Carlene Carter’s lineage in music runs deep. She is part of the first family of music, the prestigious Carter Family.
As the daughter of country music greats June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, music was the only career that suited Carlene.
“I could have done anything I wanted to in life, but music and writing songs fed my soul,” Carter said from her California home. “I studied piano since I was six. I got my GED when I was supposed to be a junior in high school because I got married very young [Carter first married at age 15] and pregnant in college. It was so strange, no one paid me no mind even though I said hi to everyone. Then when I enrolled, the counselor asked me what I wanted my degree in, and of course, the only answer I knew was music. So I studied music and Mama [June Carter Cash] didn’t care if I studied music or any other subject. She just wanted me to be educated. Since I took music she encouraged me to maybe be a music teacher, do something with music that would put bread in the cupboard.
“At the time I was going to college, married, pregnant and writing songs, and I would get a babysitter – that was a big highlight for me, to get a sitter – and I would go out to any club that would let me get on stage,” she continued. “I’d play for a hamburger if I had to, and I would sing. Well, my music took off and I started writing songs for other musicians like Larry Gatlin and others. That started taking shape and I didn’t graduate college. I was just two credits shy too, and I kind of regret that; I wish I would have finished.”
Born Rebecca Carlene Smith, she has done all right despite the lack of a diploma. Carlene’s songwriting led to her proper foray into the music industry with her self-titled debut album in 1978. Mixing country, rock ‘n’ roll and pop, Carter was ahead of her time and never really fit into a typical mold of Nashville country.
“I was always an overachiever, and I was always in a hurry. I guess I pushed the envelope,” Carter said with a laugh. “I never fit into that Nashville thing, so I could have went to L.A., but instead I went to England and played with Dave Edmunds and fell in love with Nick Lowe [of the band Rockpile]. It was so nice over there. No one put a label on you. Capitol Radio, the major radio station over there at the time, would play my songs and right after it they would play the Clash. We’d go to shows and see all the Stiff Records bands and hanging in the record studio with them…Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello…it was such a learning experience for me. I loved it over there.”
Carter and Lowe were married from 1979 to 1990, and after their divorce Carter came back home to live in the States. Being part of one of America’s most celebrated music families wasn’t easy for young Carlene. During a concert at New York’s Bottom Line in 1979, she introduced the song “Swap-Meat Rag” from her album ‘Two Sides to Every Woman.’ The song was about swingers, and as Carter told the crowd, “If this song don’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will.” Unbeknownst to Carlene, her mom and stepfather were in the audience.
Carter also found trouble in 2001 when she and then boyfriend Howie Epstein (bassist in Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) were pulled over in New Mexico in a stolen car which contained drugs (she was sentenced to 18 months’ probation after pleading no contest). Epstein would die two years later of a drug overdose. Carter also lost her mother, stepfather and sister Rosie in that same year.
“I won’t call them regrets; they are lessons learned in life the hard way. I did make a lot of mistakes, which I didn’t want have to do, but it’s taken me where I am today. Those mistakes made me who I am now. I’m not that person anymore; I haven’t touched drugs in over 10 years now.
“I won’t make excuses… all that stuff that happened, that was on me; no one made me do it. Life was really hard back then. I was home maybe 20 days a year for four years straight. It wasn’t like it is now with internet and cell phones. I had nothing but my dogs on the bus; it was lonely. But like I said, I own up to everything, I made those mistakes and it was all on me.”
Carter has grown up a lot in the last 20-plus years, not only personally but musically. For the first time in her career, Carter is paying personal homage to her Carter Family roots with the release of her new album ‘Carter Girl.’ The album, which is out now on Rounder Records, was engineered by legendary producer Don Was and mixed by Bob Clearmountain.
“There’s a lot of key people in the making of this album. I brought in my old manager who I’ve worked with since 1978 because I needed to have someone stand by me, people like Randy Hoffman and Bob Merlis. Then I was sitting down with Don Was having lunch and told him my idea, and he was all in and I was stunned. I made a wish list of people I wanted to work with, like Don and the others, and all a sudden it kind of fell together. Once we were working on the music, I knew the label I wanted, and that was Rounder. They got me. They understood, as I do, these songs are timeless, and they needed to put them out there.”
‘Carter Girl’ covers three generations of Carter Family music and finds Carter sharing writing credit with A.P. Carter on “Lonesome Valley 2003,” an updated version of the Carter Family patriarch’s “Lonesome Valley” that reflects the loss of Carlene’s mother, sister and stepfather all within nine months of each other.
“This whole record was very moving to me. Just getting in there and doing this was hard for many reasons, but then covering songs my grandma and Mamma sang, it was very emotional. But looking back, this isn’t a record I could have made 10 years ago or at the beginning of my career, because even though I did sing these songs when I was younger, I just didn’t have the appreciation for them like I do now. I finally got it. So now it’s time for these songs to be out there.”
Keeping with the Carter Family theme, ‘Carter Girl’ features vocal contributions from generations past, including Carlene’s aunts Helen and Anita Carter, as well as her mother and Johnny Cash on the chorus of “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” The participation of Lorrie Carter Bennett, daughter of Anita Carter, as well as Joe Breen, Carlene’s husband, underscores the continuing Carter Family connective tissue that the album celebrates.
“I had to really woodshed these songs and make them my own. I sang most of these songs with my mama, aunt and grandma. I wanted those songs people knew on the record, but I also wanted songs that I thought were cool that maybe people didn’t know like ‘Blackie’s Gunman.’
“In the end, I think everyone will be happy with the song selection. It was a good feeling, but emotional to get this done, particularly after mixing and playing it back. I was thanking the Lord I got to do those songs back then and do it again today.”
In addition to the appearance of family, the new release, Carter’s first in nearly 10 years, showcases the late “Cowboy” Jack Clement’s guitar on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”; Willie Nelson guests on “Troublesome Waters”; Kris Kristofferson joins Carlene on “Black Jack David”; and Vince Gill is heard harmonizing on “Lonesome Valley 2003.” “Blackie’s Gunman” is a duet with Elizabeth Cook, whom Carter calls her “adopted sister.” Cook is heard on six of the album’s 12 tracks.
“I had a huge list of people I was going to ask to record with me, but didn’t know who would want to do it. I mean, I’ve been out of music for a long time; I wondered if people even still knew I was alive,” Carter joked. “But those three, Willie, Kris and Vince, were at the top of my list, and once they said yes, I didn’t need to look any further down the list. All three of these people are closely connected to my family in one way or another, for several years even. Hell, I mean, Willie and Kris are like uncles to me.”
Once all was lined up, the recording of the album was done live, 14 songs in three days, although one song was accidentally erased. The songs revisit both classic Carter Family repertoire as well as original songs that relate to Carlene’s connection with her musical and familial roots. Carter is well aware that she is doing her part to honor those who came before her in her own way.
“I didn’t want to do a duets album where I have guest singers come in and just do the standard. People would think I was riding on the Carter coattails if I did that. That’s why I wanted to this as an homage to my family’s roots in music.”
‘Carter Girl’ would surely do her family proud. Carter had a long hard road to get to this point in her life, and frankly, it would have been easy not to do this album and just coast off her name. But Carter, like she has done throughout her life, took a chance.
“This is who I am,” she said proudly. “I had a blast, I got to live life and learn from it. I love being 58 and being a grandma of seven. I am so grateful to be able to do what I do. If I am not feeding my soul with music, I am not living up to my potential.”