Anita Carter, the youngest daughter of Maybelle Carter and said to be the best singer of the Carter Sisters, died in her middle Tennessee home Thursday, July 29, at age 66 following a long illness.
Her sister, June Carter Cash, and her brother-in-law, Johnny Cash, were reportedly by her side when she died.
She had suffered for some time from rheumatoid arthritis, but the cause of death was not immediately known.
“She was probably the best singer of all the Carter Sisters and perhaps even better than Mother Maybelle,” said music historian and Carter Family annotator Charles Wolfe. “She was really the most gifted, raw singer of them all. She had an absolutely wonderful voice. She was extremely versatile with it, proving herself able to experiment with a number of different types of music — folk, straight country and rock ’n’ roll.”
The Carter Sisters entry in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Encyclopedia of Country Music also calls attention to Anita’s crystal clear soprano: “Helen, the most capable instrumentalist, played accordion; June, the best comedienne and performer, was on autoharp; and Anita, the soprano and best singer, handled the bass (sometimes standing on her head to play).”
Born Ina Anita Carter, March 31, 1933, the youngest of Maybelle and Ezra Carter’s three daughters made her first public appearance in 1937 with her sisters on The Popeye Club on radio station WOPI in Bristol, Va. She sang “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” Two years later the three sisters joined the original Carter Family (A.P., his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle) on the border station XERA out of Del Rio, Texas.
Following the folding of the original Carter Family in 1943, Mother Maybelle formed a new group with her trio of daughters. Billed simply as Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters, the quartet soon found radio work on WLRN in Richmond, Va. In 1946, they moved over to the Old Dominion Barn Dance where they remained until 1947. From Richmond the group traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., and joined the cast of the Tennessee Barndance. While in Knoxville, they added guitarist Chet Atkins, who remained with the group until 1951. In 1948, the group released their first recording, “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” for RCA Victor Records.
One year later, they moved on to Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee broadcast over KWTO in Springfield, Mo. In 1950, Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters joined the cast of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry and took up residence in Nashville two years later.
In 1955, RCA promoted Anita as a pop performer as a part of the short-lived group ’Nita, Rita & Ruby with Rita Robbins and Ruby Wright (daughter of Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright) while also recording Anita as a solo country singer.
Performing with her family group, Anita played dates with Elvis Presley in 1956 and 1957.
“I’ve been told that Elvis, at one point, had quite a crush on Anita, and she was not interested in him,” Wolfe says. “I remember she had a great picture of the two of them, where Elvis is holding her in his arms and looking very smitten.”
Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters joined the Johnny Cash road show in 1961, and they were regulars on Cash’s network TV series in 1969. (June Carter and Johnny Cash married in 1968).
In addition to being a member of country music’s “first family,” Anita also made a name for herself with a string of memorable duets. In 1951, she scored a pair of Top 5 duets with Hank Snow: “Bluebird Island” and “Down the Trail of Achin’ Hearts.” A 19-year-old Anita traded vocals with Hank Williams in 1952 on “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” on Kate Smith’s network television program. Additionally, she and Waylon Jennings made it into the Top 5 in 1968 with “I Got You.”
After Maybelle’s death in 1978, Anita and her sisters were dedicated to preserving and carrying on the rich musical legacy which they inherited.
Helen Carter Jones died in June 1998. June Carter Cash, 70, is now the last surviving member of the second generation of the Carter Family.
“The Carters are to country music what the Kennedys are to politics,” maintains Wolfe. “Every time we lose somebody from a dynasty like this it diminishes us all, and it diminishes country music. It’s very tragic that we’ve lost two Carters now within a period of about a year.”
Services for Anita Carter are to be held 2 p.m. Sunday outside of Nashville at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville. Survivors include a son, Jay Davis, and a daughter, Lorrie Bennett.