Knox County holds many firsts especially in the area of accomplishments of numerous local women. This second article in our series for 2016 will focus on the matriarch of the internationally known Phipps Family Singers, Kathleen Norris Helton. Kathleen was the daughter of Maynard and Ella Matlock Helton, born April 22, 1924, on Brittain Fork of Big Indian Creek in Knox County. She attended Emanuel School where she began playing the guitar and entertaining at school programs each Friday evening as well as playing and singing western songs at music parties.
Kathleen had heard about Arthur Leeroy Phipps who not only was a fellow student at Emanuel but was said to be a “professional” lead guitar player with a guitar style like that of Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family. Kathleen met Arthur at a funeral at Stone Coal Branch and invited him home to meet her parents and to do some “pickin and singin.” That visit was the beginning of a lifetime of music making and the origin of the Phipps Family gospel singers.
Kathleen and Arthur were the most popular of all the singers in the area and were well on their way to success, polishing their Carter Family style of music. While they were playing music and perfecting their sound, they fell in love and were married that same year in 1937. Kathleen was 14 years old and had just finished 8th grade.
Kathleen began her married life during the depths of the Great Depression when she and Arthur moved into their first house on Stone Coal Branch at Emanuel. Settling down to raise a family, which would eventually consist of twelve children, she managed to keep house and play her music. All the while she was writing songs, she was working to perfect her unique and personal music style as well as mastering the accordion, the dulcimer, the guitar and the autoharp. Before long, her talented children were taking part in the family music making. Helen Truleen Phipps, her oldest daughter, made the most recordings with her parents than any of the other children, but six other children: Leemon, Louella, Bill, Bolin, Donna and Melinda also contributed to several of the albums.
In November, 1959, the big break finally came for the Phipps family. They recorded their first single hit record for ACME Recording Company based in Manchester Kentucky. Kathleen wrote the hit song, The Little Poplar Log House which held the number one position on the Country and Gospel Music Charts for four months. Starday Recording Company, a major recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee, quickly signed the Phippses to a recording contract.
The Phipps Family began touring the United States performing at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, 1965; The University of Chicago’s Folk Festival, 1973; the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival in Washington DC, 1976, 1984; The World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982, as well as numerous other venues throughout the United States.
Kathleen fell ill with cancer in 1990 but was able to perform her last recording session with Arthur in 1991. Almost a year to the day after her final duet, Kathleen died on November 4, 1992, at age 68. Working against great odds all her life, this amazing woman rose to achieve monumental success becoming one of the greatest folk/gospel singer/musician/song writers of her era.
For a more complete listing of the Phipps Family recordings as well as performances see: Knox Countian 1993 Summer Edition, Vol. 5 NO. 2, Amazon.com, YouTube and Wikipedia. The Knox Historical Museum currently has an exhibit on the Phipps Family as well as several of their albums. If you have any memorabilia on the Phipps Family Singers that you would like to donate to the Knox Historical Museum, please call 606-546-7581.
Information contained in this article came from an interview done by Charles Reed Mitchell with A.L. Phipps for an article published in the Knox Countian, 1993 Summer Edition, Vol. 5 NO. 2. Additional information came from an interview DSOF did with Kathleen’s daughter, Truleen Phipps Barton Morgan, March 2016.