For Carlene Carter Where She Comes From Is Where She’s Bound

"And now -- Carlene!"


Carlene Carter
  • Carlene Carter
Carlene Carter was sitting on her porch when the call came in. Even if she hadn't said so, I might have guessed because I could hear the sound of geese and turkeys coming through the phone. She said there were parakeets inside the house too, as more avian sounds intruded, like Martin Denny was producing our interview, or Jerry Byrd.

I knew I was going to enjoy talking to Carter when, first thing, she told me she was touring with Chris Casello on guitar. Casello's a telecaster wizard and compulsive entertainer. His band The Sabres has been on heavy rotation in my car for the past year, at least. So, like others in her famously musical family, she has a knack for surrounding herself with great players. I’m starting with these images, because it’s all present tense. And when you’re talking to Country music royalty, it’s too easy to get hung up on the past.

Carlene’s the daughter of June Carter and “Mr. Country Music” Carl Smith. Her first recording released was a track on Johnny Cash's 48th album, The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me. She’s been in the family business of telling stories and picking shows alongside the best of the best for as long as she can remember. She’s had hits, on the charts, in the trades and in the tabloids. Her current show mixes original music with stories about growing up in the Carter Family and standards from the family songbook.

We talked about her band, life, and what it means to be part of the First Family of Country Music, as well as the ongoing challenges of being an independent female artist.

Memphis Flyer: Tell me about the show you're bringing to The Halloran Centre.   

Carlene Carter: I’m coming as a trio. I'm bringing my keyboard player who also plays harmonica and guitar, Al Hill. And Chris Casello.

I'm going to stop you already to geek out. Casello's just a tremendous player, I met him at the Ameripolitan Awards a few years back. I know some great surf and rockabilly players and still — if it's the same guy — he just makes you step back and rethink everything you know.

He was probably at Ameripolitan. He’s kind of a big deal. I met him when I came back from California in 2005. I did a musical based on my mom and the Carter family called Wildwood Flower. And Chris was in the house band and played Faron Young. We’ve been playing together on and off since then and he’s my go-to guy. I met Al Hill through Chris. We have a full band too. But I’d been out doing a lot of these shows by myself, and just wanted to add a little energy. Otherwise, it’s all kinda the same. I tell a lot of stories about life and growing up the way I did and what influenced me. I even tell about my mom saying the first record I listened to was when she danced with me to “Mystery Train.” I try to let people know a little more about what it was like on the inside, being a young Carter girl.

That sounds great. And a good group for playing all the traditional stuff and your own songs.

Obviously, I've had a long career and a lot of different kinds of music has come out of me. But I've always returned to the music I grew up with and that was Carter Family Music. People can say it's country music, and yeah it is. But it's timeless to me. And I have a certain amount of energy that I still have at the age of 63, so I can still rock a little bit. It drives the guys all crazy because I never have a set list until right before a show. Sometimes I go, "You know, I'm just going to wing it." I think it keeps us on our toes. It keeps me really fresh instead of being where I have just one show that I do.

I'm going to play this recording for my band the next time they're pressing me for a set list.

It keeps you really fresh. Keeps everybody on their toes. It's good to have a set list when you're playing with a full band. But in the situation we have, we can just jam like we want to. I'm really fortunate that I have a good duet partner in Al Hill. You never know what's going to happen. It's fun.

I remember seeing an interview with you when you were just starting out, maybe. People would assume you knew everything about country  music, but you didn't because you were just inside this musical world. It was just your family and your life. It was a kind of disconnect.

Yeah. I didn't listen to country radio except for the Grand Ole Opry. And that's because I want to go see my mom and my aunts and my grandma on there. People I grew up with like Minnie Pearl, who would babysit me on the side of the stage sometime at the Ryman. It was just a conglomeration of all these folks I just knew. So, because of that, I don't think I really understood the extent of the stardom they had. Even my father Carl Smith. And Johnny Cash. You know, he just did Johnny Cash. That's one of the things I inherited. I was encouraged to not pay so much attention to a lot of stuff, and to do what makes you feel right and do what's real.

That seems in the family spirit. Cash always introduced new sounds and artists.  A.P. wandered the countryside asking people about the songs their families sang. Looking back and forward at the same time.

Gathering. Gathering information. Gathering stories. So much of what I do is about my life. A lot of my songs are autobiographical. They're not necessarily story songs, but I can fill in the blanks.


I'm really looking forward to coming to Memphis because it is a place I've always felt connected to. It's down the road from Nashville and now that I live in Nashville, I'm so happy to be coming there. I can just get my car in the morning and drive on down then play. To me that's what it's all about. That's how I grew up — "Let's go pick a show!" And you drive and get there and play and get in the car and drive back. That's just how I roll. Although I'll probably spend the night, I'm thinking.

Obviously, there are a lot of advantages to growing up in this world where music is woven into everything, but was there also obligation? Sometimes it's hard to grow in the shade. June Carter, Carl  Smith, Johnny Cash — these are some pretty long shadows.

