B-Sides & Badlands: Carlene Carter, Highway Queen

Carlene Carter has brandished the Carter Family torch quite marvelously over the decades. More importantly, she has blazed her own path, branching off from such a tremendous legacy to mine her own. Her work is certainly indebted to her traditional Nashville roots and growing up as the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith. In keeping time with the past, she has pushed forward for a much brighter future with a voice that stands very much on its own.

Equipped with 10 solo albums, as well as a collaboration on John Mellencamp for 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, and three Top 3 radio hits (“Every Little Thing,” “Come on Back,” “I Fell in Love”), Carter has more than proved her mettle. Even more, her live performances and various nationwide tours have not only given her a chance to connect with her fans but allowed her to flex her chops.

“It’s getting to witness the effects music has on people. The whole process of writing a song and then taking it out and playing it live — I like to do it that way before I record. That way, when I’m recording, it has the feel of being tried and tested. A lot of times, I get out and play on my own or with my band, something will feel not quite right yet about song,” she says. “It all goes together. Which comes first: the chicken or the egg? I love performing live and always have. That’s when I feel the most engaged in my life and in my body and present that I can be.”

With numerous tour dates slated for fall, Carter also has several other projects in the works. Along with her brother John Carter Cash, Dale Jett (AP and Sara Carter’s grandson), and cousins Lorrie Carter Bennett, David Lawrence Jones and Daniel Jones, a generation-spanning set called The Carter Family Across Generations is set for an October release. “Hopefully, people are going to really enjoy it,” she says. “It’s got five generations of us on it including the original second and third generation. There’s a core unit of Maybelle’s grandkids that are the ones that do music more regularly.”

“We have a lot of old tapes we’ve used and built ourselves into singing with Helen, Anita and June. Then, we have some of Sara singing by herself. We have an autoharp song that’s never been heard that we found in the archives. It says ‘Maybelle’s new song’ on it, and it was an instrumental on the electric autoharp, the first one she ever got. She was obviously just making something up and recorded it”

Carlene Carter will also be teaching autoharp at the Monthaven Arts & Cultural Center as part of the Heritage Music Series. Additionally, she expected to mount another residency at the iconic Bluebird Cafe, in-the-round style.

Carlene Carter will perform Carnegie Hall on Friday, September 20.

What one song received a vastly different reaction when you played it live?

One was “Lonesome Valley” from 2003, the song I wrote about my mom and John passing away. It wasn’t necessarily the reaction I got while playing it; it was the reaction I got after the show, and I would meet fans. In all the shows I did with John Mellencamp, which was more than 150 shows, I would have somebody, if not one to five people, in my arms sobbing because they just lost their mother or father or brother or sister or wife.

For me, that song was healing. It helped me feel closer to the people I had lost. By singing it every night, I felt like I was singing to them. It was comforting to me. I was celebrating their lives by putting myself out there and saying how hard it was and how painful it was, while still feeling glad that I ever got to spend any time with them in a lifetime. So, this was something I didn’t see coming. It was so personal to me, and it never dawned on me that other people were going to go, “Oh my god, this is my story.”

That must be a bit validating for you.

I’ve always known what I should be doing, but it’s really validated the fact that I go out there to make people’s lives feel better — even if it’s just for one song or one set. We all just share a moment. Music really is healing and wonderful in so many ways. It can also be the cherry on top of a celebration. It covers all aspects of human emotions. I love live music. I always try to think that if I were in the audience, would I want to be doing this and watching this.

What do you recall most about your first-ever solo tour?

My first real tour as a solo artist was in 1978 when my first album came out. I was on the road with the Rumour, and we hit seven cities, two shows in each city. It wasn’t like a regular tour. It was more of a ‘hello, I’m here, this is my record.’ We played The Roxy, The Boarding House in San Francisco, the Exit In in Nashville. I even got the key of the city jail from Sheriff Saint Thomas. I was treated very well by Warner Bros. They picked us up from the airport in a limo, and we stayed in really nice hotels. It was very different than what life is really like on the road. I knew that too growing up the way that I did.

I take the advice of the Kentucky Headhunters. They once told me, “We don’t check in to hotels no more. We like to take showers at the venue. That way, we save about $50,000 a year on hotels.” [laughs] Let me tell you, it started to get a little rank on that bus. It was cool, though.

