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Helen Carter is best known as the oldest sister in The Carter Family band, a popular country music group in the 1940s and '50s.
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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.
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.
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.
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