Whether you are a country music fan or not, you have to admit that Carlene Carter is a pistol with vocal cords. The daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, and the step-daughter of Johnny Cash, all three legends in country music, Carlene has always been the spunky gal with a love for sprinkling her country-based music with some rock & roll pepper. Although she grew up in a home surrounded by some of the genre’s most respected songwriters, you could find Carlene down in the basement cranking up some good ole Cream and Hendrix. She garnered some success with a few pop-flavored hits in the early nineties, married a respected British rock boy named Nick Lowe, had a lot of fun. But eventually the tug of your roots sits you down to take another look through an old album of your family’s ancestry. For Carlene, the album was musical.
The Carter Family was the original Americana singers. AP Carter traveled around Virginia and Tennessee gathering old family folk songs from ordinary people and then brought them to new life with his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle. Many, many classics would cement their place in the annals of country music history, even as the times changed. The Carter Family begat The Carter Sisters featuring Mother Maybelle and her daughters Anita, Helen and the lively June. June would eventually marry Johnny Cash and one of the most captivating love stories would endure until June’s death in May of 2003, followed a few months later by Johnny’s death in September.
Carlene’s latest record, appropriately titled Carter Girl, is not her virgin jump into the Carter Family catalog. “I was four years old the first time I performed on stage,” she writes in the booklet that accompanies the CD. She has actually been performing with her family for many years off and on, but this adventure was a whole new ballgame for the grandmother of seven. Grandmother? Yes, the gangly girl with the long blonde hair dancing around in such videos as “Every Little Thing” and “I Fell In Love,” may be a little bit older but her spirit has never aged. Talking with Carlene on a lazy Saturday afternoon – “I’m home and I’m so excited to be home. I haven’t been home for a while. I’ve been home for a few days but really today is the first day I feel like I’m kind of off so it’s great.” – her friendliness is the first thing you notice. Her contagious laugh is the second thing.
Making Carter Girl was a labor of love for Carlene. “I have a responsibility to carry on the Carter Family legacy and being a Carter girl,” she wrote in the booklet. But she was almost overwhelmed by the volume of songs that The Carter Family actually had in their well but she eventually whittled them down to ones that held special meanings to her. Produced by Don Was, the album features Willie Nelson (“Troublesome Waters”), Kris Kristofferson (“Black Jack David”), Elizabeth Cook, drummer Jim Keltner, Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee, Vince Gill, Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael, guitarist Blake Mills and a host of other talented musicians, including her husband Joe Breen.
This is a beautiful record that you have made. How did you know which songs to do? Was it by feel or special meaning?
Well, a lot of it was by feel. I started out making lists of just everything that I knew or had sang with them and then I made a list of everything I’d heard them sing and added that up together. Then I started going into the songs that I’d never heard and didn’t know about. So it took me quite a while to whittle it down. But I wanted to have a good balance of trying to cover the three generations, as far as having a song that Grandma [Maybelle Carter] wrote on there that actually had her name on it, cause a lot of the songs Grandma was responsible for the melodies, a lot of the AP Carter ones. They always split everything three ways, so sometimes Sara and Maybelle’s names didn’t end up on there. So I went by songs that touched me, that I could identify with. I figured if I could identify with it, people that are my age and younger can identify with it.
Then the other thing was I could have done a whole album of nothing but gospel because there are so many faith-bound songs amongst them. So I had to kind of balance that out a little bit. I found some songs that I’d never heard them do and really couldn’t remember ever hearing them even talk about doing them. One was “Little Black Train.” Other people in my family had heard that but I just never had. Then “Blackie’s Gunman” was a gem that I found that I just loved because it’s got Sara and Maybelle singing it like they’re gunslingers (laughs). I love that cause their little voices are so cute and they’re so young and everything so I got my little pal Elizabeth Cook to sing that one with me.
