The First Families of Country Music

List Proves Kinship Remains the Keystone

The family — both as subject matter and creative unit — has been the keystone of country music since its inception. When Ralph Peer lugged his recording machinery to the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol in 1927 to give wings to the fledgling country music industry, two of the most dynamic acts he recorded that summer were the Stoneman and Carter families. Eighty-five years later, their influences remain vivid and strong.

And what did those early mountain minstrels sing about on those first sessions? The family, of course, in such songs as “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” “The Wandering Boy,” “Tell Mother I Will Meet Her,” “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Poor Orphan Child.”

As the genre matured, it was enriched by a succession of high-profile brother acts, notably Alton and Rabon Delmore; Bill and Earl Bolick (the Blue Sky Boys); Bill, Charley and Birch Monroe; Johnnie, Walter, Homer and Kyle Bailes; Carter and Ralph Stanley; Ira and Charlie Louvin; Jim and Jesse McReynolds; Bobby and Sonny Osborne; Don and Phil Everly; Tompall, Chuck and Jim Glaser; and Larry, Steve and Rudy Gatlin. Many of these brothers were top songwriters to boot.

Modern country music continues to celebrate the family, as evidenced by such recent hits as Chris Young’s “Voices,” Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” and Justin Moore’s “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” Families have stayed in the creative thick of it, too, ranging from the three cousins who make up Alabama to the sweet-singing siblings known as The Band Perry to those hit-writing brother teams, Brad and Brett Warren and Jim and Brett Beavers.

Here then, in no particular order except for the unparalleled Carter clan, are the families who have done the most to shape today’s country music.

If all they did for country music was contribute and popularize such songs as “Keep on the Sunny Side” “Wildwood Flower,” “Wabash Cannonball” and “Worried Man Blues,” A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle would have been monumental figures.

But they did so much more on their way to becoming recording and radio stars in the 1930s. There was Maybelle’s instantly recognizable “thumb brush” guitar technique, their doleful, emotionally engaging Appalachian harmonies and A. P.’s genius at finding and reconstructing songs. By the time the original trio broke up in 1943, Maybelle had three daughters of her own to help carry on the tradition — Helen, June and Anita, all of whom recorded together and separately with considerable distinction.

June’s marriage to country star Carl Smith produced a daughter, Carlene Carter, who would meteor across the face of country music in the 1990s. Maybelle and her daughters joined the Johnny Cash touring troupe in 1961, and June married Johnny in 1968. That union, on its way to becoming musically legendary, yielded John Carter Cash, who now works as a producer.

A.P.’s daughter and son, Janette and Joe, made music on a more local scale and operated the Carter Family Fold music center near their ancestral home in southwestern Virginia from 1974 until their deaths.

Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman was already a big name in the nascent country record industry when he did the 1927 Bristol sessions with his wife, brother-in-law and sister-in-law. But he never reached the heights of fame the Carter Family achieved. He did, however, sire one of the most musically talented flock of children on record — including banjo-playing Roni of Hee Haw fame and the less heralded but no less gifted Scott, Donna, Patsy, Jim and Van.

The Stonemans started their own syndicated TV show in 1965 that showcased their well-scrubbed good looks and flashy, audience-involving picking styles. Ernest Stoneman was rather tardily inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, 40 years after his death.

Johnny Cash is the towering figure here, of course, a man of massive impact on both country music and rock ’n’ roll. His marriage to June Carter and their many performances and recordings together tied him firmly into the Carter Family dynasty. His brother Tommy was a major recording artist throughout much of the 1970s and is best known for his Top 5 hit, “Six White Horses.” Daughter Rosanne scored 11 No. 1’s between 1981 and 1989, four of which she wrote. Son John Carter Cash, as mentioned above, has found his niche as a producer. The elder Cash can also be credited with nourishing the careers of Rodney Crowell (who was married to Rosanne) and Marty Stuart (who played in Cash’s band and was married to his daughter Cindy). Rosanne and Rodney are the parents of Chelsea Crowell, a bright and rising singer and songwriter.

