Carlene Carter: Being a “Carter Girl” and Crossing Generations

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Photo by Russell Baer

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter 2019 – Acoustic Artists

Carlene Carter was born into a family of country music royalty. The daughter of country music icons Carl Smith and June Carter, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, and granddaughter of country music matriarch, Maybelle Carter, Carlene is no novice when it comes to making good old-fashioned country music. While her life has not been without controversy, Carlene has built a successful name for herself. She has released 12 albums and 20 plus singles, received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1991 for her hit single “I Fell in Love,” and has performed in musicals and on television.

Carlene collaborated this year with her stepbrother John Carter Cash to produce their latest album, The Carter Family – Across Generations. The album was released in October and is now available on all music streaming platforms. Guitar Girl Magazine caught up with Carlene in the rush of the album release to discuss her time at AMERICANAFEST, her trio, being a Carter Girl, the new album, and carrying on the Carter legacy. 

I had the good fortune of seeing you at the “Turning the Tables” event at AMERICANAFEST, where you were on stage with Maria Muldaur, Shawn Colvin, and Amythyst Kiah. What a great event!
That was a really special event for me. I felt really honored to be a part of that. Maria Muldaur still has the pipes — she has not slowed down a bit. I follow her on Instagram, and she is just touring her tail off. I love Shawn Colvin, and I became a fan of Amythyst. She’s so soulful. 

Besides playing solo, you also play with a trio.
Yes, I usually play alone, but I love my trio. I put together the trio with Chris Casello, who I met 15 years ago when I did the musical Wildwood Flower – The June Carter Story.  He was the guitar player in the production. He’s a firecracker, and I call him Bunny because he doesn’t stop moving. It’s like a cross between brother and honey. He’s an amazing musician. He plays steel guitar, guitar, and dobro — anything with strings on it. And then there’s Al Hill. He used to work with Bettye LaVette. His roots are more R&B, but he’s having a fun time playing some of the Carter Family music as well as the kind of stuff that I do. We have a really good team, the three of us. We go out, work, and take care of each other. We all get along, and it’s great. We just have fun playing. I’d love to get the word around that it’s a really good show. We all play different instruments, which makes it interesting, so it’s not just one sound throughout the whole night we swap instruments all the time.

Any recordings of your trio?
Not yet, but we’re talking about doing either a live album or going into the studio — I don’t know. I would love to record our show. It would be great because so many people ask if we have any recordings of us three together. I think that will be in the cards very soon.

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“My whole life has been one big circle.”

When you were at the ‘Turning the Tables’ panel, you had some great stories to share. You talked about watching your family perform, and one story you shared was that you remembered when you were 3 ½ years old, you took the microphone and said that you wanted to talk into that. Did you know you always wanted to be a performer?
I knew I wanted to do what they were doing. I didn’t even really understand what it was to be a performer because it was my family. As a little kid, I just thought, “that looks like fun.” I wasn’t like, “I’m going to be a superstar someday.” The interesting thing about it was that I got the bug from that, from being a kid and watching them, and wanting to be a “Carter Girl.” I wanted to be a little bit like of all of them, which I hope that I somehow managed to carry on a little bit of each of one of them. They raised me — all four of them. Grandma, Momma, Helen, and Anita — that was just the way they did it. I feel fortunate that I had that in my life, that I wasn’t raised by a maid or something like that. They passed us girls around, me and Rosie and Lorrie. We were just passed around from one sister or to the other; whoever was pregnant and staying home got us, or Grandma. So that was pretty neat.

My mom was really into acting in New York, and she loved the theatre. She had always wanted to be a musical comedian actress on Broadway, or she wanted to be in movies, which she did do all of those things in a way. She had many different characters that she played on stage. She took Rosie and me from a really early age twice a year to New York City to see musicals and go to the big department stores. I grew up watching musicals, so my big ambition was to be a dancer, a singer, an actress, and be funny. That was beyond me, except the funny thing was that I ended up being in two musicals that I did over the years. I was in Pump Boys and Dinettes in England in the West End for 13 months — eight shows a week for 13 months! Then I rejoined the Carter Family, I guess, because I was so tired that I needed some stability back here. Then I got to play my mom in a musical which is when I met Chris, which was interesting. You know people say I remind them of my mother.

My whole life has been one big circle where I circle right back to my roots. I go out, and I gather up stuff. I gather up other kinds of music in my soul, and I always come back to my Carter music because that’s the most real thing that I’ve ever known, and it still is. I can make up stuff all day long, but it’s always going to have a little Carter in there.

