In Memoriam: Janette Carter (1923-2006)

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Photo of Janette Carter

Janette Carter at Capitol Hill ceremony to receive her National Heritage Fellowshp. Photo: Robert Burgess

Janette Carter was awarded the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Award in 2005 for her lifelong advocacy for the performance and preservation of Appalachian music. Her parents and Aunt Maybelle made up the Carter Family, known as the "First Family of Country Music." In the waning years of her father A. P. Carter's life, she promised that she would carry on his work. In 1976, she and community members built an 880-seat amphitheater, the Carter Family Fold, beside the store her father operated in Southwestern Virginia. Today, the Carter Family Fold attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year.

Janette Carter passed away on January 22, 2006 in Kingsport, Tennessee. 2001 National Heritage Fellow Joe Wilson, President of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, gave this moving reminiscence about Carter on the Crooked Road Web site.

"Janette was not the Carter with the husky, penetrating female voice, perhaps the finest country female lead of all time. That voice belonged to her mother, Sara. She was not the lead guitarist who invented country guitar lead with its "church lick" and unrelenting emphasis of melody. That guitarist was her Aunt Maybelle. She wrote songs, but was not the greatest composer and arranger in country music history. That person was her father, A. P. Carter. She never married anyone famous, and individual fame never came to her. The Carter Family was a depression-era band that broke up after a mere 14 years, and Janette and her father returned to the Virginia mountains with considerable fame, but no cash. She worked as a cook at the elementary school, and raised her family. But she promised her father to keep his legacy, and that promise was kept in a hall she financed and her brother Joe built in the style of a burley tobacco barn. There she presented the local artists she adored and the famous who came to borrow bits of Carter magic. She kept the prices low and the quality high. She had time for the most humble, and enough love to fill this valley beside Clinch Mountain.

"I came to see her father at age 16, one of hundreds of mountain boys welcomed to his porch. Janette had been working in the garden on a warm July day and spotted the Indian Scout motorcycle that had brought me over 80 miles of twisting mountain road. She asked for a ride, and we roared off down a gravel road to buy Pepsi. She never mentioned that ride until last year at the Carter Fold when Governor Mark Warner was seated between us and a speaker grew long-winded. During a pause her mountain voice rang out: "Wisht you had that motorcycle and we could go for a ride."

"So in my mind the greatest Carter of all has gone for a motorcycle ride, holding on tight, the wind in her face, all promises kept."