Carlene Carter Continues Her Vibrant Family Legacy (INTERVIEW)

If you have yet to see Carlene Carter perform, you are not doing yourself any favors. The woman knows how to put on a show. If you’re thinking, well, she’s too country or she’s too old-fashioned, then think again. Carter kicks up her heels, cusses, dances, tells jokes and stories and sings like there is no tomorrow. Her roots may run deep in country music – Maybelle Carter, June Carter, Carl Smith, Johnny Cash and Rosanne Cash are all hanging on her family tree – but this woman was a rock chick from the get-go. George Jones and Waylon Jennings may have been hanging out at her house but Carter was downstairs listening to rock & roll.

As she grew into a songstress, she developed a style that was catchy, rhythmic and fun. In England, she performed on bills that included the Clash, wrote a hit song with Dave Edmunds, “Baby Ride Easy,” and had Nick Lowe produce a few of her albums, and ended up marrying him in 1979. They called her Cowpunk. Her 1990 album, I Fell In Love, was a big hit, produced by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein. The album generated the Top 10 country singles, “Come On Back” and the title track, as well as the still-fan-favorite, “Me & The Wildwood Rose.” The follow-up, 1993’s Little Love Letters, saw her hitting the country charts again with “Every Little Thing.”

After that success, some people thought that was the end of Carlene Carter’s career when the hits didn’t continue. But what she did was start to regenerate into the artist she is today. With the 2014 release of Carter Girl, her homage to the songs of the Carter Family, Carlene reawakened the fans to what she can do as a singer, guitar player and performer. Produced by Don Was and featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Elizabeth Cook and Vince Gill, the record was a lovely comeback to her roots while adding that sassy spunk she has always had in her. She may be the grandma of eight grandkids but she still knows how to spice up her music with winks and hip shakes, and her recent show at the Red Dragon Listening Room, February 07th, in Baton Rouge, was the proof in the pudding.

Performing with only her guitar player Chris Casello, Carter brought downhome to an audience very excited to see her. They sang loudly with her on her mother’s composition, “Ring Of Fire,” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken;” they stood in unison for not one but four standing ovations; and after a keyboard malfunction caused her to sing “Lonesome Valley” a cappella, someone yelled out “Brilliant!”

Then there were the stories. You couldn’t ask for a better storyteller than Carlene Carter. “I crack my own self up sometimes,” she said while doing “My Dixie Darling.” Her stories of her family, her marriages and flying Johnny Cash buggers, had the crowd in stitches. Remarking on her marriage as a teenager to introduce the song “Break My Little Heart In Two,” “When you get married three months shy of sixteen, either you’re dumb or pregnant and I was both.” Her advice from Mama June on not having sex before marriage caused her to “Get married so many times.” And her first rule of the road is to “Always wear underwear.”

Considering herself “one lucky little sperm” to end up in the Carter family, Carlene’s set was rocking here and country-ing there. Most of the night on a beautiful acoustic guitar, she pulled out the autoharp for “Foggy Mountain Top” and “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe,” a fun song June wrote for Carlene’s daughter when she headed to Hollywood to warn her to stay away from “Quentin Taranteerner” who “Makes his women wild and mean.” Casello handled the Dave Edmunds part on “Baby Ride Easy” and dueted instrumentally on “Damascus Road,” a song from her most recent album with John Mellencamp, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.

Opening for Carter was Steve Judice, Martin Flanagan and Barry Hebert, a trio calling themselves the Three Amigos. Each taking a turn on lead vocals and guitar on their own compositions, the songs radiated with a strong pulse of lyrics and melody. Both Hebert and Judice performed new songs, and all three have solo records available, which I highly recommend adding to your collections]

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies came out of Carter’s touring with Mellencamp, opening his shows and then joining him onstage for a song or two. “I think he’s one of America’s finest songwriters ever,” she told me during a 2014 interview with Glide. “He’s a national treasure to me and certainly a part of all of our youth.” Carter wrote the aforementioned “Damascus Road” as a gospel tune when Mellencamp suggested they make a record of that ilk. The album itself shows how Mellencamp’s voice has progressed with him as he has aged, a perfect canvas for the lyrics that he wrote; add in Carter’s vocals and it’s like honey poured over his raggedness, a perfect blending of souls, harmonies and inner turmoil.

