. Making music is about more than setting a guitar on fire onstage; it's about listening — to other players, to tone and rhythm, to something far larger than yourself. A woman of craft rather than of spectacle, Maybelle Carter was more than a great guitar player: She was a perfect bandmate. Deep in the House of Music, down the halls of life-long practice, Maybelle Carter, the unspoken Great Mother of rhythm guitar, blends in with her harmony singing, steps out when asked and breezily holds down the rhythm and the lead on her instrument as if it were no big deal. I do not insinuate myself into a tradition to whom I am ultimately of little consequence, but I do my own work in honor of and love for a medium — rhythm guitar with plainspoken storytelling — which was largely born from Maybelle Carter.

And so my offering: Maybelle Carter; pioneer, musician of prowess, angel of humility, mother of a musical dynasty. She raised Helen, Anita and June Carter on the road, helped save Johnny Cash from himself and taught us all how to play rhythm guitar. If the Carter family is the bloodline of country music, Mother Maybelle is the very backbone. In her staggering musical legacy with A.P. and Sara Carter, she exploded a genre into being. All by herself, she reinvented the rhythm guitar with her signature "Carter scratch." Her pinch and pluck style popularized and modernized the autoharp. She sat in for Jimmie Rodgers in a recording session when he was tired. Chet Atkins was her sideman in her second generation family band, Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters. A dependable, even rhythm player while simultaneously playing the lead; a steadfast, kind soul — all this without calling attention to herself, without needing to be the star. Maybelle is the kind of woman I have always wanted to be.

What was your grandmother or great grandmother doing in 1940? Traveling for work with a bag of shoes? In the segregated south, on buses, trains and planes? My sweet grandmother was a member of the altar guild who cooked three meals a day. She was saved from becoming an old maid at 26 by an army engineer who proudly never read a book by a woman. In the meantime, Maybelle Carter was on the road gig to gig, feeding three children in strange towns without a Whole Foods finding app. (Please think of your most recent car trip with your family. Please think of the last time you begged even one child to eat breakfast and get in the car.) Back when no one else she knew even had a band, back before people knew what getting signed was, back when women did women's work far, far, far from a microphone. Gas stations, diners, paper maps. The Opry in the Golden Age beside Hank Williams. The performance high, the exhausted low, the anonymous hotel room. Did she call home collect? To say that this woman — in the context of her time in history, piling her kids in a car, touring the country and revolutionizing an instrument — was a brave and groundbreaking landmark is a complete understatement. Maybelle is nothing short of badass.

"They didn't have a sense of feminism or empowerment the way we think about it. It was just who they were," recalls Rosanne Cash. "She was confident in her musical gifts; she could hold her own with anyone. She was tiny — I don't think she was five feet tall. And she loved to gamble; whenever they played Tahoe or Vegas, she'd be down at the slots," Cash laughs. I admit how ill-equipped I feel to pay tribute to such a legacy. "It was just the family business and she loved it," Cash says. "She wasn't self-aggrandizing. She had this incredibly powerful work ethic. She was a journeyman — she just did it. It was a job and you do your job. The transition was seamless from onstage to off; it was totally natural. You didn't make a big deal. You walk onstage and you do it."

Despite her many decades in the business and so many records sold, Maybelle Carter hardly received any honors during the peak of her career. Today, decades later, many, many more women are on the road; I imagine that would make Maybelle deeply happy. Women managers, women running production, sound and lights, women booking venues, women playing bass, women drummers, women rocking, women raising children on the road: We are Maybelle's spiritual granddaughters. In the next 20 years, we will continue to bloom in music. But more and more, the world listens to music without context, without credits — no players, no provenance, no lineage — despite that information being readily accessible to us all. Social media allows everyone their own center stage; self-aggrandizing without depth perception — without a deeper sense of context in the present or in the history that has come before us — is an accepted way of moving through the world. This makes it even more essential to note how deeply the work of Maybelle Carter contributed to the music that follows her — for both women and men. Acknowledgement for the work of women — seen and unseen— is the only way to push this story forward for the daughters to come.

