THE NAME Carter runs through the history of country music.
The original Carter Family - "AP", his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle - participated in the now legendary early RCA Victor recording sessions at Bristol on the Tennessee/Virginia border in the summer of 1927. Courtesy of their mountain harmonies, their repertoire and Maybelle's guitar picking, they remain a formative influence upon the genre today. When they disbanded, Maybelle and her daughters Helen, June and Anita continued to perform; appearing, in 1951, on the first televised country music show, touring with Elvis Presley and in the 1960s establishing a close working relationship with June's third husband, Johnny Cash.
Anita Carter, the youngest of the sisters, was arguably the most talented. She was a fine bass player; it was, however, her voice which marked her out. Possessed of a stunning natural purity and great emotive depth, it could, in the words of her sister June, "take the top of your head right off".
Carter was never the most commercially successful of performers, and her biggest hits came in partnership with others: "Down the Trail of Achin' Hearts" / "Bluebird Island", a double-sided disc with Hank Snow, entered the Top Five in 1951 and, 17 years later, "I Got You", on which she joined the great Waylon Jennings, followed suit. She nevertheless cut a series of fine sides for a number of Nashville record labels including Cadence, Mercury, Jamie, RCA, United Artists and Audiograph. Her work for Mercury, in particular, seems likely to endure.
She was born in 1933 and first performed in public aged only four years old, on a Bristol local radio show The Popeye Club. In 1939, she joined her family in their nomadic existence in Del Rio, Texas, where they performed on a twice-daily show on the radio station XREA, broadcasting out of Villa Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico on an exceptionally strong frequency which could be heard right across America. Radio transcriptions were cut in San Antonio before the family headed east to Charlotte, North Carolina, where in 1943 the original trio went their separate ways.
Maybelle and her daughters, working as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, were based successively in Richmond, Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee - where they were joined by a soon-to-be-famous young fiddle player and guitarist named Chet Atkins - and Springfield, Missouri. They played on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and in 1949 made a handful of recordings.
Anita Carter made her solo debut a year later with "Somebody's Crying" / "Johnny's Got a Sweetheart", the first of a succession of records that failed to set the charts alight. An attempt by RCA to launch her, Rita Robbins and Ruby Wright as a new trio called Nita, Rita and Ruby, floundered despite an appearance on the Opry, whilst Cadence tried unsuccessfully to market her as a pop act.
In 1962, following Johnny Cash's Carnegie Hall debut, Carter was signed to Mercury. Her first sessions for the label that autumn clearly reflected the burgeoning folk music revival in America at the time. On numbers like her mother's "Fair and Tender Ladies" and the Glaser Brothers' "Fly Pretty Swallow" she was accompanied (very effectively) by an acoustic guitar. She also recorded "(Love's) Ring of Fire," a song co-written by her sister June and Merle Kilgore, and inspired by a line of Elizabethan poetry found in a book belonging to her uncle AP. Although Anita Carter's version was acclaimed at the time, it was her brother-in-law Johnny Cash's very different later recording, on which Maybelle and the Sisters sang harmony, which proved to be a smash hit.
A 1964 album, Anita Carter (of the Carter Family), possessed a slightly fuller sound and married contemporary "folk tunes" like Bob Dylan's "Farewell" and Tom Paxton's "John, John, John" with numbers associated with her family and her Clinch Mountain roots: "I Never Will Marry", "Wildwood Flower" and "Bury Me Beneath the Willow". The album was a fine achievement, but failed to strike a chord with record-buyers.
Later moves to RCA and Capitol proved, with the exception of the Waylon Jennings duet, fruitless and Carter concentrated on session work and on her role as a member of the Johnny Cash show. On a 1982 album for Audiograph, The Carter Family, she performed alongside not only Helen but also Helen's son David and Anita's own daughter Lorrie. In 1988, June's daughter Carlene Carter released Wildwood Flower, produced by Jack Clements, a project that reunited on disc all three sisters. In 1992 they all appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's multi-award-winning Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume II.
Anita Carter was a long-time champion of the music of the original Carter Family, and in 1979 she played an important role in putting together a documentary in tribute to her mother who had died the previous year, The Unbroken Circle: a tribute to Mother Maybelle Carter.
Although Helen Carter died last year, the Carter Family name looks set, courtesy of the next generation of Carters, to be a high profile one in the future.Ina Anita Carter, singer and bass player: born Maces Springs, Virginia 31 March 1933; four times married (one son, one daughter); died Goodlettsville, Tennessee 29 July 1999.
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