I spoke with Carter a few days before her concert in Baton Rouge to discuss her being a rock chick in a country artist family, working with Mellencamp and inevitably being the chosen one to keep her family’s music alive for a new generation.

I heard you moved back to Nashville since the last time we talked a few years ago. What brought you back to the country?

Well, there are a lot of reasons but the biggest reason was just to be closer to the music thing here, to get back into co-writing with some people; but predominately it had to do with the fact that both of my kids live here and I have seven grandkids just with those two. They are all growing and it’s crazy how fast time has gone by. I’ve spent the majority of their really early times being in California, although I was spending so much time coming here when my schedule permitted it. Then I just decided it was time to come on home and I am really happy I did. And I have another grandchild that was born in July – my husband’s daughter’s son – and he is in New York City, so I’ve been going to New York more than usual to see him. So that makes eight grandkids and they thrill me to death.

So it’s going to be good. We found a new house, which is almost a mile away from where my Grandma lived and where she passed away, and where I lived with my daddy and mama till I was twelve – well, not Daddy all the time, but Mama and Daddy’s house. So talk about full-circle but it feels really good to be back and I’m getting a lot more done creatively, it seems like. It’s really easy in California to just kind of not be as participating in the music community or actually making as much headway writing-wise cause it’s like this vortex of you’re on a constant vacation (laughs). I’ve got to be a little more uncomfortable here (laughs).

How do you find Nashville now compared to the old days?

Oh wow, it’s an entirely different beast (laughs). But you know, one thing about it that has never changed is you can go out and see music all the time here, anytime you want to see some music, whether you’ve ever heard of them or not, you can go out and see live music, which always is a big inspiration for me, playing live or seeing people play live. I find that to be the most inspiring thing. So that part of Nashville has not changed. If it has, it’s just changed for the better and there’s even more of it.

As far as what people consider country now, I have no idea. I have been trying to listen to country radio, because I used to be on country radio, so I thought I ought to tap into what is going on if I want to write for other people. I can’t say it’s the most inspiring of stuff. I mean, I have certain people I really like – I really like Miranda Lambert and I love the Pistol Annies, they’re great; not to mention the fact that Ashley Monroe is my cousin. But Emmylou Harris is still here so that is a plus.

But I listen to this stuff and a lot of it is very 1980’s pop, 1990’s pop. I heard something on the radio and I have no idea who it was and I thought I was on the wrong channel (laughs). I feel like such a fuddy-duddy cause I love all music but I think the whole genre thing, which I’ve never been big on – I think genres are bullshit; music is music – but people do pay attention to the genre and what they are calling country, I really don’t consider country; not saying I don’t like the music, it’s I just don’t call it country. I like the idea of we all write songs, we make a record, we go out and play it live; it’s all in the attitude of it. If they want to put a label on it, it’s fine. I’m not country-rock, I am rock and country (laughs). But I’m not going to say anything bad about it, I just don’t really know where our real country is at. It’s still there, I’m thinking, somewhere. What do you think?

It’s different for sure. It’s not the country I grew up on as a kid. But maybe what we think of as country music is now more what they call Americana.

I agree with that cause I think I’m definitely Americana and I remember when Americana first started getting thrown around and I was asked what did I think about Americana and I was like, I think it’s where all us old farts end up going (laughs). I don’t think it’s that anymore at all but at the time, that’s what I thought cause it seemed like a lot of us who were songwriters were ending up in the Americana bracket. I’m realistic and I know the chances of me having a big country hit on country radio are pretty slim unless somebody else is singing it, because it still always is about the bright, new, shiny young stuff. No matter how great it is or how good I think I am or how happening I still am, the chances are that it’s not going to happen. So I am so grateful for Americana because it does give us an arena to identify ourselves as and to still be valid and current in a way and not being put out to pasture as has-beens. Plus there is so much new music that does honor all of the grit and the grime and the country roots all in one thing.