Let’s talk about your autoharp. What’s the story behind it, and why it’s so special to you?

Autoharp was one of the first instruments that I was able to make a pretty chord out of because it is very easy to do that — you press one button, take your finger across the strings, and it sounds fabulous. It was like immediate gratification when I was a child. I never really concentrated on trying to learn how to play it like Grandma. I could always play rhythm on it, but I still don’t even profess to be able to play it at all like my grandmother. She amazes me.

Grandma predominantly played Oscar Schmidt autoharps because they were really kind of it at the time. She started getting electric ones, and I got one of her first electric ones when I was young, and I still have it.

But my autoharp is special because it came from Maces Springs, and a man named Mr. George Orthey built it. This autoharp is from a tree that A.P. [Alvin Pleasant Carter] planted when he was a young man. That has made quite a few autoharps for the women in my family. There is a little tiny armrest where your arm goes across to touch the bars to make the chords, and it’s in a different color wood; it came from the cabin where my grandfather Ezra and A.P. Ezra were born. Mr. Orthey took some of that wood and harvested that and made the Wildwood Flower design for the autoharp. So I have a little piece of my family with me at all times.

How old were you when you picked up the autoharp?

Oh, I was a little bitty kid. I would be standing at the table, and the autoharp would be sitting on the table. My mom would say, “Press the button, and go like that with your fingers.” She would give me a flat pick because it was hard for me to press the bar down. I remember that, so I must have been really little. Later on, I loved holding it — there was something about it. Now I feel much more of a connection to it and enjoy playing it a lot.

“Grandma taught me how to do the Carter scratch.”

What other instruments do you play?
Besides autoharp, I play ukulele, piano, and the guitar. I used to play a little bit of mandolin, but only rhythm.

I like an autoharp that is really loud, and that is not incredibly heavy because when you play a chromatic harp, it’s a bit heavier, and yes, it sounds great, but I wanted one that sounded really bright. I can pretty much play in three different keys, so I’m limited a little bit on what songs I can play on. So when someone says, “Can you sing this song?” I say, “What key is it?” It’s gotta be in D, C, or G, and it can have some minor chords in it, and then we’re okay!

I decided that I was really going to start playing it like I knew what I was doing. I think a big key to becoming a good musician is to be fearless enough to go for it. You might amaze yourself that what you hear in your head, you can actually do with your fingers and your hand. I think people that love music will sit there and practice and practice and practice, which is what I have done all my life. I think I got that from my Aunt Helen, who loved to practice. She always wanted to practice. She used to sit in the dressing room practicing. And it showed because she could play like nobody’s business. She played just like Grandma.

I’m trying to delve into the autoharp in a whole new way. I am going to learn at least ten new songs and try to play them like Grandma played them, and that’s a big task to take on! I have my own style. I’m a little bit Maybelle-like, but I’m a little more June-like, which is kind of reckless — here we go! Grandma Carter taught me how to do the Carter scratch with a flat pick. I tend to stick with the flat pick style of guitar playing that she taught me to do.

“I used to smart off at people and get myself into trouble.”

My kids recently asked me this question, so I thought I would ask you. What advice do you wish you had taken from your parents?
The main advice that I did take was learning how to write a song. Always write your own songs and be authentic. For advice I wished I had taken, don’t drink and don’t do drugs. Although I do think that that was part of my story and that it had to be part of my life for me to be who I am today, even though it would sure have saved everybody a lot of heartaches if I hadn’t ever done it. But then I might not be where I am at right now, so I don’t have any regrets about it. But my mom was really adamant about “don’t smoke cigarettes, and don’t drink, and don’t do drugs.”

Also, “don’t get a big head or be a smart ass.” I wish I had taken that a little bit more to heart because when I was in my youth, I would smart off at people and get myself in trouble, and it usually had to do with me thinking that I was all that. I think that is just a normal youth thing, though.

You recently shared a picture of your father, Carl Smith, on Facebook wearing his Country Music Hall of Fame medallion. You said, “I am blown away by that fact, and beyond proud of the legacies I am a part of.”
I know! I think I have more people in the Hall of Fame than anyone else. I’m related to five people in there. The original Carter Family, the three of them, and then Daddy and John; so, it’s pretty amazing. I really am hoping that they will induct my mom and my aunts — the Carter Sisters. That may be overkill, but they definitely deserve to be acknowledged. Just because Mom was out front because she had the burning ambition and was such a ham, Anita and Helen and Grandma were the backbone of everything. Anita had the most amazing voice, and Helen was so underrated because she was outshined in some ways by them, but she was the glue. She could play every part, knew every part, sing every part, and she could write songs, too.

