Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Close harmony country gospel quartet. The original lineup was David Parker (D.P. or 'Dad') Carter, baritone (b 28 September 1889, near Columbia KY; d 28 April 1963); Ernest 'Jim' Carter, bass (b 10 August 1910, Sherman TX; d February 1971); Rosa Lola "Rose" Carter, soprano (b 31 December 1915, Altus OK; d 13 May 1997); Effie Juanita "Anna" Carter, alto (b 15 February 1917, Shannon TX; d 5 March 2004, Fort Worth TX). The places of birth vary in some accounts; some of the information here was obtained from Anna and some from a CD booklet. Dad and Carrie Carter met in a singing school and had nine children; the group was formed in Bledsoe TX to help make ends meet and debuted '35 on KFYO Lubbock as the Carter Quartet. (Anna's obituary said that she had a severe case of pneumonia as a child and it was her medical expenses that caused Dad to look for singing work.) Within a year they had switched to WBAP in Fort Worth, one of the most powerful in the state, taking the name of a western band which had left the station (since there was already a famous Carter family). They were heard five days a week for 15 years, with minor disruptions during WWII; Art Satherley began recording them in 1936 on American Record Company labels, then Columbia after ARC was taken over by CBS.

Their earliest broadcasts and first two recording sessions included secular songs, but the gospel singing was so popular that it took over exclusively. They recorded 408 selections in 40 years; when their sponsor offered photos of the group in exchange for coupons from flour sacks, 100,000 were requested. They are said not to have made any records between 9 March 1941 and 16 December 1948. In 1955 they received a gold disc for 'I'll Shout And Shine' and were named the top U.S. gospel group by the National Disc Jockey Association.

Dad played mandolin on their early secular recordings; otherwise Jim's acoustic guitar was the only accompaniment until 1954, when Jim was replaced by younger brother Roy Carter (b 1 March 1926, Calumet OK) and a discreet electric guitar was played by Anna's husband, Howard Gordon (b 30 May 1916, Denton TX; d 3 October 1967). Dad retired in 1956, replaced by yet another son, Eddie, who was not full-time after 1957, replaced by the first non-family member, Pat McKeehan. They began playing concerts outside Texas in the late 1940s, encouraged by Rev. J. Bazzal Mull, a blind Baptist minister and broadcaster who sold carloads of their records through the post. In the early 1950s their classics were being played on Randy Blake's Suppertime Frolic, a radio show from WJJD in Chicago. Dad's last records were also the last made in Texas; all the rest were made in Nashville. In later years Nashville session players such as Grady Martin and Harold Bradley were used on records; other singers included Haskell Mitchell, Jim Waits, Howard Welborn, Jim Wesson, Ronnie Crittendon. They appeared on TV in the 1960s, sang over the years on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, in 1966 at Carnegie Hall, Florida's Gator Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl; they appeared in film Sing A Song For Heaven's Sake in 1967.

Rose retired in 1966; Anna led a group in 1968 with her daughter Vickie, son Craig, Jim Black singing bass, but married Jimmie Davis late that year and subsequently sang in his trio. The group still occasionally appeared mid-'80s with Roy and the youngest Carter sisters Ruth Ellen and Betty, Ron Page singing bass. Their style never changed: pure Southern rural 'shape-note' singing (see Gospel music), with beautiful harmony found in the songs themselves; they were unusual in the genre in using female lead voices, and voices of rare liquid beauty at that. A compilation in Columbia's Historical Series included tracks from 1936 to '60: two secular songs from '36-7, 'He Set Me Free' '41 (written by Albert E. Brumley and said to have been the model for 'I Saw The Light', by Hank Williams), 'When I Thank Him For What He Has Done' '60 (also by Brumley), and favourites such as 'We Are Climbing', 'After The Sunrise' etc and 'The Church In The Wildwood' '36, more beautiful (and better recorded) than the other Carter Family's version of four years earlier. They made 17 albums for the Copperfield label in the 1980s; in the 21st century they were being reissued and had three distribution deals: to Christian stores, to secular outlets and online. Carrie and Dad Carter could not have dreamed that their family's lovely homespun work would be available on the Internet.

[In 2012 however the only compilation of their most beautiful recordings this writer could find was The Chuck Wagon Gang - America's Popular Family Quartet on the Cattle label, from Germany, 13 pre-WWII tracks including 'Church In The Wildwood' and eight from 1948-50.]