Did you ever feel, back in the day, that the record companies wanted you to be a country girl and not a rock chick?

When I started out, they thought I was too rock, that my songs were not as country as they wanted me to be. Of course they wanted to manufacture me, they wanted to create me or put me in a little cookie cutter box and turn me into one of many. When I first came out, Crystal Gayle had just become pretty big; in fact, we were playing a lot of the same clubs. When my first album came out and she was out, we were kind of following each other around on tours playing these little clubs and I just wasn’t quite as precious or as put together. I was just a little bit more raw. Honestly, as honed as I was having grown up the way I did and performing with the Carter Family and that stuff, I had never really been on the road with a rock band. I hung out with plenty of them (laughs) but I had never done that. So the label was trying to pitch me as a crossover act. They would service my records to the rock stations and to the country stations. So therefore, in a way, country got mad at me and rock was like, she’s too country. I was constantly straddling that fence, which is not a comfortable position to be in.

So what did you do?

Well, I will say this for Warner Brothers Records: they gave me four albums as far as me trying to find myself and where I fit. When I had finally finished making my fifth album, which was kind of like an electronic music, synthesizery 1980’s thing, C’est C Bon on Epic, I knew that I needed to take a break and do something entirely different, which I went off and did this play, Pump Boys & Dinettes, for a year in the West End. Then I joined back with the Carter Family for two years. I knew I needed to go back to my roots and I needed to come back and have a certain thing where I said, okay, this is what I am and not be saying, I don’t know what I am. I needed to be a little bit more in charge of how people were going to perceive me, how I felt I was. But going back to my Carter Family roots has always worked for me really well in situations where I didn’t know what to do next. It always grounds me and lets me know what really matters is the song. It doesn’t matter what I wear or how I act, any of that. It’s all down to the songs, which is the way it should be, I think.

So when I came back in the late eighties and went to Warner Brothers with my little cassette tape with “I Fell In Love” and “Me & The Wildwood Rose” and a few other songs on it, Bob Merlis [WB Publicist] said, “Why don’t you walk down the hall and play it to Lenny Waronker [WB President at the time].” So I did, I actually got up and I went down the hallway and fortunately he was in his office and when I came through the door and he saw me, he was like, “Wow, Carlene, I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?” I said, “Well, Bob said I should come down here and play you this tape.” And he went, “Okay, I’ll spot it cause I’m on my way to a meeting;” obviously meaning an out in case it really sucked (laughs).

Anyway, he listened to the whole thing instead of just going from one track and listening to a bit of it and then going to another. And he said, “I think this is country and I want to introduce you to Jim Ed Norman in Nashville and go back to Nashville and I’m going to set up a meeting with you guys.” So when Jim Ed asked me a few choice questions like, “Are you going to cuss onstage?” “No, I’m not.” “Are you going to say things like you said at the Bottom Line?” “No, I’m not.” “How do you see yourself?” “Well, I’m country now.”

Honestly, I didn’t really change that much. I just told them I was country. I brought my little sense of style to it and my energy to it, because my ambition had always been to be the rockingest chick in country music and the highest energy act is what I set out to do in the 1990’s, which I think I accomplished. That was a really good time for me. It also was a time when after about six years of touring my ass off, and I mean literally always on the road opening for some big hat act or something, I got myself into trouble with drugs and ended up kind of just disappearing for a while. I got my life back together and came back and did Stronger in 2008. But it took me about ten years to really get myself back where I knew I wanted to be. It’s like the older I get, and doing Carter Girl also, just really got me back to my country roots. I think I’m full-blown country/Americana now but I still rock like hell (laughs). Nothing has changed.

