Phipps, Arthur Leroy

The Phipps Family of Knox County, Kentucky has carried on the Carter Family tradition of Old-Time trio singing. Although the Phipps clan never quite equaled the Carters in fame or influence, they certainly exemplified a fine brand of mountain vocal styling on a wide variety of hymns and ballads. Both Arthur Phipps and Kathleen Helton hailed from rural Knox County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountain country and they learned to love and sing the old hymns and ballads of their native region. In fact, their singing attracted them to one another and after a courtship of a few months, they married on September 6, 1937. They raised a large family, all of whom displayed some musical skills and five of whom helped the Phipps Family on record at one time or another. A.L. and Kathleen began singing together for local entertainment and in church about 1943. In the earlier years, A.L.’s niece Hester Anderson sang the third part in trio numbers although as the years went by, various Phipps children sang in the group, especially the oldest surviving daughter Trueleen Helen who appeared on most of their records. The family began to work on radio regularly at WCTT Corbin, Kentucky, in 1950. Later, they also had programs at WYWY Barbourville. For a time, they appeared with some regularity on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round at WNOX Knoxville. At times, the family also guested at more distant stations such as WWVA, but since they never moved from their Eastern Kentucky homeland, most of their broad media exposure came through recordings and taped radio programs. A.L. recalls that they first sang secular songs on radio in more of a Western style, but got so many requests for Carter Family songs that they increasingly adopted the Carter manner. A.P. Carter lived over the mountains in Hiltons, Virginia, where he ran a country store and since he liked the way A.L. Phipps played lead guitar, he did several live shows in the area with the Carter Family (including a couple that subsequently appeared on album). The Phipps family cut some of their first recordings in the mid-50’s on the same local Acme label that the A.P. Carter Family made their last waxings on in 1956. In 1960, the Phipps Family made the first of three albums for Starday. The first and last Starday effort consisted of Carter Family songs while the second contained some less common Old-Time numbers, including a few Phipps originals such as The Yellow Tomb, a topical number about the 1957 Floyd County school bus wreck that inspired several songs. In 1962, the Phipps Family began taping quarter-hour radio programs for broadcast on various stations including WCKY Cincinnati, KXEL Waterloo, Iowa, and XEG Monterrey, Mexico, on which they sold their records via mail order. They continued this format for a decade and reached a wide audience with their brand of Old-Time music. A.L. recalls that their version of Little Poplar Log House had really gone over well at WCKY, which encouraged them to initiate these broadcasts. Meanwhile, they did an album for Folkways in 1964, following an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. A little later, A.L. started his own Pine Mountain Records. He also issued Phipps’ recordings on Mountain Eagle. The family made contact with urban Folk audiences through people like Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger, ultimately taking their music to thirty-two states. While their records were never big sellers in a commercial sense, the Phipps Family found a worldwide audience for their music. In addition to A.L., Kathleen, and Helen, sons Leeman and Bowlin along with daughters Louella and Donna appeared on several of their many albums. Besides numerous recordings of Carter songs and Old-Time ballads, the Family has cut thematic albums of Christmas and Easter season numbers, another of a cappella mountain hymns and one with Helen Carter. In 1991, doctors diagnosed Kathleen Phipps as having cancer and she subsequently spent seven months in a coma before her death.

Since then, the Phipps Family has not recorded or worked showdates, but A.L. Phipps looks forward to getting together with some of the children and making more recordings and delighting audiences with their quality music.

~Ivan M. Tribe

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