Then I tried to do one that was identified as Aunt Nita’s. She didn’t write it but it was one of the songs that she was very well known for singing, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight.” Then of course I tried to do one of Junie’s songs that was one of my favorites, “Tall Lover Man.” I tried to cover it all. I actually had one that Aunt Sara had written called “Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room.” We recorded it and when I went to start doing harmony overdubs, I was in the studio and I said, “Well, let’s work on ‘Elbow Room’ and he said the file had been deleted accidentally (laughs). So I lost that track, that’s the lost one, so that’s why there wasn’t one that said Sara Carter on it. But there’s my two songs. They were very much about being a Carter girl and about my family and stuff. So I was trying to add to the catalog (laughs).
The song selection is great. It’s got a good balance to it.
Oh thank you. I have to thank Don for that as well. He didn’t go research. He said, “You pick the songs that you want to do. You make some lists and then we’ll go over them.” He liked all the ones I picked so that made it easy.” (laughs)
You waited a while to do this album because Don wasn’t available then. Why wait so long for him and not use someone else instead?
I waited for him because I thought he was the right guy for the project. I didn’t ask anybody else to produce me. I asked for him and when he said yes, he said it was going to take him a while to be able to get to it. So I waited. It wasn’t like the whole world was sitting there going, “Where’s Carlene Carter’s next record?” (laughs). Plus I wanted to wait a good amount of time to where it felt like a celebration in the music more than the grieving factor of it. So I was able to smile and be happy through the whole making of it and I felt that way through all the touring behind it, and the touring I’m going to continue to do probably for the next year. Then I’ll make another one (laughs).
I was going to ask you if you were going to do another one because there are so many great songs still out there.
I think it will probably be a trilogy, more than likely, and of course I will still keep adding new songs to it of mine. Then eventually I will get around to making just a full-blown Carlene Carter record. This is still a Carlene Carter record, it’s just that I’m really wanting to share this music with people and it’s bringing it to another audience, hopefully, and keeping it alive. That’s what I was kind of told to do. I feel really fortunate that Rounder Records wanted to release it and I’ve got a great manager who has been in from the very beginning of the idea for the whole thing. I’ve got my little team and we’re just doing our thing (laughs).
Even for those who are not familiar with The Carter Family, people who enjoy Americana and Roots music will love this record, not only because of the songs themselves but you put a little modern feel onto them.
Yeah, if you like Roots music, I think this is a record for you. I mean, it’s definitely got roots (laughs). On August 2nd, we did the opening of the Birthplace Of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tennessee. The Carter Family recorded their first recordings there for the RCA Victrola Company eighty-seven years ago. Then I did Mountain Stage on August 3rd and I got a plaque proclaiming in Bristol, Tennessee, that it’s Carlene Carter Day for ever and ever (laughs). That blew me away. I couldn’t even believe it.
All these songs have stories behind them, they have family history behind them. It’s like genealogy through music.
Yeah, I agree. And it’s been a wonderful learning experience for me to challenge myself to continue on playing my grandmother’s style of guitar playing. I tried to fire myself from the record a bunch of times and Don wouldn’t hear of it (laughs). So I have to thank him for that because it made me work really hard and become a better musician because of it. Every day I sit down with my guitar and try and learn something new that Grandma played. People think, “Oh it’s an easy little thing to play the melody and the rhythm at the same time” but to do it exactly like her, it’s not that easy (laughs).
But it kind of crosses all genres, I think. The content of the music is definitely universal and I think it should cross all boundaries. I never had like segregation of music and I usually straddle most genres. I never considered myself country-rock. I was a rocking country girl and I think it still comes across. There are so many beautiful songs that AP brought to the world by going around and knocking on people’s doors and saying, “Hey, you know any songs that your grandma taught you?” Back in the 1920’s he was doing that and that’s how we ended up with such a huge wealth of music. Plus he just was so prolific and I know Grandma had told me that he would come home and he’d have all these pages of things he’d written out and she’d make up little melodies to them and that’s how they turned these songs into their songs.
When did you realize your family was a little bit different than the family down the street?
Oh my God, I’ll tell you one pivotal moment for me was my mother used to come to my school when, I think I was in third or fourth grade, and she said, “Tell your teacher I want to come and play for the class.” I was like, okay (laughs). And here comes my mother with her full-on petticoat dresses and her banjo and doing all her comedy stuff for my class and I just remember cringing and going, “Oh God.” (laughs) It was things like that that were different and I would stay up late and listen to her on the Opry and also be around when she’d be writing commercials to make fifty dollars extra that week. She’d write like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercials or Martha White Self-Rising Flour stuff.