What was it like working with John Mellencamp on Sad Clowns & Hillbillies?

We got along very well. I’ve known him for a number of years and I think it all has to do with the first meeting with him. Like when you first say hello and you’re about to do something together musically, it’s really hinging on whether he continues to talk to you (laughs). I always want to work with people that I learn something from and I certainly learned some things from John, which I’m grateful for. He also got me back to playing by myself, which I had not done since I started in the seventies as a young songwriter. I had not gone out and just played an entire show by myself and it challenged me to become a better musician, to be able to hold the audience’s attention without any help from anybody else. So it was really empowering and I’m grateful to him largely for that and for putting me back out on the road as a touring musician. I had been away from it for a long time and basically I’ve had to start all over again. If I did not have such a drive and love playing live, I could probably stay home and write songs for other folks to let them go out there and tear their bodies up. But I’m going to pick and choose what I want to do and have it matter instead of just being this workhorse that works to keep everyone else’s families going. I’m just trying to keep my family going.

“Damascus Road” is your song but how did “Indigo Sunset” become yours and John’s song?

Well, he said to write some songs and he’ll write some songs and then we’ll get together and see which ones work. It was pretty much indicated to me that I might have as many as four songs on the album but would probably only have two. So I wrote like five or six songs that I felt were songs that could be duets, or not necessarily duets in the classic sense, but that we could do together. “Damascus Road” was the last song that I wrote for it. We had started out thinking it might be kind of a gospel record but John went off and he wrote and he didn’t write any. I wrote some gospel songs and he didn’t (laughs).

But John really liked “Damascus Road” and he really liked the ballads that I wrote. With “Indigo Sunset,” he got a co-write on that, largely to do with the fact that he changed the title and the hook line: “I see the sun setting on you,” and he changed like a chord in it. But basically that was a song that I had written that I didn’t think he was going to like because he doesn’t usually like romantic, warm and fuzzy loving songs, you know what I mean. He likes stuff with grit and real life matters. So I did co-write with him but not in the sense that we sat down and wrote a song together. He just kind of said, “I think you should change this and do that;” and that’s sometimes what makes a song really the best that it can be.

I heard about a record you were doing with your family. What can you tell us about that?

Well, you know, my brother [John Carter Cash] and I, we got together and we collaborated with all of our cousins and have put together a Carter Family album that he has produced that was originally supposed to come out in April, although it’s gotten pushed now. I can’t even tell you anything because things are daily changing. But we have this brilliant record that has five generations of Carters on it, including my grandkids. It’s got a lot of people that are not in this world are on it – Maybelle and Sara, Mama, Helen and Anita – then the third generation is on there, then the fourth generation, which are my kids and John Carter’s kids. Dale Jett is on it, AP and Sara’s grandson, and Sara’s great-great-granddaughter is singing a song with her and Dale. So it has some neat stuff on it and it will take a full-on magnifying glass for the liner notes so you can understand who is on there and which generation they are from and how they’re related, cause there’s thirty of us.

Do you feel like you are the chosen one to keep all those old Carter Family songs living and breathing into a new generation?

I can’t say I’m the chosen one. I feel an obligation and I feel an honor at the same time to have been told to carry it on no matter what. It’s just, basically, I’m the most active touring musician, other than my brother who pretty much produces most of the time; my cousin Lorrie Bennett goes out and works and Dale does from time to time. But I’m the one that is out there the most and I’m the one that talks a lot and does press and things. It’s not that they wouldn’t, it’s just that I’ve ended up being a little bit more present and my mouth is bigger so it might seem that way (laughs). I can’t say I’m the chosen one at all by any means. It takes all of us to make things happen.

Have you ever looked deeper into your Carter roots – where they came from or how they ended up in Virginia?

