A.P. Carter was born to Robert C. Carter and Mollie Arvelle Bays in Maces Springs, Virginia, an area in present-day Hiltons, Virginia, which is known as Poor Valley. A.P. was sometimes called "Doc."
On June 18, 1915, he married Sara Dougherty and they had three children: Gladys (Millard), Janette (Jett), and Joe. In 1927, he formed the Carter Family band together with his wife. They were joined by Sara's cousin, Maybelle, who was married to A.P.'s brother, Ezra Carter, and they together formed the first commercial rural country music group. Carter was known for traveling extensively throughout the country, often accompanied by his friend Lesley Riddle, collecting and blending songs, particularly from Appalachian musicians. Some of the songs became so closely identified with A. P. Carter that he has been popularly, but mistakenly, credited with writing them. For example, "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life" was published in 1901 with the words being credited to Ada Blenkhorn and the music credited to Howard Entwisle, and "The Meeting in the Air" has been published giving credit for music and words to I. G. Martin.
A.P. and Sara separated in 1932, in part as a result of Sara having an affair with A.P.'s cousin, due to A.P.'s long absences from home in search of new musical ideas. They divorced in 1939. The band remained together for several years afterwards, but broke up in 1943. While Maybelle and her daughters continued to tour as The Carter Family, A.P. left the music business to run a general store in Hiltons, Virginia.
A.P. Carter died in Kingsport, Tennessee, on November 7, 1960, at the age of 68. He was buried in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church cemetery in the Maces Springs area of Hiltons, Virginia.
Despite dying in relative obscurity, A. P. Carter was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. Carter was inducted as part of The Carter Family in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1993, his image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the Carter Family. In 2001 he was inducted posthumously into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
PBS aired a one-hour show on A.P. Carter and the Carter Family on American Experience.
In recent years, The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, has performed a play based on A.P.'s life called "Keep on the Sunny Side".
On her 2008 album All I Intended to Be, Emmylou Harris includes the song "How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower", co-written with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, about the relationship between A.P. and Sara, inspired by a documentary that the three of them saw on television.
The song "When I'm Gone," written by A. P. Carter and performed by the Carter Family in 1931, had been revived in 2009 when Lulu and the Lampshades created a reworked version using the cup game as percussion, titled "Cups (When I'm Gone)," which in turn was famously covered by Anna Kendrick for her 2012 film "Pitch Perfect."
The A. P. and Sara Carter House, A. P. Carter Homeplace, A. P. Carter Store, Maybelle and Ezra Carter House, and Mt. Vernon Methodist Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as components of the Carter Family Thematic Resource.
In response to A.P.'s dying wishes, his daughter Janette Carter restarted regular performances at A.P. Carter general store venue, and the organization became known as the Carter Family Fold, which continues to offer regular Appalachian music performances.