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.”