Anita Carter: 03/1933 to 07/29/1999
At the first, it must have seemed she hardly existed outside the arms of the energetic and surprisingly determined relatives everywhere around her. For a long time Anita Carter did not know that she’d been born (in March 1933) into a family that would be a legend. But none of them knew that; they couldn’t even make a living from the music that made them famous. Her mother Maybelle would add to the intake by sitting with people in hospitals. Traveling, toddler Anita would be put down to sleep in the warm confines of her mother’s guitar case; she’d tell an interviewer, “I would just crawl into it until it was time to sing….I thought everybody slept that way.”
The youngest of the second-generation Carter sisters, Anita was taken on tour when sisters June and Helen were left home with her father Eck, a sometime railway clerk who did not sing or play, who liked to dig up rocks, a man so dedicated to rootedness that he designed and dug out the missing basement foundation for the unprepossessing Maces Springs, Virginia, house Anita was born in. The family soon moved to Texas for their cross-the-border megawatt XET radio broadcasts in Mexico. Like the rest of us, Anita would only hear these sounds again when transcriptions from 1939 were released on the discs brought out by Arhoolie Records half a century later. Like no one else, she would hear herself, already notable in the kiddie trios at age 6, soaring high in “Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes”, or solo in “Giddyyup Go”, which features her extended, controlled display of post-Rodgers yodeling. “We sound like little mice!” she’d say.
In the ’40s, as the Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters act took shape, instruments were handed out to the sisters. Country music women (like those in other genres) rarely played instruments; the Carters did. As many photos show, Anita was given the stand-up bass. She’d lug it everywhere; they had her standing on a box to play it before she could reach all the way up.
The mouse sound evolved into what country music scholar Bill Malone memorably (and permanently) called “an achingly pure soprano voice — one of the finest natural voices in country music.” Of all the postwar women, “only Anita Carter anticipated the modulated, pop-country sounds of the sixties,” he added.
The second-generation act was accepted into the Grand Ole Opry, and Anita became increasingly in demand for duets and backup. The last song on the massive box set The Complete Hank Williams is Anita and Hank introducing “I Can’t Help It” on the Kate Smith TV show. It’s the best duet Hank ever recorded. Anita — shy as always, as a film unreeled only at the Country Music Hall of Fame shows — was 18 and electrifying. She saw chart action in ’50s through duets with Hank Snow (“Bluebird Island”, “Down The Trail Of Achin’ Hearts”); backed Porter Wagoner (even after Dolly arrived) as well as George Morgan and Norma Jean; and worked many other sessions as a singer and a bass player.
She’d also become a beauty, desired by legends according to biographies of Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley. Mother Maybelle mastered a stare-down that was usually Anita’s body shield. Clothes, however, were another matter, Anita reported: “When we worked with Elvis, every night the girls would try to tear his clothes off; his buttons were always gone, and Mama would take the buttons off of our clothes and put them on him. So we were always buttonless!”
Anita married a handful of times: briefly at 17 to fiddler Dale Potter; to steel guitarist Don Davis (twice), with whom she had a daughter, Lorrie, and a son, Jay, who suffers from autism; and to guitarist Bob Wootson. Never the firecracker that sister June was, often introduced through the years as “the shy one,” a hesitancy to face the men of the road alone without Mama’s stare may have been one reason Anita never did tour in support of the solo career that might have been hers. Or maybe it was just not the same to venture out there singing alone, without the family.
Flexible enough to sing in varied styles, and known to the rising folk scene from Carter Family appearances at festivals and such, she was signed by Mercury in the early ’60s to be a solo voice for the folk-scare market, recording the albums now collected on Bear Family’s Anita Carter: Ring Of Fire CD. Indeed, the first recorded version of sister June and Merle Kilgore’s “Ring Of Fire” was Anita’s, and it’s stunning. And went nowhere. Johnny Cash would dream of a mariachi horn version a year later, and that became history.
A bit of the polished and affecting sound of the Maybelle & Carter Sisters act of later years can be heard on Sony/Vanguard’s recent release Country By The Carter Family, with standouts such as “For Lovin’ Me” and “He Thinks I Still Care.” Backing up Cash on his big tours and on his prime-time ABC TV show offered a larger audience for the Carter sisters and Anita solo than ever before. “And now, a song from Anita Carter,” Cash would announce — and the performances that followed are not forgotten by many who saw them.
She essentially ceased performing in other than family settings after these early ’70s moments, and in the past few years was largely confined to her home, ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. Speaking with an internet interviewer just a year ago, Anita saw her whole career as a piece of a family experience.
“As I look back on my life, if I had to do it all over again, I really would choose to go the way that we went, which, actually, we didn’t control. God and fans did that, and we were just allowed to work at something we loved doing and made a living doing it, basically all of our lives. So I think we got a good payback, in that respect.”
Anita Carter died on July 29th, at age 66, with June Carter and Johnny Cash at her home. There’s a break in the circle, a voice missing in the family choir. And damn, this one sure could sing.