I know what you're saying. I get this question quite a lot, really. And I never considered it either until people start asking me about it since, pretty much back at the beginning of my career. When your parents are iconic performers, you don't really know. They were all four of them — Goldie, Carl, Johnny, and Mom — very down-to-earth people. We had a normal kind of life in a lot of ways. We swam and we fished and we'd work in the garden and we did things that other people did. And then we picked a show. I learned a lot from that. And I've got so much respect for my grandma. What I learned from her was a great work ethic, and a great balance between being a person and not a superstar. I never really got to the point where I had to handle that though.

But you've had hits, and a career.

And I feel responsibility for a lot of it now particularly since my mom passed away. I was told very early on, "when we're all gone you'll have to carry on the music, keep it alive to the best of your ability, and add to it." I took that very seriously. I always try to tip my hat to my heritage. Also whenever I didn't know what to do musically, I went back to Carter Family music. I'd sing it, and play it, and get back in touch with what is in my DNA. Because I really do believe there's DNA involved here. So when I got around to doing Carter Girl in 2014, it's a record I always knew I was going to make someday.

I don't know how you pick a record's worth of songs out of a catalog of so many songs.

The songs would change drastically from week to week. It would change all the time. And I'm trying to write. I kept thinking I could do that for the rest of my life. And that's kind of what I am doing. And I want to pass it down to my daughter and my granddaughters. I don't know if the boys want to be Carter boys, but the girls are leaning that way. If I can only get them singing. There's an age where they don't really want to sing. They want to play, which is great.

I don't want to focus too much on the past.

One of the things I accepted a long time ago was anytime anybody wrote about me there was going to be a full paragraph about who I was related to — "And now, Carlene!"

I'm sure. And you get it from all sides having been married to Nick Lowe. 

And the huge influence he had on me. Howie Epstein too. I just had good teachers. I did. And I soaked up everything I could from people who really knew how to make records. Nick would always tell me, just remember to always practice your craft. He’s coming to Nashville in May and I’m going to see him because he still inspires me.

You talked about how picking shows is just in your DNA. But — and I might be wrong about this. But when Carl Smith finally retired, didn't he basically give up being Mr. Country Music and decide to just be a regular guy?

He had a long career. It was like 30 years. He burned up the road, and burned up the charts, and everything he touched turned gold. And by that point, he’d done it all. At that point in his life he said, "I want to concentrate on being home and working with horses." He wanted to focus on horses and he did. A lot of people who had the success my daddy had would never dream of walking away from it, but he did. A lot of people say they’re retiring from the road, but then they come back because they can’t stay away from the action, or the feeling they get when they’re performing, or the music. Daddy was happy on his horse whistling and singing his heart out in a field counting cows. In the last couple years of his life, I spent more one-on-one time with my dad than I ever had. I always saw him, of course, and my stepmother was very much a part of that. She made sure she was the one who would call and say, "Does Carlene want to come out this weekend?" Daddy wasn't one of those kinds of dads, but he was always glad to see me. And I had my sister and brothers out there and that was really a much more normal life than I had, particularly after Mom married John.

Oh, I'm sure.

After mom married John, things changed for us in terms of being in a fishbowl and being seen, and being on the cover of The National Enquirer, as a kid.

National  Enquirer — yeah, that's got to be completely surreal.

Daddy gave it up the year I started making records, 1978. So he never took us on the road like the Carters did or Cash did. That was a traveling family. But Daddy, he went to work. Even so much so that my brother, when he was little, they asked him in school what his dad did for a living, and my brother Carl said, "Oh, he works at the airport." Because he was always going off to the airport! I never got to see him perform very much. I saw him one time in Las Vegas when I was about 16. So he retired in 1978, and that was the same year my grandmother passed away. So it was the start of something for me, but the end of Daddy's musical career, and the end of Grandma's musical career. And her not being there for advice I counted on. I counted on her for a lot of that stuff. She always had time for all of her grandkids. She'd teach about anything, and she loved playing with us no matter what, whether we were good or not. Though, she'd give you the evil eye if you were on stage and messed up. I've tried to carry the best of everything with me. Sometimes I show my ass on stage and made big sweeping statements I wish I never said. But I love playing to a live audience and the engagement I have with them. It's very personal for me. By the end of the show, I think people know me.

You've said some things about how women who wanted to do their own thing and didn't fit a package got labeled difficult.

I remember going to my label in the nineties, and they said, "You need to realize that you can't have the kind of record sales men have." Like 80 percent of the market is women and women don't buy women's records.I just thought that was insane. It made no sense to me. I bought women's records most of my life. I love Etta James. I love Janis Joplin. Linda Ronstadt was a huge influence. It made no sense to me. And that you might get 20% of sales because you're a woman made no sense to me. So I decided early on, I'm not going to let them get me down. I'm going to be the highest energy female act, and I'm going to make people happy.

I know this is an impossible question, but is there any one image or anecdote that really illustrates what it was like growing up in the Carter Family? 

Probably the biggest thing in my mind that I always go back to, is being a young girl who wants to be a songwriter, and sitting in our music room on the lake in Hendersonville, and looking around the room and seeing Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney sit down at the piano and play "Lady Madonna." And Kris Kristofferson was there. And Mickey Newbury. And George and Tammy are there. And we have this real thing of having people just eating together. And then sharing together in such an intimate way. It's such a reminder of why we make music.

Carlene Carter celebrates her family tradition Saturday, April 13th at The Halloran Centre.

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