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For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set the Standard and Broke the Mold

One of the most indispensable guitarists of all time, Carter was a quiet revolutionary.
All Things Considered/NPR

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.