I don’t know hardly anything, other than all my life I was told that my great-grandma was Cherokee and that all of us had Cherokee in us. I did to find out that I have absolutely zero Native American (laughs). I’m Switzerland and Scandinavia and France and the British Isles, and even have some Spanish blood. So I’m guessing it’s the Black Irish in there or something that we think it was Indian. I mean, my mom swore, and she was prone to exaggeration, so if she said she was full-blooded, I’m going to say she was a quarter (laughs).

Now as far as my daddy’s side of the family, he never told me much about anything. I don’t know that he knew but all he ever told me was that we were a bunch of inbreds (laughs). You know, I started doing this [genealogy] for a while but I just didn’t know enough about the other generation before my grandparents to even get close. I think John Carter has delved into it more than I have but he’s the one that called me up and said to take this DNA test because, “Did you know we had Spanish blood? I’m sure it’s not on Daddy’s side,” – which would be Johnny’s side – “but I just want to see if it comes up on yours or what the deal is.” Joe, my husband, is always teasing me and saying that I’m probably Elvis Presley’s child and my mom lied about the whole thing (laughs).

How much of an influence was your father, Carl Smith?

Well, Daddy did not talk about what he did with me very much, and definitely not as a kid. To him, at that point, when I was old enough to care or ask questions, he had already decided that he was on his way out. He wanted to just stay home and be a cowboy. I remember my little brother Dean at school was asked what does your dad do, what is your dad’s job, and Dean was just a little boy, and he said, “He works at the airport.” (laughs) Cause they were always going to the airport. Daddy did not bring the music back home with him and Goldie [his wife who was also a country singer] didn’t either. Of course, they sang around the house but not in a serious way, just kind of humming and whistling or every now and then just sing at each other. Goldie wanted to be Carl Smith’s wife more than anything in the world. She told me that the moment she met him, “I’m going to marry that man,” and she was really happy doing that and she retired the day they got married. She didn’t do the Opry anymore or go on tour. They started making babies and Daddy didn’t really talk too much about it until I was an adult.

I think the thing about him that I really learned the most was, do it for real, be yourself, which I got from Mom too. But my dad, he always looked at it like it was an act, that he was doing his act. I’m not saying he wasn’t being authentic but it was his work with his act, as a performer, as an entertainer. With me, I just do me, I don’t go and do some act and act a certain way onstage and I’m not the same offstage. I think Daddy had that too but he tended to try and keep it separate so he called it an act.

Later in life I asked him, “Didn’t you miss it at all? How could you do it for so many years and apparently loved doing it?” And he said, “You know, when you did it for as long as I did, and it was the way that we did it back then, it was a lot of pressure and a lot of miles and a lot of hard work. We didn’t jump on jets and go play. It was miles and miles.” He said, “Country music afforded me the life that I always was meant to live and always dreamed of living.” And I thought that was very telling in his attitude towards it. As soon as he stopped having a lot of hit records, my daddy quit. He wasn’t interested in being one of those artists that didn’t retire at the top of his game. He was going to retire at the top of his game, which is what he did. I think that was very admirable. He was smart with his money, he bought land and that land is what fed him and Goldie for the rest of their lives.

But he told me a lot of funny stories and I witnessed some funny stuff, but mostly I never really saw Daddy perform but a couple of times. He didn’t want his kids having that lifestyle; well, it wasn’t that he didn’t want them to sing or play music, and he didn’t have a chance with trying to convince me not to do that, didn’t have a prayer (laughs), but him and Mama were cut from the same kind of cloth but Mama just had a whole lot more ambition to get there. And I think it was because she never got there until later in life. She got there and she was successful and stuff but as an artist in what she had dreamed of for herself, she didn’t achieve a lot of the things she’d dreamed of when she was in her twenties until she was much older, largely due to the fact that she married John and turned that into her life, being John’s wife and helpmate, as she called it.

