With the June 23 airing of the masterful, bio-documentary Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues on PBS, a clip of a performance of extraordinary power, virtually unseen outside the confines of the Country Hall of Fame since 1952, is let loose at last. It's a live version of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" from the Kate Smith Evening Hour. Hank's partner for this primetime duet, used for years at the Hall to define "country music," is a 19-year-old Anita Carter.
She'd already been performing for 10 years. She'd yodeled with the original Carter Family on border radio, gone on the road and the Opry with Mother Maybelle and sisters June and Helen, made a few singles at RCA and done session work as a bass player. She even had a hit duet with Hank Snow on "Bluebird Island."
On Smith's show, Carter inhabits Hank's song of helpless love right from the get-gosoulfully, piercingly. She looks gleeful as Hank joins her midsong and turns shy as he comes on so close and strong that he looks ready to grab her. She beams as he turns to the "I can't help it" line, before finally joining him in eye-locked harmony for the rest of the number.
She's also singing as well as any woman in country music ever has. The youngest of the sisters, Anita routinely is said to have possessed the best voice of any member of the Carter family. But this claim has left a long-simmering mystery: Why didn't this singular talent ever become a star in her own right?
Secondary answers can be found in the typically lavish 76-page book that accompanies Anita Carter: Appalachian Angel, the new seven-CD box set from Germany's Bear Family label. Practical matters had a role, author Hank Davis suggests: Retiring " 'Nita" wasn't a career go-getter, she disliked hitting the road apart from her family, and frisky DJs and promoters made the road a rough place for women. What she wanted to do most during those early years was finish high school out of the limelight.
But the real answer to the mystery of Carter's career can be found, definitively, in the Bear box's 173, mostly little-known tracks: all of her key sides other than those she cut with the Carter Family. She began recording with RCA in the early '50s as a bobby-soxer, favoring swing era stylings that suited her well.
On tunes like Hank's "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight" and a version of "Making Believe" that's more swinging than the Kitty Wells hit, Anita is a smart, playful singer. She not only had a remarkably "pretty" voice, a heart-stopping vibrato and could hold high notes that went on forever; she knew how to use these things and when not to, and had an unusually good sense of rhythm. Waylon Jennings, one of her duet partners from the '60s, noted that she used unique, potent phrasings "like Willie." Jo Stafford and Kay Starr influenced this Anitathe unstoppable, unpredictable, moving oneas much as her famous Appalachian family.
This early assertiveness wouldn't last long; delivering it might have taken more effort than she wanted to make. Carter would be best known for duetsnot feisty, one-on-one outings like "I Can't Help It," but "girl singer" add-ons, like those with Hank Snow. An entire CD in the box presents Anita in the '50s girl trio 'Nita, Rita and Ruby, which is sometimes described as a rockabilly outfit, but the music is hardly the harder stuff of Brenda Lee or Wanda Jackson. A cuter, slower, even sweeter version of The Chordettes' pop confection "Mr. Sandman" is more like it.
The record companies, and the singer, began to emphasize Anita's "crystalline" voice and it's so-called "purity"then as now a formula for producing the precious, untouchable and disposable. Given her lack of interest in promotion, Carter rarely was offered the best songs in Nashville: Eight of every 10 on the Bear box are mid-tempo factory productions in which she doesn't have to do much more than hold those high, pretty notes; there's simply nothing to sing about.
When a song comes along that has the stuff to grab her attention like Kris Kristofferson's "Loving Him Was Easier" or Otis Redding's "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long," she suddenly finds the power at her command, and there she is with some powerful country music indeedAnita again.
During the '60s, the stultifying "achingly pure voice" tag inevitably led to Carter doing Joan Baez-style material that her record companies marketed without success to country fans who wanted something grittier and livelier. These recordings are among her best known, especially the original "(Love's) Ring of Fire" single, if mainly for going nowhere.
Yes, that song, like "I Can't Help It" years before, is all about succumbing. Co-written by sister June (with Merle Kilgore), it has more traction to it than the factory product, but it comes off as a well-sung description of something that happened to somebody else, somewhere else. There's no burning or falling down, down, down as we listen; that would be left to Johnny Cash, who did it with remarkably less vocal range.
The recordings in the Bear box show that it was no accident that Anita Carter always wound up singing behind or opening for solo singers with more force of personality, gall and audience-grabbing flair like Hank, Elvis, Waylon, Dolly or brassy sister June. Anita was greatly gifted, but she wanted the sort of attention those performers received just so much, just so often. Her records demand only the amount of attention she sought.
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