Hank Williams blew through country music like a tornado in the late ’40s and early ’50s and left in his wake a rock ’n’ roll sensibility and a trove of hits that can still take your breath away. Hank Jr. proved to be a formidable successor. During the 1980s, he dominated the charts with his swaggering, self-promoting songs and brought energy and imagination to the emerging music video art form.

The jury is still out on how significant Hank III’s and Holly Williams’ contributions to their grandfather’s legacy will be — but right now they’re looking good. Jett Williams, Hank’s long-unacknowledged daughter, made her presence known in the 1980s and has since been a faithful exponent of her father’s music.

Loretta Webb became Loretta Lynn at a frightfully early age and, despite the children she had to care for, still found time at husband Mooney Lynn’s urging to become a superstar. Her sister Brenda, singing under the name Crystal Gayle, soon excelled at the family trade. Another sister, Peggy Sue, charted songs of lower wattage from the late ’60s into the early ’80s. Loretta’s brother, Jay Lee Webb, also recorded briefly, as did her daughters, Peggy and Patsy, who sang as the Lynns. Patty Loveless is a distant cousin to the Webbs.

Earl Scruggs did for the banjo what Bill Monroe did for the mandolin and Chet Atkins for the guitar. He gave it a distinctive personality and voice. With Lester Flatt, he formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, probably the most popular bluegrass band ever to take the stage.

After Flatt & Scruggs ran its course, Scruggs explored new musical terrain with his sons Randy, Gary and Steve in the Earl Scruggs Revue. Afterward, Randy became a much-in-demand session guitarist and producer of country acts ranging from Sawyer Brown to Waylon Jennings. Earl’s grandson is the prodigiously talented Chris Scruggs, whose mother is singer, songwriter and producer Gail Davies.

Three Cousins From Ferriday, La.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley pushed their piano-powered songs to the forefront of country music consciousness for nearly 30 years, blending in elements of pop and gospel of the kind favored by their other high-profile cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. For the statistically-minded, Lewis has had six country No. 1’s and Gilley 17. It was Gilley’s eponymous nightclub in Pasadena, Texas, that inspired the Urban Cowboy film and subsequent musical movement (some would call it a craze) of the early 1980s.

A musical prodigy proficient on steel guitar, banjo, saxophone, accordion, bass and mandolin, Barbara Mandrell was touring with Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline by the time she was 14. Her younger sisters, Louise and Irlene, were musically talented as well. Their guitar-playing father, Irby, served as their manager. Barbara recorded for Columbia and Epic in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when she frequently charted in the Top 10. Her greatest record successes, however, came at ABC and MCA with such indelible No. 1’s as “Sleeping Single in Double Bed,” “Years,” “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” She was voted CMA entertainer of the year in 1980 and ’81.

Louise’s singles made the charts every year from 1978 to 1988, a total of 29. Of her five Top 10 songs, the highest ranking one was “I Wanna Say Yes,” which reached No. 5 in 1985. As a family working together, the Mandrells made their biggest impact with their 1980-82 NBC-TV variety series, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. It featured guest performances by many of the day’s major country and gospel acts. At the height of its popularity, the show was drawing 40 million viewers an episode. Barbara Mandrell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

Johnnie Wright was a local singing star around Nashville when he married Muriel Deason. He later named her Kitty Wells and had the supreme joy of watching her take the mantle of Queen of Country Music following her tide-changing 1952 hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Recording as Johnnie & Jack with brother-in-law Jack Anglin, Wright festooned the charts throughout the ’50s with such classics-in-embryo as “Poison Love,” “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely” and “Stop the World (And Let Me Off).” As a solo artist, he had a topical No. 1 in 1965, “Hello Vietnam.” Wright and Wells’ daughter and son, Ruby and Bobby recorded for major labels, too, but with substantially less success. Bobby had a recurring role in the 1960s sitcom, McHale’s Navy.

