Written By: Eliza Berman
If there can be only one father of country music, it would be A.P. Carter. And if there’s only one founding family of the genre, it’s the Carter family.
Alvin Pleasant Carter was marked by a ring of fire—though not the one his niece June would later write a song about. His mother Mollie, eight months pregnant with him, stood next to a tree that got struck by lightning and touched her belly as electricity coursed through the ground. A.P. was born with a tremor that would later touch his singing voice with an unmistakably special quality.
The Carter family became a family when A.P. married Sara Dougherty, whom he fell in love with after hearing the sound of her voice as she played the autoharp. Sara’s cousin Maybelle later married A.P.’s brother Ezra, or “Eck,” and among them they had a brood of six, three children per couple.
A.P. was a masterful songwriter, carrying a yellow pad of paper wherever he went in case inspiration struck, which it often did. But his songs were a blend of original tunes and the melodies and lyrics he picked up in the Virginia mountains as he traveled from house to house selling fruit trees. Much of the country music canon originated from the Carters” transformation of traditional folk songs into popular recorded music, replete with simple yet poignant harmonies.
Sara was known for her deep lead voice, and Maybelle for the original style of guitar picking so influential it now bears the family’s name. When Maybelle’s young daughter Anita sang a song before producers one day about a “purdy liddle kitty cat” they were so impressed that they asked if there were more like her at home. And there were: her sisters Helen and June, the latter of whom would later marry Johnny Cash.
The photos Eric Schaal took of the family in 1941 were bumped by bigger news the week they were meant to run in LIFE: the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But the family’s legacy has endured, with generations of musicians citing them as a major influence. And not just country musicians, either. Jerry Garcia perhaps captured it best when he said, “Whenever I write a song, there’s a little piece of the Carter Family in there.”
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.