Growing up in a house as the daughter of country music legends June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, music came natural for Carlene Carter.
“One of my first memories of performing was when I was four, maybe five years old,” Carter remembered. “I was in the back of the car singing a song and we were on the way to the Opry because Mama, Aunt Helena, and Grandma had a show to do. When we got there, Mama had me come on stage to sing the song I was singing in the back of the car but I was too shy, I still am very shy, and I just stood there. But Mama kept picking at me to sing for the crowd because she thought it was cute and was proud of me. I ended up singing a song making up something and people started laughing and I knew then that I liked making people laugh because I never thought of myself as a singer. I guess it makes sense because Mama started the same way with the Carter family, she was the cut up.”
Little Carlene’s comedy routine turned to a love for music shortly thereafter when June Carter taught her daughter a few notes on the piano. She would spend the majority of her waking hours playing on the piano trying to learn what she could.
“I would get up every morning excited because I got to play the piano. I would drag out my 45s and put them on my battery operated record player and try to learn all the songs. The first song I ever learned was a boogie woogie number Mama taught me and after that I was able to learn other songs on my own.”
After playing the hell out of her Mama’s piano, Carlene gravitated toward a stringed instrument- more specifically the guitar. But she had to start out small because she was only six years old.
“Mama bought me a ukulele, believe it or not, and I wore that dude out playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’” Carter reminisced with a laugh. “After that, I started playing around on Mama’s acoustic’s she had around the house. Then, when I was 11, I got my first electric guitar. Big John [Johnny Cash] asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted an electric guitar because those were cool. I guess most girls would have wanted dolls or dresses, but I wanted an electric guitar. So John went out and bought me a Sears Silvertone. All I remember it was blue and pretty. I wanted to look rockin’ and cool. Then later, when I was 21. John asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted a 1955 Fender Telecaster. He got me one but I don’t know what happened to it…”
“I totally went by feel and what I was taught by family. Mama, Grandma. and Aunt Helen spent the most time with me. I learned my first bar chord, which was a B minor. Carl Perkins taught me that and the heavens opened. John was really patient with me. He knew more songs than anyone I ever met. He knew the words and chords to any song I wanted to learn. He was a studier of music and had a gift. One thing I also remember that he taught me: if you don’t have a pick use a matchbook. He would use a matchbook all the time while playing live.”
As Carlene became a more established musician and her love for the guitar grew deeper, she made the decision in 1975 to have a custom guitar made to suit her style. She looked no further than J.W. Gallagher and son Don, who owned the Gallagher Guitar Company in Wartrace, TN.
“I went to Old Man Gallagher, that’s what we called him, and I hand-picked the wood I wanted and gave him all the specs. I wanted it something like the little Martin 0-18 I was playing and he ended up building this beautiful custom guitar that was better than anything I had played before.”
The Gallagher itself has had an interesting life. Carlene recorded with it and played it live, but then fate would take a different turn for the musician and her prized guitar.
“Over the years that guitar went missing. Howie [Howie Epstein, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers bassist and Carlene’s former boyfriend] just died and his brothers took out all the guitars in his house and sold them. I eventually found the Gallagher on EBay and it said in the listing ‘played by Carlene Carter’ and had pictures and everything. So I had to buy my own guitar back. I did it anonymously. I just did it that way because I wanted to stay away from any drama. But I still have that guitar so it all worked out.”
In the late 70’s, Carlene met music icon Nick Lowe, fell in love, got married, and moved to London. Suddenly, she was surrounded by rock & roll, the emerging British punk scene, and pop icons who would come and go from Lowe’s studio. It was an eye-opening experience for the girl from Nashville.
“I never wanted to be put into a certain category. There wasn’t a segregation of music back then in London. I actually opened for the Clash a couple times and it was so odd. The Clash, Bow Wow Wow, and Carlene Carter. I would look around and think, ‘what am I doing here?’ But that’s how it was. It was amazing. I was around Rockpile (Nick Lowe’s band) and Dave Edmunds, who taught me a lot about guitar and made me fall in love with the Gibson 200.”
Like the Gallagher, many of Carlene’s guitars tell a story. One of the most unique of these tales is the rare Danny Ferrington acoustic Explorer. Carlene was trying to expand her musical repertoire beyond her country roots and tap into the rock music which surrounded her.
“What happened was, when I was married to Nick, he and I came up with an idea of having an acoustic guitar that looked rock & roll. After thinking about it for a while, we came up with the Explorer. We called Danny Ferrington and he made one for Nick in 1979 or 1980 for our one-year wedding anniversary. It was a beautiful sunburst color and had dollar signs on the freeboard with his name on the headstock.
“I was afraid people would copy it so I wanted to get an original one from Danny for myself. I told Nick I wanted mine to be candy apple red. This was about a year later, Danny got mine finished and it was gorgeous. On the headstock he put ‘Mrs. Lowe’ on it, which I had to switch out to ‘Carlene’ after we got divorced. I still have that guitar after all these years. To be honest though, I don’t play it that much because it doesn’t have that big acoustic sound that I like in my guitars. But I love taking photos with the Explorer because it is still so pretty and unique; there are only two original ones out there that I know of.”
Carlene doesn’t have as many guitars in her collection as she once did- about 10 electrics and 10 acoustics- because not only did she learn music from her family, she also learned that gifts of music were just as important.
“In our family we’d always get or give guitars as gifts. It’s something I’ve always remembered and try to carry on. I had a 12-string Rickenbacker like John Lennon, but I gave that to John McFee, producer of my album ‘Stronger’ because I couldn’t pay as much as I should. I also gave Don Was (producer of Carlene’s latest album ‘Carter Girl’) a beautiful 1970 blue Fender bass that belonged to my Daddy Carl [Smith], the only bass I ever owned, because we did the album on our own with no label support…so it was payment.”
Still, there are some guitars that mean just too much to Carlene to give up.
“I have one of Mamas guitars. It is a Gibson 160 Hummingbird that Mama had tucked away in her closet. I found it back in the 90s and it was a gift to her but she was mad at the person who gave it to her so she never played it. I told her I was going to borrow it because Mama would never give you anything, you had to earn things on your own, so I ‘borrowed’ it and never gave it back. The guitar is pristine. I also have a 1930 acoustic that John gave to Mother Maybelle. It’s funny because John being John wanted to make it personal but this was before his ‘Cash’ days of popularity, so he went down to the local hardware store and got two letter M’s, you know the shiny gold kind, and put them on the guitar. If you look close you can see that on the cover of my new album,”