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Helen Carter is best known as a performer in The Carter Family band.
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Helen Carter was the daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, the legendary matriarch of country music who, as the guitarist of the original Carter Family band, helped create the sound of modern country music from the oral tradition of Appalachian folk.
Helen Carter was born September 19, 1927, in Poor Valley (now known as Maces Springs) Virginia, a small town at the foot of Clinch Mountain in southwestern Virginia. Helen Carter's father, Maybelle's husband, was Ezra "Eck" Carter, the brother of A.P. Carter, who (along with his wife Sara) comprised the original Carter Family trio with Maybelle. Helen Carter had two younger sisters, June Carter Cash and Anita Carter, both of whom would eventually join Helen and their mother in Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, the second incarnation of the Carter Family band that formed after the original trio dissolved in 1943.
Helen Carter was born just as The Carter Family's career was taking off. In fact, Mother Maybelle was seven months pregnant with Helen at the time of the legendary "Bristol Sessions" — the historic ten-day recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee that launched the careers of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, considered by many to be the foundational moment in the history of modern country music. Throughout Helen Carter's childhood, her mother and much of her extended family were constantly busy traveling to musical gigs. With the adults consumed by their music careers, it fell to Helen Carter, as the eldest daughter, to hold the family together, doing most of the cooking and caring for her little sisters from a very young age. To her youngest sister Anita especially, Carter was like a second mother. "When mother was away, [Helen] washed my hair and rolled it and made sure I was OK," Anita recalled.
Besides her responsibilities around the house, Helen Carter was also a diligent and talented young singer and musician in her own right, eager to assume her place in the family band. She sang and learned to play the guitar, accordion and autoharp in the country style of The Carter Family's music. She also studied classical piano at the behest of her father. "Daddy was a classical music lover," she recalled. "We had to listen to Beethoven and Bach and Tchaikovsky, so we all learned to play Minuet in G and all that stuff. Daddy put us on the train and sent us down to Hiltons to play the piano."
In 1938, The Carter Family moved to Del Rio, Texas in order to accept an offer to perform on XERA — the most powerful radio station in North America, operating from just miles across the Rio Grande in Mexico. More than ten times as powerful as any American radio station at that time, XERA broadcast its signal across Mexico, the entire continental United States and much of Canada. And it was on XERA in 1939 that Helen Carter, along with her younger sisters, made her debut with The Carter Family band, singing harmony for their twice-weekly radio show and earning $15 per week. Over the next four years, Carter continued to sing backup harmony for The Carter Family.
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