There is a picture of your dad with Hank Williams on your Facebook page

I’ve got one hanging in my house right now that is autographed by Hank and Daddy. Daddy told my husband, and he told me this too, that he stopped doing it because he saw his friend Hank die and he said he was headed in exactly the same way. “I couldn’t go out on the road and not just drink and party all the time and I would have drank myself to death. I just found it really hard not to be out there boozing it up every night because that’s what we did and that’s how we passed time and I didn’t want that life. I wanted to live and I didn’t want to die that way.” He saw too many of his friends die that way.

It takes guts to quit like that

My dad had balls, I’ll tell you that. He had a lot of grit and he said the most challenging thing in his life was becoming a horse trainer and competing as a cutting horse guy and being a cowboy. He said it was never the same on any given day and it was the most challenging stuff that he ever attempted. Every time he got on a horse and went in there to cut a cow out of a herd, that to do it in perfection was a challenge every single time. And he was driven by that. He loved it. It was a lot of hard work and not exactly lucrative.

Who were some of the other people you listened to back then?

I did not ever listen to country music except my family. I went to England and got to know Dave Edmunds and he turned me on to George Jones. I already knew George Jones, I just never listened to his music or thought anything about it. I was a normal teenager who liked rock music. I loved Janis Joplin and I loved Eric Clapton, loved Tracy Nelson and she was a big influence on me. I loved R&B music, all the Motown stuff. Anything you could dance to I was really into. I loved the Monkees, I loved Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s music. I listened to Rolling Stones and Beatles and Yardbirds, just the normal kind of stuff, mostly rock music. The first country album I ever bought was the Flying Burrito Brothers and I bought it because I liked the guys on the album cover (laughs). I had no idea what it was. I loved Van Morrison. Ray Charles was really big for me. I thought he just had it all.

So what are some things you’ve been doing since you came back to Nashville?

I did a little residency at the Blue Bird where I had three nights over a month period where I had all women writers and I would have two guests and it would be an in-the-round and it was called Carlene Carter’s Wonderful World Of Women Who Write. I had like a Wonder Woman cartoon of myself flying through the air and it was a really cute poster and that’s how I kind of made my entrance back. Plus I almost always try to play the Opry on my birthday.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing an acoustic live album, much like the one that Kris Kristofferson did in London Town Hall, I think it was. I want to do it with my stories. So I may do that just because people would love to have one of those to take home after a show, I’m sure. I’m writing with John Oates in a couple of weeks, which should be fun, and I’m going on this Cayamo Cruise and working with The War & Treaty in a gospel show we are doing on the Sunday Morning Gospel Brunch on the pool deck. I’m also doing something with Paul Thorn, who is one of my favorite songwriters and performers. I’m going to sit in with Emmylou a little bit and hopefully do “Easy From Now On” with her. We’ve never done it together so that would be cool. And that’s all I have to report (laughs).

A few years ago I went to the Johnny Cash Museum there in Nashville and it is one of the best music museums

I went in there recently myself for the first time in a while. I took Joe’s eldest daughter and then we went to the Country Music Hall Of Fame, which for the first time I spent three hours in, which I’d never done that, and it was really eye-opening to me because there is a certain amount of distancing that happens when I’m in that kind of situation where I can see the stuff that belonged to my family and stuff that belonged to us growing up, that was in our house, and it’s surreal to me. But I really looked at it differently; maybe it’s just my age now but the impact that all of their music had on where we are today and the longevity of it, that it’s still vital and important. But they have done such a good job at the museum and at the Hall Of Fame too and it made me really proud to be related to all of them and to be related to Nashville, to be a hometown girl.

Who is Carlene Carter today as an artist?

Oh gosh, honey, that is a big question. I don’t even know. I think I’m a hometown girl and still got that sparkle in my heart for music. I just want to try new things every chance I get and be inspired daily. I have a love affair with creativity that’s been going on since I was a little kid and I want to keep that alive. That is my main thing. I’m very grounded, very much a grandma but am still that rowdy ass, funny hearted sense of humor person that I’ve always been. Even in the face of all the things I’ve been through, I’m just super grateful.

Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough

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