Helen Carter

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Helen Carter
Birth nameHelen Myrl Carter
Born(1927-09-19)September 19, 1927
OriginMaces Spring, Virginia, U.S.
DiedJune 2, 1998(1998-06-02) (aged 70)
InstrumentsAccordion, autoharp, guitar, piano, mandolin, vocals
Years active1937–1998
Associated actsCarter Family
Carter Sisters
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Helen Carter
Birth nameHelen Myrl Carter
Born(1927-09-19)September 19, 1927
OriginMaces Spring, Virginia, U.S.
DiedJune 2, 1998(1998-06-02) (aged 70)
InstrumentsAccordion, autoharp, guitar, piano, mandolin, vocals
Years active1937–1998
Associated actsCarter Family
Carter Sisters

Helen Myrl Carter (September 19, 1927 – June 2, 1998) was an American country music singer. The eldest daughter of Maybelle Carter, she performed with her mother and her younger sisters, June Carter and Anita Carter, as a member of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, a pioneering all female country/folk music group. The group was also known as The Carter Family.[1][2]



Helen Carter had a professional career in music that spanned 60 years. Many historians point to her 1937 radio debut as the beginning of her career [3][4] but Jeanette Carter (Helen's cousin and daughter of original Carter Family band members A. P. and Sara Carter) recalled that she and Helen performed together at original Carter Family personal appearances at least two years prior to this date.[5] As a child, Helen Carter played to some of the largest radio audiences in history by way of the powerful signals from the Mexican Border Stations of the 1930s and 1940s. Some of these stations could be heard throughout and even beyond the North American continent.[6][7][8][2] After the breakup of the original Carter Family in 1943, Maybelle formed a group with Helen and her sisters [2][9] The group joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1950[8][10] securing Helen, June and Anita's place in country music history as being among the youngest Grand Ole Opry inductees ever. They were aged 23, 21 and 17 respectively. The Carters were on the first nationally televised network program to feature country music, The Kate Smith Show, and were among the first country music acts to tour behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia.[10] They were given the "Favorite Country Group" award by the American Music Awards in 1973 and the "Gospel Act of the Year" award by the Music City News Awards in 1980.[4]

Helen rarely sang lead in the Carter Family group and seemed content to focus her efforts on harmony and instrumental backing. She played a variety of instruments including accordion, autoharp, guitar, piano and mandolin.[1][11][12] Many writers and historians list Helen Carter as the best overall musician and most talented songwriter among the Carter Sisters.[5][9][13][14] Helen Carter was largely responsible for arranging the group's vocals. She was also widely regarded as the Carter Sister most in touch with the group's rich musical tradition and the one most dedicated to its preservation.[3][15][16] Along with her mother, Maybelle Carter, Helen Carter was recorded by the Smithsonian Institution in 1975.[4][12]

Solo career

Helen pursued a solo career apart from the family. She recorded for a number of historically important independent labels such as Tennessee, Republic, Starday and Hickory. She had releases on major labels such as Columbia and Okeh as well. She recorded duets with such acts as The Willis Brothers, Johnny Bond, famed Grand Olde Opry announcer Grant Turner, and Wiley Barkdull (a singer who sounded a lot like Lefty Frizzell).[17] In the 1960s, Helen teamed with Dolores Dinning of the Dinning Sisters to form a short-lived group called the Blondettes that recorded for MGM.[3][17] While many of Carter's solo recordings were favorites with loyal fans and always welcomed by concert goers, they did not have a great deal of commercial success.[2] One likely reason for Helen's limited success as a solo artist may have been competition for radio air play with other members of her famous clan.

Throughout the recording career of the Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle, much of the time, all four group members had individual recording contracts as well.[3][8][9][18][19] Though each had her own style, it is of note that all members of the Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle group (in various combinations) often sang and played on one another's solo recordings.[20] Therefore, it was not unusual for the members' solo recordings to sound a lot like the group recordings.

Another possible reason for Helen Carter's limited success with her solo recordings may simply have been that she was ahead of her time in terms of what the conservative country music establishment was willing to accept. The 1950s was an era in which barriers were being broken by the likes of Kitty Wells. Yet, some of Helen's self-penned lyrics may have been deemed a bit risque:

From Unfit Mother: My neighbors said I was too wild, unfit to mother my own child

From Heart Full of Shame: I came to him in a veil of purest white, but you came to him as an angel of the night

Helen's greatest commercial success came by way of her songwriting. She wrote for Acuff-Rose Music and Pamper Music, among other companies.[20] Some of the better known titles she wrote or co-wrote include "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea", "Wall to Wall Love", "Rosanna's Going Wild", "Poor Old Heartsick Me", "Is This My Destiny?" and "What am I Supposed to Do?" Music acts as diverse as Red Foley, the Byrds, Jan Howard, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash, Billy Grammer, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Faron Young, Jean Shepard, the Louvin Brothers, Ann-Margret, Waylon Jennings and Mark Dinning are among the more than sixty who have recorded her songs.[10][12]

Helen Carter recorded two solo albums for Old Homestead Records[21] and did guest spots on recordings by her niece Carlene Carter and Southern Gospel artist Jacky Jack White later in her life. She also teamed with various members of the Carter Family for periodic recordings. In addition to the numerous recordings before Maybelle's death, Helen recorded with later versions of the Carter Family. In the 1980s a group featuring Helen (with two of her sons: David & Kevin; another son, Danny, performed with an earlier version of the group in the 1970s) and Anita (with her daughter Lorrie) recorded two albums and some singles for the Audiograph label. Helen, Anita and June (with one of her daughters, Carlene) recorded for Polygram/Mercury a few years later. June's other daughter, Rosie joined the group after Carlene's solo career began to gain momentum in the 1990s. On personal appearances it was not unusual for the lineup of the Carter Family to change. June's son John Carter Cash, and her granddaughter, Tiffany; as well as other relatives, sometimes performed with the group.[20]

More about Helen's career with the Carter Family

With the Carter Sisters and Maybelle, Helen did experience chart success. During the 1960s and 1970s, the group charted a few albums (such as Country's First Family, 1976) and singles including "Traveling Minstrel Band", "The World Needs a Melody", and "A Song for Mama".[22] Many were duet recordings with brother-in-law Johnny Cash. It is also of note that the group was prominently featured on numerous Cash recordings but often went uncredited. Throughout their careers, in fact, all four group members recorded (in various combinations) with such acts as Johnny Horton, Dolly Parton, the Wilburn Brothers, Grandpa Jones, Flatt & Scruggs, Carl Smith, Merle Haggard, Darrell Glenn and many others. They were sought after for both their vocal and instrumental contributions in the studio.[20]

Helen Carter was a regular on Johnny Cash's network television program and on his TV specials.[2][7][10] Along with other members of the Carter Family, Helen received a gold record for her participation in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II.[4] The group sang backup on two tracks from the album.[20]

Marriage and children

In 1950 Helen married Glenn Jones of Dickson, Tennessee. They had four sons (Kenneth Jones, Glenn Daniel, David Lawrence, and Kevin Carter Jones) and six grandchildren.[3]


Helen Carter suffered from gastrointestinal problems which led to heart problems that took her life in 1998 at age 70.

Her interment was next to her son, Kenneth, in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Buried nearby in the same cemetery are her parents, Ezra and Maybelle Carter, and her sisters, June and Anita.


Helen's song "Heart Full of Shame" was used in the 2003 movie Northfork. "Juke Box Blues", co-written with Maybelle, was used in the 2005 movie Walk the Line.[20]

In 2006, a forgotten set of recordings that Helen made with her sisters and a niece in 1991 was discovered and released to the public on Sphere Records.[23] Unlike the majority of recordings made with her family, most tracks from the collection prominently featured Helen on lead vocal.

In 2009 Rosanne Cash released her acclaimed album The List. In publicity for the album Cash repeatedly discussed the impact that Helen Carter (her aunt through marriage) had on her as a musician, performer and as a songwriter. Cash also noted that Helen Carter spent hours teaching her to play guitar.[24]


  1. ^ a b Scott County History Book Committee (1991) The Carter Family: A Biography
  2. ^ a b c d e Zwonitzer, M. & Hirshberg, C. (2002). Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music. Simon & Schuster, NY.
  3. ^ a b c d e Orr, J. (1998). Carter Family Daughter Dies: Helen Carter Jones Rites Friday Free-Lance Star, Fredricksburg, VA
  4. ^ a b c d Carter Family Fan Club News (no date). Historic Dates in the Career of the Carter Family.
  5. ^ a b Carter Family Fan Club News (1998).
  6. ^ Wolfe, C. (1994). The Carter Family: Their Arrival in Texas in 1938. The Journal of the Academy for the Preservation of Old Time Country Music.
  7. ^ a b Zitz, M. (1996). Country Legend Carter the Main Attraction. Free-Lance Star, Fredricksburg, VA.
  8. ^ a b c Wolfe, C. (1998). The Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle: Living Tradition. The Journal of the Academy for the Preservation of Old-Time Country Music.
  9. ^ a b c Foley, (1961). Carter Family Swinging on GI Club Scene. Stars & Stripes: European Edition.
  10. ^ a b c d Irwin, J. R. (2000). A People & Their Music: The Story Behind the Story of Country Music. Schiffer Publishing, PA.
  11. ^ Anonymous, (1989). Circle Always Unbroken for Helen Carter Jones: Daughter Recalls Early Days. Free-Lance Star, Fredricksburg, VA
  12. ^ a b c Anonymous (1987). The Carter Family Editor's note: this item is believed to be a publicity sheet issued by PolyGram Records, the Carter Family's record label at the time
  13. ^ Salon.com (1999). Musician Anita Carter dies at 66
  14. ^ Hawkins, M. (2009). June Carter: Hillybilly Favorites, liner notes. British Archive of Country Music, UK
  15. ^ Zitz, M. (1999). Loss of Helen Carter Strikes Fans. Free-Lance Star, Fredricksburg, VA
  16. ^ Fergerson, M. (1954). Carter Sisters Led by Mother Maybelle. Pickin' and Singin' News.
  17. ^ a b Sunny Side Sentinel: Official Publication for the Carter Family, Discography Issue (1980).
  18. ^ Anonymous, (1961). Mother-Daughter Folk Siongers Tour Army-AF Clubs in Europe. The Overseas Weekly.
  19. ^ Anonymous, The Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle: Top Folk Family (1953). Country Song Roundup.
  20. ^ a b c d e f Various liner notes and credits from albums, singles, Compact Discs, etc.
  21. ^ Carter Family Fan Club Journal, (1993)
  22. ^ Carter Family Fan Club News (1999)
  23. ^ Carter Family Fan Club News, (2006).
  24. ^ Carter Family Fan Club News (2009)