Getting Carlene Carter talking about any part of her signature style is the equivalent of bringing up her family. That vivacious grit she summons when she’s really feeling what she’s singing? “Of course, mom was the queen of the growl,” Carter offers. “I kind of picked that up by osmosis.”
It’s no wonder her kinfolk constantly come up. She was born into a country music dynasty — the child of June Carter and Carl Smith, with Johnny Cash and Goldie Hill for stepparents, Helen and Anita Carter for aunts and country’s first guitar hero, Maybelle Carter, for a grandmother.
Carlene Carter had her taste of country-rock stardom in the early ‘90s. These days, she’s as content as can be teaching her own grandkids the knotty, lead-and-rhythm picking style her grandma once taught her, the Carter scratch. And she’s celebrated the unbroken family circle with her marvelous new album, Carter Girl.
CMT Edge: Throughout your career, no matter where you were living, who you were making albums with or what you were drawing on stylistically, you always acknowledged your lineage. How has that role of remembrance changed since the older generations have passed on?
Carter: Well, it’s an emotional factor involved in it because every time I sing these songs, I miss their voices. That was one of the things that was so neat about being able to put that [archival recording of them singing] “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” on there because it was the last time I had recorded with the Carter Family, you know, with Helen and Anita and mom, at Cowboy Jack’s studio. We had cut, in a five-day period, I think, 44 songs.
So I said, “Is this possible? How can we do this?” I knew it was possible technically, but I really wanted it to sound like they were there — which they were. And we just built the track around them. Everybody played along to our original voices singing and Cowboy’s acoustic guitar.
I feel really proud to do this right now. Ten years ago — or even eight years ago, six years ago, however long — I wasn’t quite emotionally ready to do this, the celebration. It would’ve been more mournful for me or more grieving.
Your song “Lonesome Valley 2003” got me thinking about all the songs written from outside perspectives after your mother and stepfather died, like Shelby Lynne’s “When Johnny Met June” and Julie Miller’s “June.” What’s it like to share those very public losses from such a personal vantage point?
It was a bit like from the eyes of a child because when you lose your parents or you lose your sister or anything like that, you go back to those feelings of being a kid. The little girl in me was very heartbroken — and the woman in me was very heartbroken over those losses.
This song was in me before I actually put it down. … All I kept coming back to was “Lonesome Valley” because that’s how I felt. It’s a very private matter, grief. Basically, the simplicity of the lyrics was, I guess, my inner child talking and trying to not have it be too morbid.
I didn’t want this album to be all about, “Oh, they’re all gone. Wah, wah, wah.” Because that’s just a natural part of life, that you are gonna lose your parents and you are gonna lose your aunts. Usually they go before you do. Every human can relate to that. And I think that’s why that song will touch people because they can put themselves in the perspective of losing parents, losing loved ones.
But also the fact that they all feel attached to John and June by their music. There’s a certain thing that fans have or people that knew them. So I think that everyone’s gonna be moved by that song in some way or another, hopefully. Because if I ain’t makin’ ‘em laugh, I want ‘em to have some tissues to cry.
You were in your teens when the Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At what point did you really grasp the public and historic importance of the people you knew intimately?
Particularly in the case of my grandmother Maybelle, there was one certain show where I really got it. … We went on the road with the Carter Family for a few shows where they were opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The first night, they introduced us, and grandma came out after the Carter Family were all in place. … Five to six thousand kids were there to see the Dirt Band. It was right after the Will the Circle Be Unbroken record had been done so well and introduced her to an audience that had not really appreciated her. Well, she got a standing ovation. And I was like, “That’s my grandma!”
That show had an impact on me where I suddenly thought, “Wow, she really has influenced them.” You don’t think of it when it’s your grandma. And you don’t really think of it that much when it’s your mom or John because you know them so well as a kid. It would always be very exciting to me, the reaction that they would get from people when they would perform and stuff.
I got to learn a lot of what I do from them. It wasn’t like they sat me down and made me do something. I was hungry for it. My mom was the one that planted a seed in my head: “Honey, why don’t you try to write a song?” I think I was like 16 years old. … Well, I didn’t know how to write a song, and she didn’t give me any clues. But she said, “You can write anything you want to.” … And I thought, “Oh, that’s how you do it.” (laughs)
So the first song I wrote, I didn’t know how to go about, um, the music factor of it yet. So I took a movement from a Tchaikovsky piece and took the chord progression and then wrote some lyrics. … Once I got the bug, it was all over. All I wanted to do was write songs.
My Aunt Helen was great about it. She’d call me up and say, “Come over here, honey. Let’s make up a song today.” She taught me a lot about structure and things like that.
What’s the closest you get to the authentic Carter scratch on this album?
I would say probably “Black Jack David.” The thing is, my style of guitar-playing comes from the Carter scratch, but I use a flat pick instead of using fingerpicks. It’s still the same technique, but grandma was known for playing with fingerpicks, and she got a little bit of a different effect than I did. … But she did teach me how to flat pick the Carter scratch, so I look at it as still pretty pure. But there’s no way I’m ever gonna be able to do it exactly like her.