“These Songs Were Made for Me to Sing”: Carlene Carter and Country Music’s First Family
Carlene Carter’s new album, Carter Girl, joyously celebrates the beauty, the cantankerousness, the melancholy, and the sheer glad-to-be-alive spirit of the music of the first family of country music to which she is heir. Selecting 10 glittering gems from the wealth of the Carter Family’s deep catalog, she honors the music of her forbearers A.P. Carter and “Mother” Maybelle Carter, June Carter, and June’s sisters, Helen and Anita, with exuberant and affectionate versions of the songs that, in most cases, she grew up listening to and singing. “This album has been on my brain my entire career,” Carter says. “I’m responsible for carrying on the legacy of the family and being a ‘Carter girl’. That’s why I chose the album title.”
And carry on that legacy she does; on every tune here she does the family proud by capturing the spirit of every song, whether it’s the rumbling, racy, rhumba, “Little Black Train,” or the haunting ballad “Give Me the Roses,” which evokes the gospel character of “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” or the languorous, dreamy waltz, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” in which Greg Leisz’s aching steel guitar refrain weaves around and under Blake Mills’ lead guitar and captures the singer’s carpe diem embrace of the momentary and abiding sadness of love. Willie Nelson joins Carter, on both guitar and vocals, in a heart-rending, soul-wrenching version of “Troublesome Waters,” written by “Mother” Maybelle Carter, her husband, Ezra, and Dixie Hall. “Troublesome Waters” builds its musical foundation on the old hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” and the Carter song rows toward the same hopeful shore beyond the pale of this earth’s darkness and troubles. Carter, with Al Anderson, updates A.P.’s “Lonesome Valley” in “Lonesome Valley 2003,” and Vince Gill harmonizes with Carter in his unmistakable tenor, while Kris Kristofferson lends his gritty pipes to the Celtic-tinged, mountain ballad, “Black Jack David.”
On her album I Fell in Love (1990), Carter included the song she wrote, “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” about being a Carter. As she says of the song, “I wanted to write a song about what it was like being a little Carter girl, and how me and my sister Rosey grew up and would travel in the back seat of a car when we weren’t in school, and then get pulled on stage way before we were ready.” In some ways it’s the centerpiece of this album, honoring the legacy of the Carter girls, paying tribute to their music, memorializing Rosey, and embracing her own enduring gift of songwriting.
The album closes with a rousing shout and holler in “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” which features the voices of Helen, Anita, June Carter Cash, and Johnny Cash, as well as Cowboy Jack Clement on guitar. It’s a gospel shout, a song of protest, and a joyous embrace of community that claims the unbrokenness of the circle of country music and the Carter family.
Engine 145 caught up by phone with Carlene Carter recently for a wide-ranging and delightful conversation about her new album, her musical family, and what’s next for her.
Why did you decide to do this album now?
I just knew I wanted to do this and have it come out before I turned 60, and we beat it by a couple of years. (Laughs) Actually, pretty much my whole career I knew I would do this album. I felt charged as a young girl to keep the legacy of the Carter girl alive and to keep the music alive. I wanted to wait for a little while after my Mom had passed so it wouldn’t sound like it was just simply a tribute or memorial album; it took a little time to get it out. It just suited me at this time in my life. Everybody did an amazing job on this record.
How long did it take to make the album, and how did you record it?
I have this great manager, Randy Hoffman, and about three years ago I told him I needed a good producer to help me pull this off. He put me in touch with Don Was, and about two years ago we laid down the basic tracks. The vocals are all live; we captured them at the moment. You know, on “Lonesome Valley 2003” I get a little choked up, and my voice cracks with emotion. Don left it in there. Don’s great gift was to get all these great people in the room. We had a wish list of maybe 25 people to ask to join me to sing some of the songs; we figured we needed at least that many since we thought many people would say “no” when we asked. The first three people we asked—Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Vince Gill—said “yes.” And, then, of course I asked my husband, Joe Breen, and Elizabeth Cook to sing harmony on several of the songs.
