Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

The Carter Family in Del Rio

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College
207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

The history of the Carter Family is nearly the history of country music. A.P. Carter, wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle performed the hillbilly music that was one of the roots of country music. As radio technology spread across the United States, the Carter Family joined the wave that swept across the country. Before the Carter Family act disbanded, they had recorded some three-hundred songs. New acts were formed as original members continued performing and younger members joined them and, eventually, went out on their own. The impact that the Carters had on country music is massive; time and time again new country artists say they were influenced by the Carters. They are a national institution, and they became that national institution in Del Rio, Texas.

This is not a history of “Country’s First Family” or of Maybelle, “the Queen Mother of Country Music.” Most of that history belongs to other states, particularly Virginia and Tennessee. However, the Carter Family spent three crucial years in Texas, living in Del Rio (and San Antonio) and performing on Radio XERA. “XERA was a five-hundred-thousand-watt powerhouse unlike any radio station that came before it, and unlike any that has come since. For the Carter family, that station would be a metaphysical being like unto God, part natural phenomenon, part celestial; power, providence, and fate all rolled into one.”1 Del Rio’s million-watt borderblaster station (its eventual power rating) carried their music nationwide and led them down a path of popularity and wide-spread musical influence, to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The Carter Family
The Carter Family.

The Carter Family of Maces Spring, Virginia was already a popular local act in the 1930s. A.P. and Sara recorded their first song in 1927. Soon after, Maybelle joined them, and the Carter Family became a regular act. Maybelle’s guitar style, called the “Carter Lick,” “a downstroke melody on the bass strings…eventually made her the most important guitar player in the history of country music.” “After 1936 the Carter Family began to appear on several barn-dance [radio] shows which were broadcast throughout the southeast. However, the Carters never appeared regularly. It was ‘Dr.’ John Romulus Brinkley, self-proclaimed doctor of medicine, politician, and pioneer of the radio medium, who brought them to a larger audience as ‘regular radio performers.’”2

In 1938, the group signed a contract to sing on the “Consolidated Chemical Hour” sponsored by the Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation out of Chicago, a company that sold its wares on the airwaves. “Kolor-Bak!” hair color may have been the company’s most famous product.3

The Carters spent eight days on the road to Del Rio. Pulling up in front of the Grand Hotel to meet their contact, they were informed that they would be on the radio that night. And they performed. “Though you could see the fatigue in their faces, you couldn’t hear it in the singing. They were real pros.” “The frantic pace did not diminish for the first few months of their stint in Texas. The Consolidated Chemical Radio Hour was aired…each night. The Carters were the stars and had to open and close each show with a song.” The Carter Family generally opened with “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a tune that, essentially, was their theme song and the most recognizable of their work:

Keep on the Sunny Side, Always on the Sunny Side,
Keep on the Sunny Side of Life;
It will help us every day, It will brighten all the way,
If we’ll Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.
“There were other acts, such as other musical groups, and country-style comedians. But the Carters were the main attraction and probably sang during half of the show.” In sum, the pressure was tremendous. It was not a leisurely schedule of courthouse square performances and church dances; “it was all business.” The performance was live at night—but recorded for replay the next morning. The Carter Family’s theme song, “Keep On The Sunny Side,” was heard from coast to coast.4

The Carter Family in Del Rio
The Carter Family in Del Rio.

“The Carter Family broadcasts were more successful than Consolidated had hoped.”5 Thousands of letters arrived at XERA every day—roughly 100,000 per month, and each letter represented money. Money was made through a two-step process. The radio show itself did not advertise, exactly, but listeners who sent in to the station a boxtop from Kolor-Bak! or Peruna, a “healing tonic,” would receive a free Bible. The business manager “figured each letter was worth about fifty cents to the company. The Carters were soon pulling in as many as twenty-five thousand letters in a single week, and Consolidated began to tuck photographs of the family into the Bibles before they sent them out.” “‘Mercy, I never saw as much mail in my life,’ Maybelle once said.”6

The Carters’ music reflects several of the early roots of country music. Gospel music is never far away, and the Carters alternated backcountry, revival style religious tunes with more standard, secular songs at will. The “good ol’ spirituals” included: “There’ll be joy, joy, joy, up in my Father’s house,” “We Shall Rise,” and