I had pretty much listened to rock music all my life. The only country music I ever really listened to was The Carter Family and that’s mainly because it’s in my house; and of course Johnny Cash didn’t even really count cause he was so broad. It was Cash music. So I really didn’t have like this great wealth of knowledge about country music per se. I just knew all these country people that I grew up with. Like Minnie Pearl was my babysitter a lot (laughs). So I didn’t really know and when I got my guitar, my electric guitar John gave me when I turned ten and it was from Sears and I think it was a Silvertone and it had a little amp and stuff, and I was like in the basement of the house jamming on “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Hey Joe.” If you could play it really, really fast it meant you were really rocking (laughs)
Who were your favorite bands growing up?
Oh, I loved the Byrds and I loved Van Morrison and I loved Ray Charles. I loved all different kinds of stuff and I remember being about six years old and my mom coming home and she had this new album that she’d just gotten from CBS, I think it was, and she said, “This young man is going to change the course of music forever.” And can you imagine saying this to a like six year old (laughs). So I’m like all “ooh” like it’s the holy grail of something coming in here. And it was Bob Dylan. She was great about bringing home things that she would pick up or hear about. Of course we listened to the radio and I’d say, “I want that.” The Beatles, obviously; everybody loved The Beatles.
But I was a big Monkees fan and I got to be like twelve years old, I was crazy about the Monkees; eleven or twelve, something like that. They came to our house after John and Mom got married and they were doing the TV show [The Johnny Cash Show] and the Monkees were on it and they came and spent the whole day at our house fishing off the boat dock (laughs). So I was taught in a very healthy way that there are no rules to writing a song. You can just make up anything you want to and that was a great gift they gave me, and when I say they, I include John in there too. In crafting a song you just tell your story, whatever that story is. Hopefully, it’s a little catchy and come up with some sort of little riff to make it be identifiable.
When I did start writing songs, I didn’t really know how to go about it but I did have that bit of information. I look at my mom’s songwriting and one of the songs in particular that just kills me is “Tall Lover Man” because in that, every single verse is different than the other ones, so you never know if it’s going to be this many syllables or an extra line. There’s a line in it that says, “If lovin’ me was a sport then your life shall be short, she said to him.” Just saying that is hard, it’s a tongue-twister, but it’s the syllable factor of it. So once I started writing songs at about seventeen years old, eighteen years old, I took a piece of music, cause I was studying Classical music, took a Tchaikovsky movement and made up some lyrics to this movement and just used the chord progression and made up a little melody. That’s how I started. I didn’t know how to really start and then I figured it out (laughs). Then it was like very addictive. I wish I was a little bit more diligent about writing as I was back then. I wrote a whole bunch of crap (laughs) but it’s okay cause I then wrote some other songs. I wrote “Easy From Now On” and “It Takes One To Know Me.” Some of those came around the time I was about nineteen.
How do you think your songwriting has changed?
It has been a little bit sad but I’ve also written a lot of happy stuff too because I’m very happy in my life. It’s taken me a while but I just couldn’t be happier in my life. So emotionally, I use songwriting to be cathartic, to process stuff, and it just happens that people know who I’m talking about (laughs).
You sing with Willie Nelson on “Troublesome Waters.” Why did you think he was the best person to sing that with you?
You know, I went into this with a list of people I wanted to participate on the record, that I’d like to share songs with or to at least have them sing harmony stuff on, and the first four guys that I had on my list all said yes. So I never really got any further down my list (laughs). Of course Willie and Kris were my two top ones that I wanted to ask. Maybe I have to say that number one I wanted my husband to sing on some stuff and my husband sang on two songs. But Willie and Kris both said yes and I picked “Troublesome Waters” because it just sounded like a Willie song to me and I thought the timbre in his voice would really get across the emotion of that song. That song is really precious to me because it says it’s written by my grandmother and Ezra, my granddaddy, and he hardly ever had writing credits.
