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

Maybelle Carter, playing her autoharp, performs with her daughter, Helen.
Robert Alexander
Getty Images
Maybelle Carter, playing her autoharp, performs with her daughter, Helen.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tift Merritt
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