Maxine, Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown captured the country, pop and R&B charts in 1959 with their recording of “The Three Bells.” As the Browns, they made the brother-and-sisters trio an international act and enabled it to invade cultural enclaves (like The Ed Sullivan Show) that were usually off limits to country folk. After the act broke up, Jim Ed went on to a successful solo career. He later paired with Helen Cornelius for a series of popular duets. With Maxine, he co-wrote the country standards “Looking Back to See” and “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.”

This fertile and far-flung tribe includes Dan Seals, his brother Jim Seals of the ’70s duo Seals & Croft, country singer Johnny Duncan, Brady Seals of Little Texas and songwriters Troy Seals (“Maybe Your Baby’s Got the Blues,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”) and Chuck Seals (“Crazy Arms”).

Dan, of course, was the England Dan to pop partner John Ford Coley before he moved on to enchant country fans with such gems as “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” and his collaboration with Marie Osmond, “Meet Me in Montana.” Duncan topped the charts in the late ’70s with “Thinkin’ of a Rendezvous” and “It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better.”

The Bradleys are Music Row royalty. Owen was an orchestra leader, label chief (Decca, MCA) and producer (Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Webb Pierce, k.d. lang). He and his brother, Harold Bradley, built one of Nashville’s first independent recording studios. Harold was also an A-team studio musician and is reputedly the most recorded guitar player in history. In addition, he was a longtime president of the Nashville musicians union.

Owen’s son, Jerry, headed RCA Records and later Opryland Music Group (which included the rich Acuff-Rose song catalog) and is credited with launching the “Outlaw” movement in the late ’70s. His wife, Connie, ran the Nashville branch of ASCAP, the performance rights organization, for 30 years. His son, Clay, is assistant vice president of publisher relations for BMI, a competing performance rights organization.

The husband-and-wife songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant recognized no musical boundaries. They wrote bluegrass (“Rocky Top”), novelty tunes (“Out Behind the Barn”), country (“It’s a Lovely, Lovely World”) and lots and lots of pop/rock (“Love Hurts,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream”). They composed all four of the Everly Brothers’ No. 1 country hits. Their son, Del Bryant, is now president and CEO of the mammoth BMI performance rights organization. Another son, Dane, is a realtor dealing in Music Row properties.

An inventive guitarist with extensive studio credits, Jerry Kennedy headed Mercury Records/Nashville from 1969 to 1984. During that period, he produced the Statler Brothers, Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and Reba McEntire to name but a few. His sons — all hit songwriters — are Shelby (“I’m a Survivor”), Bryan (“American Honky Tonk Bar Association,” “Beaches of Cheyenne”) and Gordon (“Change the World,” the 1996 Grammy song of the year). Gordon is also a producer and studio guitarist, and Shelby has carved out a separate career in publishing and performance rights.

Sisters Loretta, Loudilla and Kay Johnson organized Loretta Lynn’s first fan club in 1963 and were so good at making it a career asset for Lynn that they went on to establish the International Fan Club Organization, a clearinghouse and source of advice for serious fan-fueled operations. IFCO also staged live music concerts and new artist showcases. Essentially, the Johnsons brought professionalism to the act of admiration.

Others of Note
At the rate country music families multiply, one would be hard pressed to ever compile a complete list of them. But we must note a few more prominent ones here: Mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna Judd; the father-and-daughters team, the Whites; Dolly Parton, her sister Stella and brother Randy; the four Forester Sisters and three McCarters (sisters); Reba McEntire and her brother Pake and sister Susie; Don and Harold Reid, the two actual brothers in the Statler Brothers; sisters Martie and Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks.

Also, mother Dottie West and daughter Shelly West; Merle Haggard and sons Marty and Noel; brothers Lefty and David Frizzell; the Bellamy Brothers; Marty Raybon (former lead singer of Shenandoah) and brother Tim; and the father-and-daughters Cox Family.

And other families abound in bluegrass: the McCourys, the Renos, the Lillys, the McClains.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to