"There are no rock and roll or country guitar players without Maybelle and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And, actually, the guitar players themselves know," Cash says. "It's just the rest of the world they are invisible to. How do we push it forward? Step by step. Note by note. Give it up for other women. Hire other women."

My little daughter runs through the room; Maybelle the innovator, my own grandmother and the invisible emotional work of women throughout history lay just beneath the surface of whoever she is becoming. She shouts, "Now, for this next song, I'll play 'Don't Knock Over This House.' It's gonna be really, really loud." A spontaneous sound bellows out of her as she disappears to her room. Some silly list of guitar players is the very last thing I'd ever hope for her. I hope she is steadfast. I hope she knows where real meaning and strength of self live. I hope she laughs if the spotlight ever hits her, and never feels shame for being herself. I hope she can possess a love of process and her own insignificance at the time. I hope she is seen in full and paid in full for work she loves.

Whether Maybelle Carter's contributions are left backstage in the modern digital dressing room or not, she defined a genre with her musicianship and her grace. More than as the great mother of her craft, her contributions as a caretaker, female and exemplar human deserve our deepest admiration. It isn't an excuse that Mother Maybelle wasn't over-hungry for attention. Be awake enough to see it even so. Look beyond the bright messes, the metallic spectacle of likes, the easy lists. Deepen your depth perception. Question the dominant narrative. Find the quiet revolution, hold genuine article and give of some real part of yourself in kind. Learn the Carter scratch, play along with it whether anyone hears you or not. Take strength in her work ethic, her quiet confidence and sing that unsung debt. She would remind you that none of us are, in the great universe, any big deal. But pay tribute to Maybelle Carter louder still, that patron saint of Journeywomen. You are not here alone without context. Bow your head, Maybelle Carter came before you and made this road you are standing on.

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The mother of country music - those words were emblazoned on an award handed to Maybelle Carter in 1966 in Nashville. Now, by then, Carter had already spent three decades in the country music spotlight as a pioneering guitarist and singer.


THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) I'm going to take a trip in that old gospel ship. I'm going far beyond the sky.

KELLY: Now, she was mother to more than country music. She had three daughters - June, Helen and Anita. And she raised them on the road traveling and playing together as a family band. For the last few years, NPR has been reinterpreting the history of American music by putting women front and center. Our series is called Turning The Tables. And today, we are going to explore motherhood and musicianship and Maybelle Carter. Our guide is Tift Merritt. She's a singer-songwriter who is no stranger to the rigors of parenting on the road.

Tift Merritt, nice to speak with you.

TIFT MERRITT: Nice to be here. Thank you.

KELLY: So the idea of this being a family affair and her influence in that way and the girls being in the mix from such a young age, I mean, were you able to get a sense of what life was like for them? There was one moment I read that I just loved that one of her daughters, Anita, has talked about how when she was little, she slept in Maybelle's guitar case when they were backstage and waiting for Mom to come off stage.

MERRITT: Yeah. Guitar cases (ph) are great places...

KELLY: Bassinets.

MERRITT: ...For children to take a nap (laughter). I think it was the family business. I think it was not any kind of celebrity situation. This is what they did. They loved it. I think it's really important to lend your imagination back to these situations that are at this point really foreign to us, you know, travelling with a map rather than a phone. What it was like being a woman in strange places in that time? How did she feed everybody? You know, this was hopefully really joyful and a lot of fun, but it was also a really unique and probably difficult situation.

KELLY: And how did that come through in the music? I mean, is there a song you would point to that captures that moment in the family history?

MERRITT: I would point to "Wildwood Flower."


THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) Oh, I'll twine with my mangles and waving black hair, with the roses so red and the lilies so fair.

MERRITT: Maybelle is really playing this amazing lead line, which she was - and playing rhythm guitar, which is what she really cultivated. And then the beautiful voices of her daughters come in, and it just blooms. It just blooms. I think you're seeing women in their element at a time when women were really working far, far from the microphone. And there is a joy, and there's a blooming.


THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) When I woke from my dreaming, my idols were clay, all portion of love had all flown away.

