Carlene Carter: Keeping it in The Family

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“I had a fortune teller say that I wouldn’t do my life’s work ‘til I was 60,” Carlene Carter says, laughing to acclaimed alt-roots diva Elizabeth Cook during a Sirius/XM Outlaw Country live taping in Nashville. “And I thought, great! Now I’m 58, and I just made this record.”

The mahogany sweep of cascading hair makes the daughter of country icons June Carter Cash and Carl Smith look staggeringly like her mother. A third-generation royal in the Appalachian division of country music—with Johnny Cash for a stepdad, Nick Lowe for an ex-husband and Don Was for a producer on Carter Girl, the freewheeling singer/songwriter keeps some pretty fancy company. You could argue it’s in the blood for Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter. “Whenever I didn’t know what to do musically, I’d go back to the Carter Family for a year or two, or a tour,” she says. “That was one of the cushiest jobs ever: getting to tour with them, to spend time with Mom and my aunts.”

Though Carter burst onto the music scene via Britain’s punk insurrection with Musical Shapes, the frisky rockabilly romp produced by Dave Edmunds; wrote Emmylou Harris’ seminal “Easy From Now On” and enjoyed mainstream country success with “I Fell In Love” and “I Love You ‘Cause I Want To,” she never strayed far from her raising. ?“With songwriting, Mom and John both told me, ‘There are no rules! Write what you know. Always be yourself, always be unique,’” she says. “She’d say ‘If it moves you, you can go out there and own it.’ And that’s where this music comes from.”

For Carter, raised in large chunks on the road with her legendary family, it’s not just about “Gold Watch and Chain” or “Wildwood Flower,” but the way music permeates life’s fabric as transparently as oxygen. To hear Carter’s own “Me and The Wildwood Rose” is to understand how inherent music was.

“That was written from a child’s point-of-view, telling somebody how that was,” she explains. “Because you can’t imagine the fun…or the music…or the way we traveled. And I was the oldest, so I was the one who really wanted to be part of it.”

Beyond her storied career straddling punk’s emergence, the ascendence of post-country’s first real credibility scare and the rock fringe she hung out on writing and singing with members of the Doobie Brothers and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, she was in her soul always a Carter. So when she decided it was time to harvest her legacy, she was serious about the process.

Was, known for seminal career-culminating work with Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, encouraged her to get inside the songs as a player. Laughing, Carter admits, “I wood-shedded for a year to play Grandma’s simple stuff. It’s not that simple, and I don’t use picks the way she does. But I played them as authentically as I could, with the flat-picking.”

Those chops and raised confidence not only allow her to play full solo shows, but gave Was the opportunity to let the woman with the deep drawl drive the sessions. A tad reluctant to “lead” players like Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz, Rami Jaffe and Was, she recognized the wisdom in the decision.?

“It could’ve easily become a tribute record, where you’re singing the songs, and that’s that,” she remembers. “When Don said, ‘You need to play the songs to us—and we need to play to you,’ it made sense. And in playing for the guys, they all brought their things to it, too…Greg Leisz made ‘Me and the Wildwood Rose’ brand new by the echoing of ‘The Wildwood Flower’ in there. And Jim Keltner is such a lyrical drummer, so many twists and turns in how he shapes a song.”?

Certainly, these songs are lovingly architected, yet left raw enough that the humanity rises. With a duskiness coloring her livewire alto, there’s a stately desire to her take on AP Carter’s heartbreaking tale of knowing he’s losing his lover, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” and a slightly unhinged resolve to her rendition of June’s fixing-to-kill extramarital “Tall Lover Man.”?

“This is a celebration!” she continues with her contagious sparkle. “The perfection’s in the imperfections: Don made me fearless [with the guitar-playing], and I’m not Jack White recording the old, old way with just a guitar and an autoharp. That would’ve been blasphemous [for me] to just recreate those ‘20s and ‘30s recordings—I do it like I do it.”

Whether it’s on Carter’s rippling elegy for her family “Lonesome Valley 2003,” with the honey-voiced Vince Gill; the stately classic country admonishment to lavish on those we love “Give Me The Roses;” the spare gospel “Troublesome Waters” buoyed by Willie Nelson’s halting witness or the pluckily romantic “Black Jack David,” featuring Kris Kristofferson’s gravelly woo, these recordings are human and divine in their emotional nakedness. They also suggest the transformative potential of simplicity.?

“Choosing the songs was hard,” Carter says. “It took me a while to narrow them down, because I didn’t want to cover the obvious, and there was the three-generation factor. It was a real process, and in discovering ‘Blackie’s Gunman,’ which I sing with my dear friend Elizabeth Cook, and ‘Little Black Train,’ I realized I’d never heard anyone sing those.

“With Maybelle and Sara, they sounded so innocent and sweet, but they sang them in the male and they kept them that way…To me, ‘Little Black Train’ was more dangerous and foreboding than it was, but we made it feel a little playful. And I think now it was about the funeral train, but back then, I thought it was about the train that’s taking you to death: like ‘Here it comes.’”

She pauses, never one to be overly heavy, but showing how songs can rise, just like life, to meet you where you are. She also knows music can bring back the ones you truly love in ways most people can’t access—not just by embracing the Carter Family songbook, but also through the magic of technology.

Carter Girl closes with a jubilant “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” featuring the Carter Sisters and Johnny Cash. “We recorded in ’86 with Cowboy [the late Jack Clement]—and I had a cassette [of it],” Carter says. “Joe and I would drive around, listening to it in our old pick-up. They didn’t have a record deal even when I came back after spending a year in London doing that play [Pump Boys & Dinettes]. I remember telling them, ‘Hey, John’s been working with Cowboy—and he’s got this cool studio. We should go in there!’ And in four or five days, we cut, like, 44 songs.

“When it was time to make this record, well, it seemed like I should have them here with me. For what this is, what I wanted it to be. Every one of these songs, I relate to on a personal level. Every one of these songs is who I am, and genetics probably plays a role in it.”

Assessing the whole, Carter isn’t afraid to own who she is or why it matters. Not a throwback or progeny mining famous bloodlines to hang on, she recognizes the Carters always preserved the past by making it wildly alive in the present.

“Where do I fit?” she poses evenly. “Where I fit now is here, and it’s what I’ve been put here to do. Hopefully people will rediscover real country music. After all, it’s in my blood.”