Just a few more days of sorrow, just a few more days of pain,
Just a few more days of cloudiness, Just a few more days of rain,
Then I’m going to live with Jesus, he has got a home prepared,
Then I’ll join the holy angels, mother will be waiting there.
“The hymns are particularly well done throughout the transcriptions and really the backbone of the material.” The non-religious music often seems stereotypically sad, but then, the Carters set many of the themes commonly adopted by later musicians: “I once loved a beautiful maiden…. But we never once dreamed that the future Held only a broken heart” and
Oh listen today in a story I tell, In sadness and tear dimmed eye;
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way, And blew our schoolhouse away….
There were mothers so dear, and fathers the same, That came to this horrible scene;
Searching and crying each found her own child, Dying on a pillow of stone.7
Some of the “old time love songs” were not quite so depressing. The Carters had already performed “Goin’ Back to Texas” before coming to XERA, but it is a good song anyway.
Started out from Texas about a year ago,
Started out to make myself a name;
Going back to Texas for my heart is sad and sore,
And my weary feet are getting mighty lame.
[Chorus:]
  Going back to the good ol’ Texas home,
  Down by the sleepy Rio Grande;
  Where the lonesome turtledove is dreaming,
  And the moon is shining on the sand.
  Going back where the longhorn cattle roam,
  Where your best friend is your brocho [sic] and your gun;
  And I know I’ll never more be leaving,
  Texas home, my rambling days are done.
Other songs reflect the times of the Great Depression and even the First World War, experiences familiar to many of their audience. Of course the Carter Family’s absolute best song is an instrumental piece entitled “Del Rio.” “Del Rio” is an upbeat guitar piece played by Sara and Maybelle. The only problem is that the song is too short.8

“The Carters were now a part of America’s lively ‘and-now-a-world-from-our-sponsor’ industry. XERA’s audience was decidedly rural, so hillbilly acts had elbowed every other musical form off the station’s daily program. When the Carters arrived in Texas in 1938, they were joined by Cowboy Slim Rinehart, the Pickard Family out of the mountains of Tennessee, Lou Childre, and Essie and Kay—the Prairie Sweethearts. Together, these performers heralded the Good Neighbor Get-Together, airing every night from six to ten (and again the next morning), sponsored by Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation. Morning and evening, the Carters drove over the Rio Grande on the new steel-trussed International Bridge, headed for the little mission-style studio building.” The Carters and so many other country acts performed on Radio XERA that “Del Rio had become the ‘Hillbilly Hollywood.’” Having offered that last quotation, it is important to also note that “the Carter Family brought dignity even to border radio’s raucous proceedings. They didn’t play hillbillies or hayseeds or cowpokes. They were just regular folks making their own music.”9

Over the years, many radio shows featured country music and later Carter Family performances. According to one biographer; however, the show on which the Carter Family performed was special. “The Good Neighbor Get-Together was different from the other big cross-country radio shows such as Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and The National Barn Dance out of Chicago. And the Get-Together was perfectly suited to the Carter appeal. The other radio shows were performed before a live audience…. At The Good Neighbor Get-Together, no noise got between the Carter Family and their listeners.”10

“Carter Family records were never million-sellers, and no single record of theirs seems to have experienced any great commercial success….” It would probably be fair to say that the rural, pre-World War II audience did not have much disposable income. However, “‘Carter Family songs’ (as they are generally described) have circulated widely and have become the staples of the repertories of a multitude of country, bluegrass, and urban folk singers. And there is no way to count the number of plain folk who faithfully listened to their broadcast and transcriptions over XERF in Del Rio, Texas, after 1938.”11 And even when the Carter Family finished their live performances on XERA, transcription recordings of their music were played on XERA and other borderblasters such as XELO (Ciudad Juarez), XEG (Monterey), XERB (Rosarito Beach), and XEPN (Piedras Negras).12

At this time, the exact residence of the Carters is not known. Doc, Maybelle and Anita lived in a rented house in Del Rio; Sara lived by herself in a rented apartment.13

The Carters’ three years on Radio XERA offered three different presentations of family music. The original Carter Family performed the first year. But very quickly, other family members joined them. A.P. and Sara’s daughter Janette sang and played guitar solo and with the family group. Maybelle’s daughter, Anita, occasionally performed during the first season on XERA, causing a certain amount of jealousy among Maybelle’s other daughters, Helen and June. During the third year A.P. left the group, and Maybelle’s other daughters practiced their musical skills and performed more consistently. The three girls were often introduced as “the three little Carter sisters,” by announcer Brother Bill when they performed without adult accompaniment. Eventually, though, a new act formed, named “The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle.”14

The Carter Family with the Carter Family
The Carter Family with the Carter Sisters.

The most famous member of the younger generations of Carters is June Carter Cash. “Junebug” first performed professionally on Radio XERA and was well-regarded as a country music talent. Nevertheless, she is most often known as Johnny Cash’s wife. Some of her greatest musical achievements are associated with her husband. The duo of June Carter Cash and husband Johnny Cash won Grammys twice: for “Jackson” in 1967 and for “If I Were A Carpenter” in 1970.15

June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash
June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash.