KELLY: Was blending, having young kids, having her family right there with her on the road the whole time, was that the only way Maybelle Carter could be as successful as she was? I'm guessing there were not a lot of child care options back in the day in the - when you were trying to do a road trip as a musician.

MERRITT: I can only speak through my own experience. I never really thought about the fact that I was a woman in a band except for if I were to become a parent, it was really going to change for me, and I was going to have to be able to afford to have child care out there with me or I was really going to have a reckoning with who I had to find myself to be and who I was actually going to become. And that was something the men around me didn't have to deal with.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, let's go to your own experience. You have a daughter...


KELLY: ...Born in 2016.


KELLY: Do you remember the first time you brought her on the road with you?

MERRITT: I do. We went to Texas. She was 3 months old. She sat in her bassinet on stage for sound check.

KELLY: So she didn't have to sleep in the guitar case (laughter).

MERRITT: No, but she's hung out in a guitar case (laughter). You know, all of my fears about taking her on the road, she was not worried about whether the dressing room was dirty. And she didn't know a stranger. I mean, she thought any time we went to a restaurant, it was who we were on the road with. But I eventually decided that that wasn't how I wanted to raise her.

KELLY: It bothered you, not her.

MERRITT: I didn't want to teach her that center stage was where everything in the world lived. And I wanted her to have a safe place to dig down into what the world was about. And so we're not touring right now. I feel really good about that. I think Maybelle would be proud of that, too.

KELLY: I gather from your music this - how to combine these two spheres of your life is something you wrestled with from even before she was born, a couple of songs you wrote while you were pregnant. Is that right?

MERRITT: Oh, yeah. I was terrified (laughter) of - you know, I had completely defined myself as a musician. I knew that having a kid was going to blow all of that up. What I didn't know was that it was going to blow it all up in a really wonderful and meaningful and profound way that was really grounding and that made my canvas bigger rather than taking it away.

KELLY: And how did that come through in your music? Is there a song you would point me to of yours?

MERRITT: There are a couple of songs. One's called "Stitch Of The World."


MERRITT: (Singing) You must empty your pockets of stones, that light-hearted you may go, for you must go with the stitch of the world, into the stitch of the world.

I think that song is really about our insignificance and our significance at the same time, which I think is something that Maybelle actually speaks to. You know, I think Maybelle would be the first person to say what she did wasn't a big deal. And yet the day-to-day experience of life and the love that we give to each other is extremely profound. And we are bound to each other in delicate and strong ways.

KELLY: You know, there's a part of me that laments the fact that this is two women having this conversation because it feels like it's always women having this conversation. And I'm sure back in Maybelle's day, it was the same thing.


KELLY: I want to note that we're - we are having this conversation because you've thought so deeply about this and you've written an essay about it for Turning The Tables. Thank you for that. But, I mean, why is it still such a woman-centric conversation in 2019?

MERRITT: Oh, boy. Well, we would have to have another interview to cover all of those things. But, you know, I think things have changed a lot. I think the question now for me is how do I push that forward for my daughter? And how do I make sure that this isn't just two women having a conversation in the future, that women are seen and that women are paid equally? And I don't know the answers to those questions, but I hope them for my daughter.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, let me end by asking about your daughter. Jean is still very young, too young to be your bandmate in the way that Maybelle Carter's daughters were.

MERRITT: (Laughter).

KELLY: Is that a life you can imagine wishing for her?

MERRITT: No, it's not. She loves to make up songs, and she loves to beat a watermelon with spoons and put on a show.

KELLY: Yeah.

MERRITT: But she also wants to be a doctor with a ponytail. And I'm kind of - I'm really encouraging that one.


KELLY: Well, maybe she'll be a singing doctor with a ponytail. It could all come together.

MERRITT: And a unicorn.


KELLY: Well, Tift Merritt, it has been a pleasure. Thank you.

MERRITT: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That was Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter. She's based in North Carolina, and we've been talking about life on the road, both hers and Maybelle Carter's.


THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) If I was on some foggy mountain top, I'd sail away... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.