Helen Carter was born to Mother Maybelle Carter, the legendary matriarch of country music, in September of 1927 in Virginia. Helen Carter took on the role of the guitarist in the original Carter Family band, along with her siblings and mother. She, along with her family, helped create the sound of modern country music from the oral tradition of Appalachian folk. As part of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, she became the rock of the iconic group, holding the family together. She died on June 2, 1998, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Early Life and The Carter Family
Country music artist Helen Carter was born on 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 10-day recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee that launched the careers of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The sessions were also 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 10 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.
Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters
Things changed dramatically in 1943 when Sara Carter left the group to live with her second husband in California and A.P. Carter retired to Virginia, bringing about the end of the original trio. Hoping to carry on the Carter Family's great musical tradition, Mother Maybelle decided to form a second-generation Carter Family band with her three daughters, calling the new group Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Helen Carter recalled that when they formed the new band, her father told them, "Don't let the name die. There's something there. Don't let it die."
In the new band, Helen Carter played primarily accordion (and also sometimes guitar and autoharp), while her mother played guitar, June played autoharp and Anita sang lead vocals. Performing old Carter Family hits like "Wildwood Flower" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," from 1946 to 1948 the all-female family quartet became a fixture on the Richmond, Virginia, radio program Old Dominion Barn Dance. Then, in 1948, they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to join the legendary country guitarist Chet Atkins on WNOX radio station.
In 1950, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters moved to Nashville with Atkins to appear regularly on the nation's most popular country music radio show, the Grand Ole Opry. They remained fixtures on Grand Ole Opry throughout the 1950s, taking a break to tour as Elvis Presley's opening act from 1956-57. During the 1960s, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters spent most of their time backing country and folk legend Johnny Cash, both on record and in concert. Carter's sister June went on to marry Cash in 1968.
Later Years and Death
While they were known best as live performers, later in their career Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters also enjoyed considerable success as recording artists. Their most acclaimed and successful albums include Keep on the Sunny Side (1964), Travelin' Minstrel Band (1972) and Three Generations (1974). Mother Maybelle passed away in 1978; a decade later, the Carter Sisters released their only album without her, Wildwood Flower, featuring fresh takes on many of the great Carter Family classics. Helen Carter and her sisters continued to perform together sporadically until she passed away on June 2, 1998. Anita passed away a year later, in 1999, and June in 2003.
Carter married a pilot named Glenn Jones in 1950, and they remained married until her death 48 years later. They had three sons and six grandchildren.
Helen Carter was never the most famous of the legendary Carter Family clan. She did not enjoy the successful solo careers of her sisters June and Anita, nor will she be remembered as a country music pioneer like her mother Maybelle or her uncle A.P. Carter. However, her family members always described Helen Carter as the rock of the family. She had the kind and magnetic personality that helped everyone get along offstage, and the musical skills to hold their performances together onstage.
"She was a caring, loving person and I don't remember her ever saying anything bad about anybody," her youngest sister Anita recalled. "Helen was the one who held things together... Helen was like a book. She remembered everything. She remembered all the songs and all the keys. She was like a rock."
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