Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals; Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group instrumentally; on some songs A.P. did not perform at all but at times sang harmony and background vocals and, once in a while, lead vocal. Maybelle's distinctive guitar playing style became a hallmark of the group.
The Carter Family made their first recordings on August 1, 1927. A.P. had persuaded Sara and Maybelle the day before to make the journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Virginia, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer. Peer was seeking new talents for the relatively embryonic recording industry. The initial sessions are part of what's now called the Bristol Sessions. The band received $50 for each song recorded, plus half a cent royalty on every copy sold of each song for which they had registered a copyright. On 4 November 1927, the Victor Talking Machine Company released a double-sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child". On 2 December 1928 Victor released "The Storms Are on the Ocean" / "Single Girl, Married Girl", which became very popular.
By the end of 1930 they had sold 300,000 records in the United States. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new songs; he also composed new songs. In the early 1930s, he befriended Lesley "Esley" Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee. Lesley accompanied A.P. on his song-collecting trips. In June 1931, the Carters did a recording session in Benton, Kentucky, along with Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met the Speer family at the World's Fair in Ceredo, West Virginia and fell in love with their signature sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.
In the winter of 1938–39 the Carter Family traveled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña (now Ciudad Acuña, Mexico), across the border from Del Rio, Texas. In the 1939–40 season the children of A.P. and Sara (Janette Carter, Joe Carter) and those of Maybelle (Helen Carter, June Carter, Anita Carter) joined the group for radio performances, now in San Antonio, Texas, where the programs were prerecorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. (The children did not, however, perform on the group's records.) In the fall of 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.
By 1936 A.P. and Sara's marriage had dissolved. Sara married A.P.'s cousin, moved to California, and the group disbanded in 1944.
Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita Carter, June Carter, and Helen Carter as "The Carter Sisters" (sometimes billed as "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters" or "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters"). In 1943, Maybelle Carter and her daughters, using the name "The Carter Sisters," had a program on WRNL in Richmond, Virginia.
Chet Atkins joined them playing electric guitar in 1949 until leaving in 1950. A.P., Sara, and their children Joe and Janette recorded some material in the 1950s. The Carter Sisters reclaimed the name "the Carter Family" for their act during the 1960s and 1970s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited, recorded a reunion album, and toured in the 1960s during the height of folk music's popularity.
In 1987, reunited sisters June Carter Cash and Helen and Anita Carter, along with June's daughter Carlene Carter, appeared as the Carter Family and were featured on a 1987 television episode of Austin City Limits along with Johnny Cash.
Revivalist folksingers during the 1960s 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". The Carter Family song "Wayworn Traveller" was covered by a young Bob Dylan, who wrote his own words to the melody and named it "Paths of Victory"; this recording is featured on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. After writing that song, he wrote new words to the melody and changed the time signature to 3/4, thus creating one of his most famous songs, "The Times They Are a-Changin'".
As important to country music as the family's repertoire of songs was Maybelle's guitar playing. She developed her innovative guitar technique largely in isolation; her style is today widely known as the "Carter scratch" or "Carter style" of picking (see Carter Family picking). While Maybelle did use a flatpick on occasion, her major method of guitar playing was the use of her thumb (with a thumbpick) along with one or two fingers. What her guitar style accomplished was to allow her to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings. Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument among white musicians. Maybelle's interweaving of a melodic line on the bass strings with intermittent strums is now a staple of steel string guitar technique. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson,Clarence White and Norman Blake took flatpicking to a higher technical level, but all acknowledge Maybelle's playing as their inspiration.
It has been noted by that 'by the end of the twenties, Maybelle Carter scratch ... was the most widely imitated guitar style in music. Nobody did as much to popularize the guitar, because from the beginning, her playing was distinctive as any voice.'"
—quoted in The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005)
The Carter Family's career predated any sort of best-selling chart of country music records. (Billboard did not have a country best sellers chart until 1944.) Below is a select list of their 78 rpm releases.