Carlene Carter first stepped onstage at the age of four next to her mother June Carter and aunts Helen and Anita. She’s spent the next sixty years solidifying her place as a “Carter Girl,” the title she used on her 2014 homage to the original Carter Family who changed the landscape of country music since ever since they set foot at the Bristol Sessions in 1927.
Carter was recently seen in Ken Burns’ PBS film Country Music recounting her family tree that goes back all the way to her grandmother Maybelle Carter, great Aunt Sara and Sara’s first husband A.P. Carter.
Now a third generation member of the famed family, she, along with her brother John Carter Cash, sit in the middle of the extensive family tree. Carlene has two children that are fourth generation and seven grandchildren that represent a fifth generation. As of this writing voices from all five generations have been recorded in a new album The Carter Family: Across Generations (Reviver Entertainment.) It begins with the voices of the original Carter Family trio and melds the voices of some thirty family members in the culminating choir-like finale of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
From Nashville which she calls home again after two decades in Los Angeles, Carter was ebullient talking about what has transpired. “We thought we’d go for five and end up getting four but ended up getting five generations,” she said with her homespun southern accent that like her musical voice, still sounds like her mother who passed nearly twenty years ago.
John Carter Cash still had some unused tapes of his mother in his studio vault. But the impetus of the project began with a conversation about preserving the legacy of the Carter Family. “After fifty years things need to be looked at and made sure they’re protected. No one owns the likeness of the Carter Family and no one had ever copy written the business part of that.”
Long before John Carter was born, Carlene grandmother sat her down and charged her with carrying on the family legacy. “one of my biggest pushes for this is that we were charged—and these are the words she used—you are charged with carrying on this legacy. She said, ‘You know when you grow up and we’re all gone you’ve got to keep this music alive. And that’s what we do in this family. We do that.”
On Carter Girl, arguably one of the decade’s best albums, Carter embraced the songs of her family with her own approach. Before going in the studio with producer Don Was, she played along with her electric Telecasters at home to capture the foreboding, raunchy bluesiness of the original song. She wrote new verses about her personal grief of losing her sister Rosie in “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” and brought you into the day she laid her mother to rest by melding new verses in the traditional “Lonesome Valley.”
Carter was waiting in Austin to do a duet with Willie Nelson on “Troublesome Waters” but got a call from Nashville that he and Buddy Cannon had gone in the studio on their own and cut Nelson’s vocal. Perhaps the culminating song tipped her hand to the approach of the Carter Family: Across Generations. In “ I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” she sang along with tapes of her mother and aunts in a rollicking finale that connected the generations.
Reflecting on the songs she learned as a child, Carter says, “It’s the most natural singing that I do. It’s almost like I know it by osmosis. I can chime in on something and say, ‘I’ve never heard this before but I know it.’ It’s odd …I don’t know if I learned it in the womb or in the room.”
Still she needed to put her personal stamp on them.
“I had to learn to embrace these songs in the way that they were mine,” she elaborated. “I couldn’t do a Carter Family album if it was just me and a couple of instruments. It would have sounded like I was trying to impersonate the original Carter Family which is not where we are today. It’s not who I am.”
Both Carters, Carlene and John, approached the Carter Family: Across Generations, with a sense that everyone had to be in to use the family name. Daughter Tiffany Lowe has been singing since 14 and has harmonized with her mother across the years. When she said, “’Mom, I want to embrace my roots,’ Carlene Carter turned to her to say, “God girl, this is it…This is the thing.’”
The new album is rife with traditional Carter Family songs like “Worried Man Blues,” “I Will Never Marty” and “Gold Watch and Chain” which Carlene Carter had also on Carter Girl. The family discovered reel to reel voice apes of Sara Carter who sent them to Maybelle to convey news in lieu of letters and intertwined them into the album.
One of the highlights of the record is a newly discovered original autoharp recording made by Maybelle Carter. It closes the album as “Maybelle’s New Tune.” Carlene’s cousins Danny and David Carter sing the song “Maybelle” which was originally written upon the passing of their grandmother.
Carlene Carter told me she hadn’t taken into account that the timing of the album would take place just after the airing of the Ken Burns documentary Country Music. While on tour the week of its airing, Carter said people were lined up deep at shows to talk with her about it. She sold every piece of merchandise she brought.
“I was surprised I ended up in it as much as I did,” she admitted. “I thought they did such a great job of covering such an epic amount of music and history. It could have been twice as long as it was and it was plenty long. I know people are having withdrawals from it. They want to see more of that.”
For the singer, the draw of coming back to Nashville was to be close to her grandchildren and watching them grow up. Carter found a place right off the same street from her childhood home in Madison that has since been bought by Todd Mayo, creator of the show Music City Roots. He occasionally calls to bring her over and play at parties in the barn. Carter recalls how as a child, she walked everywhere, including to the school, store and church. Her Mom was often on the road and the family’s housekeeper didn’t drive.
“We walked the railroad tracks to school. Kids don’t do that these days,” she said, letting out a large laugh.
She’s also developed a network of friends including her pal Elizabeth Cook. The women in her circle bounce ideas off of each other and strive to adjust to current times and still be able to stay relevant performing. “You can’t create yourself as a certain thing and try to maintain that exact thing,” she reflects on her long career.
Today Carter has a band, performs in a trio and sings in a duo. She says she likes to roam around East Nashville, hang out at Dave’s Cocktail Country Lounge and head over to Honky Tonk Tuesdays at the Veterans Hall Post 82. Later this month, she has two in the round shows at the Bluebird Cafe as part of her themed series Wonderful World of Women Who Write.
“I’m just having a real good time,” she adds. “I really am. Old Carlene’s back in town.”
Carter Family Members Heard on Across Generations:
Sara Carter (first generation) ;
Anita Carter (second generation); Helen Carter (second generation); June Carter Cash (second generation); Johnny Cash (second generation*);
Lorrie Carter Bennett (third generation); Ana Cristina Cash (third generation*); John Carter Cash (third generation); Carlene Carter (third generation); Lisa Carter Dickerson (third generation; Rita Forrester (third generation); Benita Carter Jones (third generation); Dale Jett (third generation); Danny Carter Jones (third generation)
David Carter Jones (third generation); Kevin Carter Jones (third generation); Connie Carter Keller (third generation); Flo Wolfe (third generation)
Joseph Cash (fourth generation); Tyler Forrester (fourth generation); Tucker Jett (fourth generation) ; Casey Dickerson Garrett (fourth generation); Tiffany Anastasia Lowe (fourth generation); AnnaBelle Cash (fourth generation); Grace June Cash (fourth generation); Jack Ezra Cash (fourth generation); Dewanna Wolfe Cross (fourth generation); Dania Wolfe Strong (fourth generation)
Adrianna Cross (fifth generation); Lux Darling (fifth generation); Jacob Strong (fifth generation); Shyanna Strong (fifth generation)
*related by marriage