Anita Carter: The angelic voice of country music

PETER GREENBURG |  Courtesy PhotoThe Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa is planning a new Grammy y Museum exhibit titled "Stronger Together: The Power of Women In Country Music."

Word that the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa is planning a Grammy Museum exhibit titled "Stronger Together: The Power of Women in Country Music" reminded me of a singer who had one of the greatest voices ever — but is vastly underrated whenever lists of the great female country singers are compiled.

I'm not the only one who thinks that way.

In his book"Cash: The Autobiography," Johnny Cash said one of the things he liked best about his television program "The Johnny Cash Show," which aired on ABC television from June 7, 1969, through March 31, 1971, was he got to sing on a regular basis with with a singer he considered the best country music female vocalist ever.

Although her last name was Carter, he wasn't referring to his wife, June Carter Cash — but to her sister, Anita.

Anita Carter stated her musical career around the age of 8, along with her sister June and their older sister, Helen Carter, by joining forces with their mother, pioneering country music guitarist Mother Maybelle Carter, who was part of the original Carter Family. The original Cates consisted of Maybelle Carter, along with the husband and wife team of Sara and A.P. Carter.

Along with Jimmie Rodgers, they were considered the original pioneers of country music, with enduring songs ranging from "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (then known as "Can the Circle Be Unbroken") to "Wildwood Flower," credited to A.P., — although some songs he is credited with writing were in essence folk songs tsang in rural parts of America, especially the mountainous regions to the east, along the Appalachian Mountain Range.

They were a self-contained group, with Maybelle Carter mastering a style of guitar playing called the "Carter Scratch," a technique of playing a guitar's bass strings with the thumb and picking the melody with the fingers. With Maybelle's sister-in-law and A.P.s wife, Sara Carter, playing either autoharp or second guitar and all three joining in on vocals, they were a self-contained musical group.

They were also part of the Big Bang of Country Music, when Ralph Peer signed both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the Blue Yodeler, to recording contracts on the same day in 1927 during auditions he held at Bristol, Virginia, — which led to Rodgers becoming the first solo artist and the Carter Family the first vocal group to be considered country music stars.

The original Carter Family stayed together until 1956, with A.P. and Sara ultimately divorcing. That left, Maybelle, who was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra "Eck" Carter without a group. Not to worry. Maybelle had been producing more than guitar licks and vocal lines during her years with the original Carter Family. She and Eck had three daughters: Helen, June and the youngest, Anita.

Maybelle had taught all of her girls to play instruments. While they all learned guitar, Maybelle decided they needed a fuller sound, so Helen learned learned accordion and Anita learned the acoustic standup bass — although being only 8 years-old at the time, she had to stand on a box to play the huge instrument.

The group known as Mother Maybelle and her daughters began touring with country music shows and singing over the radio. They picked up an up-and-coming guitar player named Chet Atkins. They began performing with the lengthy name of The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle with Chet Atkins — no doubt challenging the guys who placed letters on marquees in those days.

As they grew up, the sisters began to develop their show business skills — with June opting for a comic persona that became part of the group's act. Helen also developed into a fine singer, but Anita Carter's vocals soon outshone them all.

The girls grew up on the road as they constantly toured the country music circuit — and it didn't take long for some of their fellow performers to notice they had grown up as well.

While an up-and-coming singer named Johnny Cash became infatuated with June — we all know how that turned out — Anita caught the eyes of two fellow performers who also became superstars.

One of the few pieces of television footage that shows a performing Hank Williams features Hank singing a duet of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" with a young Anita Carter. The chemistry between them is still visible today.

When rock 'n' roll raised its head in the 1950s, the Carter Sisters sometimes were on the same bill as rising rockabilly artist Elvis Presley, who also became enamoured with Anita.

In the 1960s, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters joined the Johnny Cash Show.

June later said she felt herself falling in love with Cash. She teamed with family friend Merle Kilgore and together they wrote a song about how she felt called "Love's Ring of Fire," which June gave to Anita to record.

Anita recorded the song in a folk-song type fashion during the waning days of the so-called folk boom that saw singers such as the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul and Mary hitting it big.

Cash liked the song so much he told Anita if it didn't become a hit for her, he wanted to record it himself. When Anita's slower, gentler recording failed to take off, Cash went into the studio to record his own version. He would later relate that before he did, he had a dream he would find useful when pursuing his own version.

Cash not only shifted the song's tempo into high gear, he said he'd dreamed about hearing Mexican mariachi horns on the song. He got his old pal from his Sun Records days, Cowboy Jack Clement, to help with the arrangement. Instead, of simply recording trumpets, they captured what sounds like an authentic Mexican mariachi sound.

Cash's version, with the title now called simply "Ring of Fire" not only topped the country music charts for seven weeks, it crossed over to the pop charts as well, hitting #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the biggest hits of his career.

Anita and June Carter and were not left out, though. Along with sister Helen and Mother Maybelle, they provided background vocals to the song. That's how I first learned of Anita Carter's remarkable vocals. On the album originally titled "Ring of Fire," the Carters joined Cash on several other songs, including the gospel song "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)."

Cash sings the first two lines, then a voice I can only describe as angelic joins the song. I later learned the angelic voice came from Anita Carter.

Anita Carter also recorded duets with Hank Snow and Waylon Jennings, and recorded lots of solo records for a variety of labels, including major labels and independents. Her duets with Hank Snow, "Down the Trail of Achin' Hearts" and "Bluebird Island," hit #2 and #4 respectively.

A duet with Waylon Jennings, "I Got You," made it to #4 in 1968.

One of her last single releases, "Tulsa County," hit #41 in 1970.

I still think her take on a Kris Kristofferson song, with the title changed to "Lovin' Him Was Easie,r" is one of the best covers of a Kristofferson composition I've heard.

Theories abound as to why Anita Carter never reached popular stardom, including one that she simply felt best when touring with her sisters or with the Johnny Cash Show in a family setting. Perhaps because she literally grew up while performing, she did not feel the drive to achieve more success on her own.

Anita Carter passed from this world in 1999 at the too-young age of 66, at June and Johnny's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. She had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and the consensus is that the medication she took for treatment damaged her kidneys and liver.

Her recordings endure today and I still listen to them. Bear Family Records issued a seven-CD deluxe box set that contains 173 of her recordings, along with a 78-page book.

Remembering my first impression of her voice, I had to smile when I saw the box set's title: Anita Carter: Appalachian Angel."

Contact James Beaty at

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