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Last week I featured an original of a song known better by its cover (“Bossa Nova Baby”), and this week’s theme invites another lesser-known original (those who know my little corner of the blogosphere will be aware of my love for those).
Anita Carter was part of the Carter Sisters, successor to the original Carter Family, the pioneers of country music. The Carter Family comprised A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s cousin Maybelle, who by dint of her marriage to A.P.’s brother Ezra was also the sister-in-law to her fellow band members. They recorded for only nine years, from 1927-36, but left behind an immensely influential body of work, one that would help define country and folk. Maybelle was a groundbreaking guitarist: in her hands, the instrument made the transition from a rhythm to lead instrument.
The Carter Family broke up after A.P. and Sara divorced in 1936. Sara married A.P.’s cousin (really!) and moved to California. In 1938, Maybelle (still 29 years old) roped in her nine-year-old middle daughter June, and soon after her older daughter, Helen, who as an eight-year-old in 1935 already had appeared on stage with the Carter Family. Eventually youngest daughter Anita, born in 1933, joined the group which was alternately known as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, or just the Carter Sisters, or the Carter Family. They performed together until the 1970s, and after Maybelle’s death reunited briefly in 1987, roping in June’s daughter Carlene.
In the 1950s Anita (who in the Carter Family played the stand-up bass) began to score solo hit singles. She also supported Elvis Presley tour (there were rumours of some kind of romantic relationship). More hits would follow sporadically, but Anita never hit the big time as much as did her sister June, who ended up married to Johnny Cash.
At the time when June was falling for Cash, she was regularly writing songs with fellow country singer Merle Kilgore. Kilgore later recalled Ring Of Fire being born the day June spoke to him about her love for Cash. While searching for an idea for a new song, the story goes, June remembered a letter she had received from a friend going through a divorce which described love as “a burning ring of fire”. The song essentially described June’s feelings for Cash. But it was Anita who recorded it, in November 1962. The song was only half-finished when Anita was ready to record it; June and Kilgore banged the rest together in ten minutes, fortuitously retaining the word “mire” from a provisional lyric.
Cash liked the song when he heard Anita’s record (as he well should) and decided he would record it. Deferring to his future sister-in-law, he waited four months before recording his version, with the famous Tijuana trumpets. His version was a hit, saving him from being fired by Columbia Records. Cash’s career revived to such an extent that he was later given a TV show, on which both Anita and Maybelle would feature frequently.
Maybelle died in 1979 at the age of 69; Anita died in June and Johnny’s home on 29 July 1999 at the age of 66.
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