About The Group
The Phipps Family of Knox County, Kentucky was well-known for music being rooted in the Carter Family tradition. Led by Arthur Leeroy Phipps (August 12, 1916-August 30,1995) and his wife the former Kathleen Helton (April 24, 1924-November 4,1992), and various members of their twelve children:
While virtually all of the children sang with the family on local radio at one time or another from 1950, the ones that sang on their recordings along with Arthur (known as A. L.) and Kathleen tended to be Trueleen Helen, Leemon, Bowlin. and perhaps a little toward the end of their career Louella and Donna.
A. L. was born in the rugged back country some miles from Barbourville, Kentucky, a few miles but eight years earlier than his future wife. Phipps became a very good guitar player and also a singer traveling around the immediate countryside and met young Kathleen Helton who also loved to sing and play. They married when Kathleen was thirteen (girls often married rather young in Appalachia) and she subsequently gave birth to thirteen children, one of which died in infancy. They both loved Carter Family music and Kathleen mastered the autoharp to give them more of a Carter sound.
A. L. and Kathleen began playing and singing together after their marriage and outside the home about 1943, often with Phipps' niece Hester Anderson. About 1950, the three secured a radio program and other churches began inviting them to sing for them. A. P. Carter even sang with them a few times. About 1955, they began singing over WYWY in Barbourville closer to their home. By the end of the decade Hester Anderson dropped out and Leemon Phipps began playing guitar and Trueleen (initially identified by her middle name Helen on the back of album covers) sang harmony and played either guitar or autoharp. Sometime in the 1950s, the Phipps Family recorded a single on the Acme label. Until 1966, the Phipps Family was essentially a part-time group as A.L.'s main source of income was the L. & N. Railroad; he also farmed part-time as well.
Late in 1959, the Phipps Family began recording for Starday. The initial releases seemed more oriented toward four-song extended play discs, but soon changed to the 12-inch long play type. The first Most Requested Songs of the Carter Family (SLP 139) came out in 1960. A second album in 1962 (SLP 195) contained no Carter songs, but other old time songs such as "Just Before the Battle, Mother." It also had a few of A. L. Phipps originals typified by "Wreck on the L & N," "The Death of Abraham Lincoln," and "The Yellow Tomb." A third Starday album in 1963 (SLP 248) returned to Carter Family songs. As their music became increasingly commercial, they began taping quarter-hour programs for broadcast on such stations as KXEL Waterloo, Iowa, XEG Monterey, Mexico, and until 1964 WCKY Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Family was also invited to major music festivals including the Newport Folk Festival and the University of Chicago Folk Festival. These two appearances led to a long play album on the prestigious if not high selling Folkways Records. Soon after A. L. started his own label Pine Mountain initiating the releases with the Greatest Old Time Gospel Hymns (PM 125) which was about half Phipps Family and the other half contained obscure recordings from the Carter's Acme catalog and Alton Delmore. After this, the family turned out more sacred albums, some of a thematic nature such as Christmas, Easter and a capella one (in which Louella replaced Trueleen as the second girl vocalist). Also they did an album that had Helen Carter as a guest with them. They sold their albums via mail order with a mailing list built up from listeners to their pre-taped programs on major stations.
This pattern continued for the Phipps Family until 1991-doing occasional concerts such as the one where I saw them at Berea College-and marketing their records. Their company changed its name to Mountain Eagle somewhere along the line. Then Kathleen was diagnosed with cancer and in the spring of 1992 slipped into a coma and died that November. In 1994, A. L. discussed with this writer his plans to reassemble some of the children and become active again.
However, the re-activation never really got off the ground. The following summer, he got into a fuss with an ex-convict named John Mills who rented a house he owned. According to trial testimony, the 77 year-old Phipps was stabbed 29 times with a pocket knife and struck on the head with a blunt instrument. Mills was convicted and in 2014 was in the State Penitentiary appealing his sentence. As time passed Trueleen Phipps (Morgan) became the major spokesperson for the family's history.
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