When you grow up a singing member of what is widely viewed as country music’s most prestigious family, a record honoring your roots would seem an inevitable undertaking.
So when Carlene Carter released such a project this spring, a tribute to the heralded Carter Family titled Carter Girl, it was easy to consider the work as an essentially predictable chapter in a lengthy and stylistically far-reaching career.
But as the veteran singer explains, Carter Girl was more a work of destiny than a formulated career move.
“I got started singing Carter Family songs before I ever wrote a song myself,” said Carter, who performs at tonight’s taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “But it’s really just going back to my roots. Throughout my entire career, whenever I would get to the point where I didn’t know where I should turn musically, I went back to the Carter Family and somehow managed to work with them a little bit. That would always bring me back to who I am.”
The granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, the singer actually got her first view of individual mainstream popularity not with Carter Family songs dating back to the late ’30s but through a series of late ’70s and ’80s albums cut with such Brit rock elite as Graham Parker and the Rumour, Rockpile, Paul Carrack and now-former husband Nick Lowe.
Flash forward to early ’90s and Carter was embraced by Nashville for a trio of more retro-fitting country albums led by 1990’s I Fell in Love and its Grammy-nominated title song. “The thing that Mama instilled in me a lot was to always follow my heart and all of my own intuition into any kind of endeavor, and to never try to fit in. She said to just be myself and that would serve me best. And that’s what I’ve done. Sometimes I’ve been successful, sometimes not. But every single thing that I’ve done has brought to where I am today.”
Carter Girl boasts help from such notables as Don Was (who produced the album), Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Elizabeth Cook, Kris Kristofferson and, by way of tracks recorded in the late ’80s, members of the then-current Carter Family. But taking on the Carter Family legacy full force also required some self-schooling.
“It was quite a feat to go through about 500 Carter Family songs and still have room for some of my own. So it seems really appropriate that I would do Me and the Wildwood Rose again (Carter first cut it for I Fell in Love) because it means even more to me today than when I wrote it back in ’88, about 10 years after grandma had died.
“This is probably the greatest gift in my entire career, to be able to have this wealth of material that I can draw upon and share with other people. It has inspired me to be a better writer and better singer. They feel easy to me, even when I’m learning them. And I’m learning them every day, I’ve got to tell you. Every so often, I mess up onstage. I’ll start into something and go, ‘Oops, that’s just unacceptable. Mother Maybelle is rolling over in her grave. Let’s get this right here.'”
Carlene Carter and Jason D. Williams perform at 6:45 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St. for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.