The original group was a trio comprised of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter (A.P.), his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter (autoharp), and Maybelle Carter (guitar). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. A.P. sang bass, Sara alto, and Maybelle soprano. Maybelle's distinctive and innovative guitar playing style quickly became a hallmark of the group. Maybelle's daughter, June Carter joined the group in the early 1940s.
The Carters got their start on July 31, 1927 when A.P. convinced Sara and Maybelle (pregnant at the time) to make the journey from Maces Springs, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee to audition for record producer Ralph Peer who was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. They received $50 for each of the songs they recorded.
In the Fall on 1927 the Victor recording company released a double sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child". In 1928 another record was released with "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and "Single Girl, Married Girl". This one proved very popular.
On May 27, 1928, Peer had the group travel to Camden, New Jersey where they recorded many of what would become their signature songs, including:
During a February 1929 recording session they memorialized:
Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. travelled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new songs. In the early 1930s he befriended Lesley (Esley) Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport. Esley accompanied A.P. on his song collecting trips. Riddle's blues guitar playing style influenced the Carters, especially Maybelle who learned new guitar techniques from watching him play.
In the winter of 1938-1939 the Carter Family travelled to Texas where they had a twice-daily program on border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña (now Ciudad Acuña), Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Beginning with the 1939/1940 season, June Carter joined the group, this time in San Antonio, Texas, where the programs were pre-recorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations (XELO, XEG, XERB, and XEPN).
In Fall, 1942, the Carters moved their program to WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina for a one year contract. They occupied the sunrise slot with the program airing between 5:15 and 6:15 a.m.
Throughout their time together, the Carter Family also appeared in many live performances, often in local schools and churches.
During the 1960s, revivalist folksingers performed much of the material the Carters had collected or written. For example, on her early Vanguard albums, folk performer Joan Baez sang: "Wildwood Flower", "Little Moses", "Engine 143", [Little Darling] "Pal of Mine", and "Gospel Ship".
In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative [[List_of_people_on_stamps_of_the_United_States|postage stamp honoring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle]].
In 2001, the group was in inducted into the
International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor.