Carter Sisters

Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Carter Sisters Uphold. Traditions Of Famed Scott Co. Folk Musicians

Times-News State Editor

Before television and radio, music making used to be strictly a home art back in the lonesome Appalachian hills, where country folk would sit a winter's evening and conjure up a tune around the open fireplace.

Most families had at least one kind of instrument to go along with its singers, a banjo, guitar, fiddle, zither, dulcimer or an autoharp. There were lots of autoharps in the mountain cabins, a peculiar instrument with a damper to deaden its many strings.

Sometimes the song told a story of jilted love, jealous lovers, homesickness, weariness, dreams of heaven, sin and death-whatever emotions had to be expressed. Sometimes the music was only group singing, but an instrument or two, a simple stringed instrument, usually would be lifted from Its corner resting place, and its rhythmic tones would be added to the performance .

At the foot of the long, long Clinch Mountain range above Hiltons, Va., along a section always known as Poor Valley, have lived family after family of ,Carters whose music making reached far beyond the mountain cabin sitting room. The Scott County Carters have been well-recognized for this hill-country style of ballad singing and playing.

The first Carter family troupe started years ago as entertainers with their own album of mountain ballads, and part of this troupe is getting together for another appearance with the Renfro Valley radio show in Kentucky in a few weeks.

Upholding the family tradition in folk entertainment is the Carter sisters and Mother Maybelle, who have appeared on all the major radio networks, are featured on WSM-TV and are heard regularly on the Grand Ole Opry at Nashville. They have made stacks of records and many personal appearances all over the country.

Though they frequently go back to their Maces Springs home in Scott County, they will be making their first appearance in nearby Kingsport, April 4, when they will put on five shows from 12:20 p.m. at the Center Theater.

Helen, June and Anita Carter and Mother Maybelle sing and pass around a varied group of instruments, including the 48-string autoharp. Singing and playing just came naturally to all the Carters; nobody ever heard of them taking a music lesson.

YOU CAN TAKE THE GIRL OUT OF THE COUNTRY but you can't take the country out of the girl, it is said of the Carter sisters, famous WSM hillbilly music artists from Scott County, Va. The Carter sisters and Mother Maybelle will appear in Kingsport next Friday at the Center Theater. In the picture they are seen from left to right: June, Mother Maybelle, Helen and Anita. These top record artists and radio stars like to be countrified, and they don't care who knows it. Folks can walk right up to them and say "hello" and have the pleasure of meeting somebody who is not swell-headed.

This concentration of musical talent was made possible by the original Carter Family troupe, which consisted of Maybelle, her brother-in-law, A. Pleasant Carter; and her sister-in-law, Sarah Carter, now Mrs. Coy Bays.

With this group for a time was Pleasant's brother, Grant Carter, who now lives in Maybelle's and the Carter sisters' home. Grant played the violin, but 12 years ago he went to work for Eastman Company, and the violin went to the attic.

There have always been Carters in Poor Valley as far back as anyone remembers, but only the present generation has produced the hillbilly musicians known the world over.

Years ago young Pleasant Carter, a right handsome Virginian, was traveling through his county selling fruit trees. Orchards are part of the local scene around Maces Springs, and selling trees was his livelihood; singing was a pastime pleasure.

At Nickelsville on the other side of the high range of the Clinch, he met Sarah Dougherty, a country girl who helped her father on the farm and after the chores were done, passed the time singing the native songs of the mountains. Sarah's salesmanship was better than Pleasant's; he didn't sell her any trees, but she married him and moved over into the valley of the Carters.

Sometime later, Sarah's cousin, Maybelle Addington. also of Nickelsville, came visiting, bringing her guitar and banjo. There she met A. P.'s brother, Ezra J. Carter (no relation to the Scott County Circuit Court judge), fell in love and also joined the Carter family in Poor Valley.

This chain reaction brought three musicians into the family, and naturally they spent a lot of time playing and singing together.

We were called first one place and then another to make music, to churches, schools, Fourth of July festivals and singings, and while we would sing at one place, a schoolteacher would come up and ask to make music for another celebration, so our reputation got around," one of the first of the troupers said.

Their fame never spread out of , the valley, however, until a phonograph recorder in Bristol advertised in the paper for talented people to make records. The Carter family gathered themselves into their Sunday bes and took off for Bristol about the same time once-great yodeler, Jimmy Rogers, now dead made a recording and got to be a hit with fans.

The Carter family records caught on, and personal appearances were sought. Eventually, they got to be close friends of other hillbilly stars on their way up too, and together they rose to hillbilly music heights. Recently, two of the first troupers, Sarah and Pleasant, have made four recordings and have a few more to make. They are going back into the entertainment world April 20 to sing with the Renfro Valley radio show in Kentucky. This program is broadcast by CBS to some 500 stations over the nation.

With them will be Joe Carter and Mrs. Janette Jett, Sarah' s children. Maybelle's children were born in the rambling country home near the Maces Springs post office. (Maces Springs runs crystal clear right by the house from the high Clinch Mountain).

The big sister of the famous sisters is Helen, 25, who started playing the piano and guitar while she was a curly-headed baby girl. She started playing the accordian in 1944, and can play about any instrument. She also sings and writes good songs, making the trio arrangements the girls sing.

Taking after her mother who learned to play the autoharp at 4, is June, who spent her spare time at home learning to master the oldtime string instrument. Commedienne of the group, she has a distinctive way with people.

Baby sister is Anita, 19, who wrote a song at the age of 5. Of course, it wasn't a hit, but it was, a start. She sings the high voice parts in the trio, and sometimes sings a solo. Her idol is her uncle, A.P.

Both Helen and Anita are married, but the Carter family, including the daddy of the girls, E. J., who books the sisters and manages the business, usually put up at sister June's house in Nashville. June, is still unmarried, and her quarters is a convenient stopping place for the Saturday night appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.

The Carters have a home in Richmond, Va., but they are usually on the road for personal appearances and frequently return to Maces Springs for visits with relatives. Helen and her husband returned about 10 days ago for a short Visit, and her second cousin, Sarah, came back about a month ago after leaving about 10 years ago and living in California.

BOXWOODS AND EVERGREENS surround the old Carter family home near Hiltons, Va., where the Carter sisters lived and went to Hiltons High School before their ballad singing took them far away from the Virginia hills. The Clinch Mountains rise in the background. When the photographer arrived, Grant Carter, uncle of the Carter sisters and owner of the place now, came down from the top of the bald knob at the left, near the place where the cow is grazing on the hillside. (Times-News photo by Lyle Byland.)

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