But then on top of that, Dixie Hall, who was an English girl who came over and lived with my grandparents for a large part of my childhood and she and Tom T. Hall have been married for forty-eight years or something like that. She is not well right now, she’s eighty years old, and I got to go spend the day with her the other day. But I was really excited that she got to hear the song. I said to her when I was with her, “So how did you guys write that?” and she said, “That really was your grandma’s. I have a few lines in there but that was your grandma’s song.” So it was neat to me to actually have one that was written outside of the original Carter Family, in another generation, probably written in the early sixties. I haven’t looked it up or anything but it meant a lot to Dixie to have a song on there because we’ve been her family since she came over from England. She’s been an honorary Carter girl for most of her life.
So anyway, when we were in the studio cutting the track, I said to Don, “What do you think about Willie singing on this one?” and he said, “That’s perfect. I can hear him.” So that’s how we did it but I will tell you a funny little story. I went to Austin to record with him and we’d already cut the track and I wanted to go down and sing it with him so that he wasn’t having to sing harmony to my chorus. So I go down to Austin and I’m there for like three or four days and it’s fine because I have two grandchildren there and my daughter lives there so I was kind of getting to be Grandma and stuff while I’m waiting to hear from Willie to know when he wants to record. And I get this frantic phone call from my manager going, “Willie’s in Nashville and he wants to cut the song today.” (laughs). I’m like, “I’m in Austin and I can’t get there that quick.” And he’s like, “No, he’s ready to do it right now.” So I got a hold of the engineer and sent the track to him in Nashville and within an hour after he got it, he was done. So it was crazy (laughs).
Then I saw him at Farm Aid shortly after that last year and I was standing in his bus and his manager says to me, “What does it feel like to be hugging Willie’s neck right now?” And I burst into tears because there are so few people still living that were close friends with my mother and my dad and my step-dad and my step-mom. He knew all of them. It just killed me so I have a big emotional connection to Willie.
“Poor Old Heartsick Me” is one of Helen’s songs and I know that everybody talks about Mother Maybelle and talks about Anita but tell us something about Helen.
Helen was the absolute glue of the Carter sisters in the sense that she was the oldest sister, she knew every single word to every single Carter Family song, she played great guitar, she could play anything. She could play accordion, piano; she was just so incredibly talented and she was always the one that would sing the parts nobody wanted to sing, the really boring harmonies that are like one note (laughs). It’s the glue. She could cover anybody, if their voice wasn’t doing good, she could jump up on Anita’s part, do whatever she had to do, and she always had a smile on her face on stage. No matter what, Aunt Helen was smiling cause that’s what she lived for, what she lived to play.
She was a huge influence on me as a songwriter because once I started writing she called me in the mornings and she’d say, “Come over here. Get the kids off to school and come over here and we’ll make up a song.” So I spent days and days with my Aunt Helen just learning how to craft a song and she was great at it. This is a classic Helen Carter song because it’s got this bounce and this melodic movement to it that she was so good at. I think she had a number one hit with that with Margie Bowes back in, I’m guessing, the fifties or sixties. And then I think that Exene and John Doe did it with the Knitters, I’m pretty sure. I remember her being so excited about that. She had no idea what the band X was or who these people were but they were young people cutting her song and she was excited. I’m going to find even more Helen songs cause I’m sure she’s got hundreds and hundreds in her catalog. I was a little overwhelmed by the five hundred of the original Carter Family that I had to go through (laughs).
But I learned so much that I didn’t know and some of my information came directly from Grandma, Mama, Helen and Anita. Anything my mother told me, I had to realize was probably exaggerated greatly and made into a much better more interesting story that usually centered around her (laughs). They loved to tell all us kids stories. I know Rosanne credits Aunt Helen for teaching her a lot about the guitar cause Rosanne was learning to play the guitar around the time that she moved to Tennessee after graduating high school and was on the road with John, and her and Rosey and I would go out and we just basically got thrown on stage (laughs). We each got to do a song and I think my song was “Silver Threads & Golden Needles” cause I was a huge Linda Ronstadt fan. I think Rosanne did “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” I think that was one of hers. But I’ve seen her say on television that Helen Carter taught her how to play the guitar. She was always so generous with all of us kids.