June also co-wrote the fourth greatest country music song of all time. In 2003 Country Music Television compiled its list of “the genre’s 100 greatest songs.” Number Four on the list is Johnny Cash’s performance of “Ring of Fire,” a song written principally by June Carter Cash about “falling in love with him.” Four other Johnny Cash songs are on the list, some of them co-written or influenced by June. Number 36 on the list is a rendition of the Carter Family’s song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” performed by Maybelle Carter and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.16 And in 1970 the Carter Family, Maybelle, Sara and the deceased A.P., were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.17

“But all the pronouncements and public approbation came later, when the country-music industry began to attach historical significance to the trio. Back in 1939 [when they arrived in Del Rio], the Carters’ impact was direct and immediate…. The Carters weren’t simply an act; they were the real deal.”18 And they were in Del Rio.

 

Bibliography—
The Carter Family: On Border Radio—1939: Vol. 1.” Arhoolie Productions Inc. 1995.
Joe Edwards, “June Carter Cash dies of surgery complications,” San Antonio Express-News, May 16, 2003, page 3A.
John Gerome, “Country music insiders choose the genre’s 100 greatest songs,” Del Rio News-Herald, June 11, 2003, page 2B.
Richard Harrignton, “Carter Family’s legacy lives on in survivors,” San Antonio Express-News, July 8, 2003, pages 1D, 3D.
William H. Koon and Al Ross (Editors), “The Carter Family on Border Radio,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation, [no date].
Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., Austin: University of Texas, 1985 (Revised Edition).
Leslie Schmidt, conversations with Doug Braudaway. Mr. Schmidt was born in Del Rio and knew several of the families performing on Brinkley’s XERA.
Michael Orgill, Anchored in Love: The Carter Family Story, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1975.
Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

 

Endnotes—
1 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, page 201.
2 Richard Harrignton, “Carter Family’s legacy lives on in survivors,” San Antonio Express-News, July 8, 2003, page 1D; Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 141.
3 Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 142.
4 William H. Koon and Al Ross (Editors), “The Carter Family on Border Radio,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation, [no date]; Orgill, Anchored in Love, pages 145-148; Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 7, 230. The family did, very soon, get an invitation from the Brinkleys (who created the borderblaster station) and a tour of the Brinkley Mansion. Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 197-200.
5 Michael Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 149.
6 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 6, 216-217.
7 “There’ll Be You, Joy, Joy,” “Just a Few More Days,” text from page 6, “Why There’s a Tear in My Eye” and “The Cyclone of Rye Cove.” This “Cyclone” song was based on a true story. A.P. recounted, on the air, of a school that was destroyed with some two-dozen schoolchildren killed. Koon and Ross, “The Carter Family on Border Radio.” “We Shall Rise” is on “The Carter Family On Border Radio—1939: Vol. 1.”
8 The first Carter rendition of “Goin’ Back to Texas” seems to have been recorded in 1929. Alas, this second tune is reported as never having been named by the Carter Family. That is “Why There’s a Tear In My Eye. The tune was named at a later time by an editor compiling this retrospective album. It was named “Del Rio” “for the town where it was probably recorded.” Koon and Ross, “The Carter Family on Border Radio.” The piece appears on another retrospective as “Untitled” (sigh). But the piece is described as their own composition. “The Carter Family: On Border Radio—1939: Vol. 1.”
9 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 4, 5, 215-216.
10 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, page 235.
11 Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., page 67.
12 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, page 213.
13 Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 156; Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, page 215. Sara had divorced A.P. before the group signed the XERA contract, hence the separate quarters. While the group performed on XERA, Sara Carter married her second husband, Coy Bays, in Brackettville on February 20, 1939. Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 180-181, 222.
   We are unable to locate the exact site of the Carter residences, but we are reasonably certain that it was on North Main Street between the 500 and 1000 blocks. Leslie Schmidt to DB. The CHC intends to place the marker in a City park on North Main near this location.
14 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 226, 251; “The Carter Family: On Border Radio—1939: Vol. 1.” A.P. returned to the Carter Family at a later time and that group performed periodically. Orgill, Anchored in Love, pages 164-165.
15 Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 159; Joe Edwards, “June Carter Cash dies of surgery complications,” San Antonio Express-News, May 16, 2003, page 3A.
16 John Gerome, “Country music insiders choose the genre’s 100 greatest songs,” Del Rio News-Herald, June 11, 2003, page 2B. This was the finale of a triple album of the Band’s renditions of classic country music. Other musicians sang with the Band, but “Mother Maybelle Carter” appeared “at the top of the bill.” Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, page 368.
17 Orgill, Anchored in Love, page 185.
18 Zwonitzer with Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, pages 7, 10-11.