Country music royalty can be traced back to two last names: Carter and Williams. Carlene Carter – daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash – has followed her family’s legacy in both life and song. A rollercoaster ride of high-profile relationships (including a marriage to Nick Lowe and engagement to the late Howie Epstein) has paralleled a career filled with ups and downs. These days, Carlene is finding happiness both personally and professionally. She is married to her touring partner, fellow musician Joe Breen, and has embraced her family legacy on her latest release, Carter Girl. On Thursday, March 12, Carter will perform at the BJCC Concert Hall as the opener for John Mellencamp. Recently, we caught up with Carter by phone from a tour stop in Bloomington, Ind.
Weld: Carlene, thanks for your time today. If you will, talk about the evolution of Carter Girl.
Carlene Carter: The majority of the album are old Carter Family songs that I kind of made into Carlene songs. I did a couple of my own tunes – on one I used a chorus from an old Carter Family song about my mom’s passing and John’s passing. I used the chorus of “Lonesome Valley” with that, so I managed to have a songwriting credit with A.P. Carter [laughs]. I made a list of every song I knew from the Carter Family that I’d ever sung and that was a good amount of songs. Then I started looking at all the songs I didn’t know and there were about 500 songs I’d never heard. So, I discovered some that I wasn’t familiar with. The time factor of making the album gave me the time to really whittle down the ones that I really felt I could [be] my own songs, instead of Carlene just singing a bunch of old Carter Family songs. I didn’t want it to be that way. I really tried to put my stamp on them.
Weld: With that being said, is there a challenge in maintaining the integrity of the songs while placing your own stamp on the material?
CC: I’m always conscious of maintaining the integrity of it because I have great respect for this legacy that I get to carry on and what a gift I’ve been given. It’s like a treasure chest full of wonderful songs and the songs are very timeless. I didn’t change anything about them – I tried to keep it simple. It started just with me and the acoustic guitar and the band all played with me.
Weld: On this current tour, are you and John Mellencamp performing any songs together?
CC: We are! I’m doing one of his songs from [the Mellencamp-penned musical] Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. He invites me out during his set and I do that. Then John and I do one of the main ones from the musical called “Tear This Cabin Down” and it’s a wonderfully fun song to sing together.
Weld: For the recording of your new CD, you assembled a stellar team around you: Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Jim Keltner, Willie Nelson and Don Was, to name just a few.
CC: I was so lucky. I made a lot of lists of people that I wanted to share songs with, thinking that the majority of them were not going to be available. The first four guys on my list all said, “Yes.” I didn’t really want it to be a duet album – I wanted it to be my album. My friend Elizabeth Cook sings on six songs. Between her and my cousin Lorrie [Bennett], it had a good Carter Family sound. The Carter Family sisters were known for taking songs and bringing harmony to them.
Weld: Living with a family legacy such as yours appears to be a mixed blessing. I would assume that here is a certain amount of pressure that goes along with the privilege. You seem to wear it well and embrace it.
CC: That was the whole point of the album. It was instilled in me early on that when they all passed on, I would carry on this music. That was one of the things Grandma would always say to me, “You’ve got to keep this music alive after I’m gone.” I wanted to wait a respectable amount of time after my mom’s passing before I did the album because I never wanted it to be like, “Oh, she’s jumping on the Carter Family wagon here.” It wasn’t like that at all. It was all done for the love of the music and the love of my family and trying to honor them and doing what they wanted me to do. I’m grateful that I have this legacy and I’m very proud of it. I want to “Carterize” people [Laughs].
Carlene Carter will open for John Mellencamp at the BJCC on Thursday, March 12. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.; the show will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $42.50-$119.50. For more information, visit bjcc.org.