You also have one of your songs on Carter Girl.
“Me & The Wildwood Rose” and it belonged on there because it meant more now than even when I wrote it, cause I was thinking about the fact that it had been ten years since my grandmother died when I wrote that. Now when I sing it, it has more meaning to me because I’m thinking of all of them. Of Grandma and Helen, Anita and Mama, and of my sister Rosey, who is the Wildwood Rose, or was. Still is. She passed away too. So it has a much deeper meaning and it belonged on the record. I toyed with the idea of not having it on this since I had recorded it before but it just meant more now. Being the age I am now and where I am in my life and emotionally it’s got a deeper meaning to me.
You have a beautiful guitar on the cover of this CD. I know there’s a story behind it.
Yeah, there is a story (laughs). After Mama passed away, my brother gave me a guitar one day and he said, “This is from Mama but it belonged to Grandma.” I got the guitar out and it said, I think 1935, Gibson L3. She was known for playing the L5 but this is an L3 but John had bought her this in the sixties. He wanted to have it engraved with Mother Maybelle on it but he was too impatient to give it to her so he went to the hardware store and bought these little metal things with letters on them. He got two M’s and he put them on each side of the bridge for Mother Maybelle (laughs).
I know you loved your grandmother very much and you hold her in very high esteem. You’re a grandmother now. What do you hope your grandchildren will remember most about you?
(laughs) You know, I used to have this vision that I was so scared my grandchildren would think of me as Cruella De Vil with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth (laughs). Some of them call me La La and I said, “Why do you call me La La?” And they said, “Because you sing.” Anyway, the grandkids, there’s seven of them, and I really want to teach them things that my grandmother taught me. I already got the fishing thing down with them (laughs). I’m teaching one of my granddaughters particularly, who is crazy about everything to do with Mother Maybelle, and she’s playing “Wildwood Flower” on the guitar and her and her four siblings came to the Grand Ole Opry. Then my granddaughter Luna, who is the oldest of all of them, she wants to play everything. So we’ll see what happens (laughs) But it’s so cute, me and Elizabeth Cook were talking about creating this sitcom where I play her mother and I’m a washed-up old country singer, and she’s a country singer and she’s got a kid and she doesn’t want her kid to play the guitar but I’m secretly teaching her constantly (laughs). It’s not like that really.
Are you going to be touring for the rest of the year?
Yes ma’am, we’re touring away. We’re going to tour-tour-tour and it looks like next year, hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re going to be on a really great tour with somebody. I can’t say until it’s confirmed but I think it’s going to be awesome because we’ll get to go out and play in front of a lot of people. I’m enjoying playing the smaller clubs and stuff and telling my stories. My husband travels with me and sings with me. I’ve got a great guitar player and we go out as a trio. I play the autoharp and piano. And the people like the stories too. One person said to me, which was the greatest compliment and it means that I’m doing my job right, she said, “I didn’t know anything about the Carter Family until tonight and now I’m completely interested.”
These songs are timeless. That’s the coolest thing about them, that they truly are timeless and you can totally make them sound like they were just written. One of the greatest challenges for me was to make these songs my own. Because I would say ninety percent of everything I’ve ever recorded I’ve written. I never was known for cutting other outside songs so I stopped looking at it like that and I woke up one day and I had five hundred songs in my pocket and I had to feel like I wish I had written all of them. So that was one of the challenges and now it’s super easy for me. I feel like they belong in my bag of tricks (laughs)
And we can find out all about your touring and stuff on your website, correct?
Yeah, follow me on Twitter. It’s pitiful how many people don’t follow me (laughs). It’s @carlooneycarter
NOTE: Since our interview with Carlene, it has been officially announced that she will be the special guest opening for John Mellencamp on his 2015 tour. “I think he’s one of America’s finest songwriters ever,” Carlene told me. “He’s a national treasure to me and certainly a part of all of our youth. And he’s not even that much older than me, just a couple years (laughs). I really like him.”