What hard lessons did you learn early on in your touring career?

I think as far as hard lessons, I took it on the chin pretty good. I let things roll off my back. I never took myself so incredibly seriously that I would come off stage worried about something. My lessons were pretty gentle. Most of the lessons I learned were by making mistakes, like opening my big mouth not realizing that my mom might be in the audience and not know it. Things like that. [laughs] Wardrobe malfunctions. I think one the most embarrassing moments of my life was when I was on tour in 1979 with the Little River Band. We were playing colleges all across America, and we were playing someplace, I have no idea where it was at. I went out on stage, and I always got the audience to stand up in a certain part of the show and start rockin’ out. Well, there was this one area over to the side that I didn’t know what it was. I said, “Come on, get up!” It was the handicap area. So, that just killed me. I was just so horrified. I wanted to write letters to every single person. That was probably one of the worst. It was accidental but completely foolish on my end.

In all, people come to shows to see a real person before them.

I’m too real sometimes. I think that’s the problem. [laughs] I’m exactly the same onstage that I am talking to the girls at the grocery store. That makes life easy. Anytime I’ve ever tried to conform to what somebody else’s idea of how I should act or sing, I just couldn’t do it. I’m just me.

Over the years, what have been some of your observations of small town life?

Small towns are super grateful when you come to town to play. They don’t always get big acts coming through there, so I think they’re pretty happy to have that live music. I know live music means a lot to me, and I would imagine most small towns do embrace that. It’s not something they get every other week. In Nashville, it’s multiple places every single night and day. This is the rockiest live scene on the planet. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I grew up here. It’s just turned into something even more. I miss a lot of stuff that’s going on because I can’t keep up with who’s coming through town. It’s just too much. [laughs]

What stories from the road stick out most in your mind?

Bob Dylan once told me he had an Elvis sighting of a young Elvis and had a great conversation with him. He actually washed dishes in some small town down in Texas or something. His description of it was so elaborate that I actually believed him. [laughs] This isn’t a road story, but Carl Perkins told me about his brother and him going hunting, and his brother actually shot a hole in his foot. So, he says to Carl when they’re in the truck driving back, “How does it look? You think it’s OK?” And Carl goes, “Nah, you’re going to have to kiss that foot goodbye!”

My daddy used to play a lot of rodeos, and there’d be this big arena. This is probably in the ‘50s, maybe early ‘60s, and he had a horse that he’d go flying around on and run straight up to the stage and jump off the horse like Roy Rogers would get on Trigger (but he’d jump off the front of the horse and onto the front of the stage and start singing). So, this one show, he’s going out there and flying. It was a horse he didn’t know, and he gets up there. The horse just stops dead about five feet before it’s supposed to. Daddy goes flying into the stage — not onto it. [laughs] He has to get up in front of this entire adoring audience and say, “I don’t think I’ll try that again.”

I think it was in 1998, me, Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan were doing a tour together. We were playing a lot of the amphitheatres across America. It was a pretty long tour, one and off for most of the summer. I had this part in the show where I ran out and around the back of the audience and came up at the soundboard. I stood up and got all the audience to stand up and dance and turn around. I had wireless mic, and then, I would get one of the big security guys to come and put me on his shoulders and walk me through the audience and then put me down on the stage.

Well, this one night, I couldn’t get a guy to do it. There was nobody big enough or they were just not going to do it. So, I ran down there, which I was really accustomed to running all around back then. I’m going down, and I had these blue boots on that were just a little longer in the toe than I was used to. They had these velvet ropes up in front of the front row to keep them from being too close to the stage. I decided to gazelle over that little rope, and my toe caught the rope. I went cla-clunk, cla-clunk, cla-clunk, and the audience went dead silent. It was so intense. When I get hurt or do anything stupid onstage, I just start laughing. It’s this weird adrenaline thing. It’s not that I think it’s hilariously funny. Although, it was kind of funny.

Before I get up onto the stage, I turn around and go, “Ha!” They all go, “Yay!” I couldn’t stop laughing so much that my son, who’s a good-sized young man, could barely pick me up. I was dead weight. The audience is just going crazy. My knees are all bloody. My pantyhose are messed up, and I’m laughing my ass off and finishing the song.

– Jason Scott, HashtagWV #117. September 2019. Follow Jason Scott’s interviews at bsidesbadlands.com

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