How did you make the song selection?
Ha, ha; well, we whittled it down to 50 songs, from about 500, and then to 25, and then 12. I wanted to cover 3 generations of music and bring it up to date. I wish I had written these songs and wanted to own them. I try to sing some of the songs I sang with the Carter Family. Some of these songs I grew up singing but never really understood until I started playing them. “Tall Lover Man” was like that; I always thought it was about a lover, but when I started singing it, I realized that it’s a murder ballad. For a long time after Mama died, it was hard to sing these songs because of the grief factor. You know, this album is all about the music; it’s not on a competitive level on country radio. I am trying to be myself and to be unique to the situation and never to try to be a part of the crowd. These songs were made for me to sing.
When did you start playing and singing?
I stared to sing when I was 4; my Mom would bring me onstage to sing “Charlie Brown.” When I was 6, Mom taught me a boogie woogie song on the piano, and I’d sit for hours and amuse myself; around then I started taking piano lessons. John bought me an electric guitar for my birthday when I was 10 or 11; it was a little blue Silvertone from Sears. My cousin, David, Helen’s son, also played guitar, so by the time we were 12, we had a little band, and we’d play “Gloria.” Our career started at a political rally and we were playing on the back of a flatbed truck. Our band career ended as soon as it began. (Laughs) Mama suggested I try writing songs when I was 16. I remember her saying, “If you could write one ‘Ring of Fire’, you’d be set for life.” I wrote “Easy from Now On,” with Susanna Clark, when I was 19 or 20. At supper, we’d have these nights where you’d have to sing for your supper, and I would try to write songs when we had those evenings.
What’s your approach to songwriting?
Sometimes I go to my piano and start to play. When I play the piano, I connect to the music in a very emotional way. I still have the Yamaha Grand I bought in 1975. For me, writing a song is very much a feeling and depends on the inspiration factor. The songs I record are the ones that really matter and the ones that deal with events or themes I can relate to. I pull topics for songs from what’s going on in my life. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” is about what it was like to be a child traveling in the car with my grandmother. The song means even more than ever now, and it expresses how heartbroken I am over the loss of my grandmother. “Lonesome Valley” is written from the point of view of a child; writing it was very cathartic for me, since the song deals with the loss of my mother and John. Al Anderson helped me write the bridge on that one. Sometimes I’m divinely inspired, and the song just flows right out. Whenever I’m feeling off kilter, I know I haven’t written a song lately.
What are the elements of a good song?
If it deals with timeless subjects—melancholy, unrequited love—and if people can relate to it, then it’s a good song. Songs don’t have to be heavy to be great but can end on a note of hope. I once wrote a song called “Your Love is the Killing Kind, and I’m a Victim of My Own Suicide.” (Laughs) I’ve collected enough drama in my life that I don’t need to have that anymore in my songs; anytime I’ve written a heavy song, I try to end it with hope.
Who are some of your musical influences?
J.D. Souther. I love Linda Ronstadt, and he wrote a lot of those great songs she sang. Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark: I got to learn a lot by watching people like them bring songs to the table. Ray Charles, the Monkees, and Neil Diamond—I can’t believe how much I love Neil Diamond—for their well-crafted pop and country songs.
In what ways do you think you’ve evolved as a musician over the years?
Well, I once overworked myself, and I don’t do that anymore. I don’t worry as much, especially about the business end of things. I try to stay out of the business aspect of my work as much as possible. I’ve learned that my job is to write songs, show up and perform, and be the best I can be. I try to stay completely humble; I’m very grateful for this gift.
What’s next for you?
Carter: I’m going to do another Carter Girl album; there are plenty of songs still left. Maybe on the next one I’ll include a few more songs on it that I wrote. I want to go out and play a lot; I’m playing solo without a band on this tour, which will be fun.
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