She’s a Carter — first, last, and always. Performing with Grandmother Maybelle, aunts Helen and Anita and mother June, she helped keep a beloved tradition alive that began in 1927 when patriarch A.P. Carter recruited wife Sarah and sister-in-law Maybelle for a sound that would influence folk, rock, country, and bluegrass for generations.
But being a member of that revered musical family hasn’t stopped Carlene Carter from pursuing her own raucous and often controversial approach to her musical career. She began her career with a blend of new wave and country using Graham Parker’s band the Rumor for her eponymous ’78 debut. ’79’s Two Sides To Every Woman enlisted the Doobie Brothers for a harder rock sound, the title cut sounding like a Fleetwood Mac offering.
She married Nick Lowe that same year and moved to England. Lowe produced and played bass on Carter’s critically acclaimed 1980’s Musical Shapes backed by Rockpile, Lowe and Dave Edmunds’ great rockabilly band. Carter’s sound back then would work just as easily in today’s marketplace, but even though critics gave it high marks, it didn’t do well commercially.
Carter finally hit her stride in ’91 with the old school country style I Fell In Love. The title track earning her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. 93’s Little Love Letters produced a number 3 Billboard hit, “Every Little Thing.” ’95’s Little Acts of Treason was Carter’s last effort for awhile when personal problems nearly ended her career. She had gotten back on track by early 2000, but over the space of few months in ’03 she lost her longtime companion Howie Epstein, mother June Carter Cash, stepfather Johnny Cash and her little sister Rosey. She bounced back with ’08’s Stronger, and has been touring and performing ever since.
Her latest, Carter Girl, an album of Carter Family songs and two originals, is a return to her roots, a reaffirmation of who she is and what her family stands for. “I learned a lot, because I had never really researched anything, because I always figured I was getting it from the horse’s mouth,” she said recently by phone from her home in Solvang, California, in the Santa Ynez valley, about two and a half hours from L.A., where she spent nearly 20 years of her life. “If you like to sit in your car all the time trying to get somewhere, its not so bad,” she says of her former Hollywood residency. She sounds relaxed and happy, her native Tennessee twang still firmly in place as she talks about the good spot she’s in, both geographically and career-wise as well: “I can get wherever I gotta go, but at the same time I get to kinda live in the country.”
She has a rattly, smoker’s laugh that seems to bubble up from deep down, splattering all over her narrative of her musical gypsy lifestyle. As well as her immediate family, she credits stepfather Johnny Cash, who she says was “a walking encyclopedia discography of music,” as the source of a great part of her musical upbringing, sitting for hours on the bus with her, sister Rosie and stepsister Rosanne, singing songs that even her mother June had forgotten about.
But for this project, and with the size of the Carter family catalog, gathering material was a daunting task, even for a family member who was around the performers all her life. Her bible for the project was 2000’s In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain, a 12-CD package with a 220 page book that covered the Carter Family’s work on Victor, ARC, Decca, APS, Columbia and Bluebird Records. “I could just go through it and just pick out the lyrics that I liked,” Carter says. “Then I would listen to the song the way they had done it originally, the original Carter family, and then to try to add myself in there, in my kind of style, while still trying to stay true to the origin of the song and the intent that they had.”
If you’re looking for a rehash of the Carter Family’s greatest hits, you wont find that here. “I didn’t want to get all of the usual songs that people identify with and know about,” Carter says. “I wanted to have a few surprises in there.” She picked the songs she liked the stories on, starting out with 50 out of 400 that she had looked at before narrowing it down to the 12 on the record. She says she never heard of “Blackie’s Gunman” before she stumbled across it in her research. It’s an unusual choice for the Carter family, a tale of a wild west gunslinger: “I was known as Blackie’s gunman/The best two gunman in the land/I could shoot the ace of diamonds/With a draw from either hand.”
But her reasons for the song selection weren’t based solely on the stories. “I wanted to at least pay attention to the fact that mama (June Carter Cash) was a great writer as was Helen, and Anita wrote a lot of songs.” She honors her aunt Helen with “Poor Ole Heartsick Me,” because she likes the feisty tone and wants to acknowledge Helen’s influence on her as a writer early on. “She had the patience to just sit there and encourage me so much. She’d call me up early in the morning and say ‘Come on over here and let’s write a song.’ And I’d be like ‘Well, I gotta get the kids off to school,’ and she’d say, ‘As soon as you drop them off, come on.”
Even though the songs on Carter Girl are in the spirit of the originals, they’re by no means carbon copies. They’ve been Carlened, punched up with a twangy bounce. Carter worked hard for over a year to master her Grandmother’s guitar style dubbed the Carter scratch. She calls her version the Carlene rhythm, a little more forceful but with the twang intact.
The record is in all ways a family affair from the material to the participants, infused with an array of guest stars who Carter says she considers family. Kris Kristofferson stands in for the gypsy protagonist of “Blackjack David” who makes off with another man’s bride. “Every young girl from my era, I’m not a young girl anymore, but there’s a kinda thing amongst us girls like we all want a guy that looks like Kris Kristofferson to ride in on a horse and take us away,” the 58-year-old Carter says. “So he was the perfect character to play Blackjack David, I thought. I said look at it like a casting call,” she laughs.
That casting call snared Willie Nelson, who Carter says was close to everyone in her family from Grandmother Maybelle to her mom, dad stepdad and aunts. Vince Gill, another close friend of the family was called on, as was Elizabeth Cook, who Carter calls an honorary Carter girl and “my dearest darling girlfriend” and Kristofferson as well as Don Was producing and playing bass. Legendary rock powerhouse drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon Dylan, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson) provides the thump with Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters, Wallflowers) on keys, with Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow, Joe Cocker, Dave Alvin, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, the Ventures) playing steel guitar, acoustic, and electric guitars and Sam Bush on mandolin. Carter began the process in 2011, but had to wait for Was. “I waited for when he was available, which is hard sometimes, she says. “But I think in the end it all came out exactly like it was supposed to. It’s like having a philosophy in life like we want what we want when we want it, but sometimes its better to just let everything flow as its supposed to in the world we live in, particularly. Its been a real exercise in patience for me.”
To finally be able to do a record like this this that honors the legacy of the music of the Carter family has been a life long ambition, but Carter never felt it was her place to do while they were still alive, then wanting a certain amount of time to go by after their passing. Her main objective is to let people in on what was really happening in the Carter family. “You can know about it by books and stuff but to hear it cold from my eyes as a child and what it was like watching my grandmother be as graceful as she was and so unassuming and totally had no idea that she had such an impact on so many guitar players,” Carter says. “She would get kind of tickled about it if somebody would say, ‘Hey, you really influenced my guitar playing.’ She knew she had influenced Chet Atkins. And she was just like, she was just so normal and at the same time so extraordinary.”
But what seemed normal to Carter would have been turmoil for most kids in her situation, spending as much time with her grandmother and aunt as with her parents. “Me and Rosie and (cousin)Lorrie Carter Bennett grew up getting shuffled between Grandma and Helen and Anita and Mama, because Mama would go out on the road with John, and for us to have it still to be with family, we’d go stay with Grandma, and then we’d go stay with aunt ‘Nita and then we’d go stay with Aunt Helen. Takes a village to raise kids, particularly when you’re a bunch of gypsies, which basically we are.”