Let’s talk about the new album The Carter Family – Across Generations. Tell us about the inspiration behind this album, the recording process, and pulling the family together.
We decided that we were going to pull ourselves together. That was the number one starting point. We all, and when I say we all, I’m talking about all the direct people from the original Carter Family, which is about 30 of us, maybe more. But the core unit was Dale, myself, John Carter, Lorrie, and Mother Maybelle’s grandkids because we’re all around here, except for Dale Jett — he’s up in Virginia, but he definitely needed to be involved in this. We had to all agree that we were going to do this, and we had to all agree on how this was going to work because when you have that many people involved in something that is a legacy that we all share in, we have to have somebody doing the footwork. So between John Carter and me, we started the footwork.

There was a lot of technical stuff to get through. John Carter and the engineers worked hard to make it as authentic as it could be and not sound like we weren’t all there together. That was the challenging bit — we wanted it to sound like we were all together, which I think we did. It sounds like we are all there, and we were all enjoying it together. It was eerie for me to play guitar along with my mom playing autoharp or playing along with my Aunt Helen playing guitar — it felt like they were in the other room. That’s what made it so special. John Carter did a great job producing this record because it took a lot of attention and time.

He started delving into the archives and finding tapes. He found this reel to reel tape of Sara and Grandma. They used to record on reel to reel tape recorders and send that to each other. Rather than call on the telephone, they would mail these tapes of them talking and playing music back and forth. So at the beginning of that tape, she says ‘Hey, Maybelle, ’ which I think sounds great. Then Grandma’s talking, and she’s rambling on a little bit, and you can hear a little noise in the background, and then the song starts.

You do have to have a map to figure out who is on what track and who is singing what verse if you care about that stuff. Or you could just think that this is all of them — they’re all on there.

It was fun to put it together — it was like a beautiful mosaic puzzle. It was like finding a broken piece of china and putting all these bits and pieces together. I look at it like when they repair pottery in Japan. They repair it by mending it with gold between the broken bits.  That’s how I looked at this whole process. It’s a beautiful rare piece of china. Something precious and our legacy is that. I have always felt that so much of why this music speaks to people — no matter what generation of us is singing it or what style we’re playing it in — is because it is so from the heart and so filled with love. I think that’s what comes out in this record. It’s also got a lot of soul in it.

“I always come back to my Carter music.” 

You referred to yourself as a “Carter Girl” at AMERICANAFEST and proclaimed, “I’m a Carter Girl. That’s my job, y’all!” What does it mean to you to carry on the Carter Family legacy?
It means that I’m doing what I was asked to do by the people that I love most in the world. All my life, they were my heroes. I know that all of them would be so proud to see all of united and something together and carrying on the music that they made in the last 90 years — it’s still going on. As far as I know, we are the only generational family that’s gone on this long that sing. This is a huge wonderful gift that I feel I need to care for, and it does mean everything. My life’s ambition is to never have a dull moment. And let me tell you, being a Carter girl, you don’t have a dull moment.

Being a Carter Girl, and coming from such a long line of Carter Girls, what advice would you give to a young girl wanting to get into the music profession today?
Write your own songs, and if you don’t, only use songs you wish you’d written. Keep your own publishing. These are my words of wisdom that I’ve learned over the years. I’ll give you the advice Dolly Parton whispered in my ear when I did my first record. I had my picture taken with her; she said, “Just keep on smiling, honey, no matter what.” I have carried that with me. Be yourself, be unique, don’t be afraid, and don’t try to fit in. Be exactly who you are, and you’ll never ever have to fake it.

The Carter Family – Across Generations Track list:

  1. Farther On (Traditional)
  2. My Clinch Mountain Home (A.P. Carter)
  3. Gold Watch and Chain (A.P. Carter)
  4. Worried Man Blues (A.P. Carter)
  5. Winding Stream (A.P. Carter)
  6. I Never Will Marry (A.P. Carter)
  7. Amber Tresses (A.P. Carter)
  8. Maybelle (Danny Carter Jones, David Carter Jones)
  9. Diamonds in the Rough (A.P. Carter)
  10. Don’t Forget This Song (A.P. Carter)
  11. Foggy Mountain Top (A.P. Carter)
  12. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (A.P. Carter)
  13. Maybelle’s New Tune (Maybelle Carter)
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