Keeping On the Sunny Side: Carter Family Fold Survives In Spite of Tragedy

Written by Joe Tennis

Like the traditional tunes collected by her grandfather, Rita Forrester carries on, always trying to “Keep On the Sunny Side.” Even in the face of tragedy.

In December 2009, Forrester awoke to find her home in flames, barely escaping in her nightgown.

Forrester, granddaughter of musicians A.P. and Sara Carter, lost everything she had – including her husband Bob, who perished in the fire.

The tragedy still haunts Forrester, who, like her mother, marches through life in a manner that wavers between feisty and easygoing, depending on what the mood calls for.

The Family Fold

Blanard Collins, left, and Rita Forrester help run The Carter Fold in Scott County, Va. Photo by Joe Tennis

Forester has dedicated her life to preserving the music of The Carter Family, following a calling from her mother, the late Janette Carter, who in turn had followed the wishes of her father, the late A.P. Carter, the leader of The Carter Family.

Formed in 1926, The Carter Family was discovered by a talent scout at a makeshift recording studio in Bristol, Tenn., in the summer of 1927. The trio, including June Carter’s mother, Maybelle, soared into early country music history on the strength of songs like “Wildwood Flower” and “Wabash Cannonball.”

The original act lasted more than 15 years. Subsequent groupings include Janette Carter and her brother Joe, a carpenter who helped build The Carter Fold, a music barn in Scott County, Va., now dedicated to preserving old-time mountain music.

With only a few exceptions, the music of the Saturday night shows at The Carter Fold remains acoustic. Often fast-paced, the music is most popular when Carter Fold patrons can get out and dance.

“I’ve been active since the music shows began back in 1974,” Forrester said. “I have served on the board of directors since 1979, and I’ve been the secretary for the board since that time. I was named the center’s executive director in January of 2004, and I still serve in that capacity today.”

The executive director title aside, Forrester knows what it’s like to work.

“I’ve planted flowers, mowed, weed-eated, cleaned, cooked for multitudes,” she said. “I cook until very late Friday night – often into the early morning hours. Setting up the kitchen begins by 9 a.m. Saturdays, and I’m often at the Fold until midnight or later.”

Out of the Ashes

A likeness of Carter Fold founder Janette Carter, at right, can be seen on the wall inside the center. Photo by Joe Tennis.

The December fire ripped Forrester’s heart out.

“As you can imagine, the fire is quite painful for me to dwell on or discuss,” Forrester said. “We know that it began in the living room from an open flame and that the gas logs and ceiling fan operating at the time caused the flames to spread very quickly. Beyond that, I don’t know. It’s a chapter I’d very much like to close. The emotional scars from it will never completely heal.”

Almost immediately, a relief fund was set up to help Forrester and her two sons.

“The public’s outpouring of support and affection has been overwhelming and very uplifting,” Forrester said.

“We’ve received gifts and notes from many foreign countries and all over the United States. The majority of those who have given and done the most have been relative strangers.”

Family members and friends also helped watch over Forrester.

“It’s been a very humbling and life-changing experience,” Forrester said.

“The things that used to mean so much to me mean relatively nothing now. My priorities have been shifted. I’ve learned that we shouldn’t take one minute of life for granted and that without the Lord we really have nothing at all – something I’ve always known but the tragedy reinforced with crystal clarity.”

Moving on, Forrester works to make the Carter Fold a joyous place on Saturday nights and in early August, when it’s time for the Carter Family Memorial Festival.

This year, she welcomed living legend Ralph Stanley of nearby Dickenson County, Va., to the stage, who was joined by longtime Carter Family friend Ronnie Williams, and a family member, Lorrie Carter Bennett, a granddaughter of Maybelle Carter.

“[Stanley] and his brother, Carter, started out in much the same way The Carter Family did – they grew up in a poor family in the Appalachian Mountains,” Forrester said.

“For the Stanleys and the Carters to accomplish what they did in the music world is nothing short of phenomenal.”

Want to Go?

The Carter Fold is located along State Route 614 (A.P. Carter Highway) near Hiltons, Va., about four miles from U.S. Hwy. 58. Saturday night shows start at 7:30 p.m. Call (276) 386-6054. Visit


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