Helen Carter was born in Poor Valley (now Maces Spring) Virginia on September 19, 1927. That was a big year for the Carters. Six weeks before they welcomed their first child into the world, they travelled 30 miles to Bristol to audition for record producer Ralph Peer. He liked what he heard and offered them $50 a song plus half a cent royalty on each copy sold. Peer was smart enough to realize that there was a market for this music of the Appalachian hills, and he was rightly impressed with Maybelle Carter’s guitar technique—she was adept at playing the melody with her thumb on the lower strings while strumming the rhythm with her other fingers. On this song from the now-legendary Bristol sessions—a 10 day stretch that also saw Jimmie Rodgers recording his first songs—you can hear the “Carter scratch” in action, particularly when Maybelle takes a solo at the 1:10 mark.
Not only were those sessions the genesis of recorded country music, but Maybelle also managed to introduce the guitar as a lead instrument to the non-blues-listening public. The Carter Family—which also included Maybelle’s cousin Sara and her brother-in-law A.P., continued to record and tour until the group’s dissolution in 1943. Along the way, Helen was joined by sisters Anita and June, and was expected to hold down the fort while her Mom was on the road. She was also expected, just as her sisters were, to carry the musical torch. Helen had a natural affinity for music, learning the guitar, autoharp, mandolin and accordion with ease. Her father, Ezra, encouraged Helen to learn classical piano as well. When Maybelle decided to keep the music going , her daughters were ready to sing and play with her. By 1950 they were making regular appearances on The Grand Old Opry radio show, and soon after, its television show. Here they are performing a song Helen wrote, called “Sweet Talking Man.”
That was Chet Atkins on electric guitar. Maybelle seemed pretty content to let her daughters take the spotlight in that number—that was Helen on lead vocal and accordion, with her sisters in the background. Anita was the dreamy, well-behaved one, while June was the playful one who tried to throw her sisters off by poking their faces. At this time, June was the breakout star. The Grand Old Opry made great use of her comedic skits, in which she played dumb with a lot more intelligence than she was probably given credit for at the time.
But what about Helen? She was doing just fine, thank you, performing with her family, writing songs for other people, and recording songs of her own. And she wasn’t afraid to tackle subjects that might have scared off more timid performers. “Unfit Mother” comes to mind.
She also wasn’t afraid to express the healthy libido that prudes would say can’t help but lead to becoming an unfit mother. Here she is with co-writer Chet Atkins with the disc in question, “I Like My Lovin’ Overtime.”
In 1953, it was kind of risky for a respectable Christian girl to ask “How’d ya like to work some overtime with me?” Maybe songs of heartache like the B side, “You’re Right” were seen as the sad salt to balance the sexy sugar.
That same recording session gave us this ode to the big lugs that a girl can’t help but love even if there are a million reasons why she shouldn’t. More tastefully fancy pickin’ from Chet Atkins on this one.
In 1956, Maybelle and The Carter Sisters were the opening act for Elvis Presley, and the spent a great deal of the 1960’s backing Johnny Cash. Along the way they took time to raise their families and record the occasional album together. By the 1970’s, Maybelle stopped performing, but her daughters ably kept the Carter name going. Here they are with Jan Howard, doing a lovely version of “In the Pines” on Johnny Cash’s 1976 Christmas special.
1979 saw the release of Helen’s covers of songs made popular by the original Carter Family. Here’s her take on “Hello Stranger.”
The sisters continued to perform as a group over the years, as well as on each other’s solo albums and those by Johnny Cash, as well. Unfortunately, Helen’s solo career was not as commercially successful as those of her sisters. Still, June and Anita were usually the first to say that Helen had been the rock of the group—the one who made sure her siblingswere fed, the one who wrote most of the songs, and the one who didn’t miss a note while being poked in the face by her annoying kid sister. Helen Carter died in 1998.