Carlene Carter concluded her first “Wonderful World of Women Who Write” series of in-the-round performances at Nashville’s Bluebird Café Tuesday night, with the casual atmosphere, off-kilter humor, surprise guests and memorable performances making for an enchanting pre-Halloween treat. Featuring Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg, with additional unannounced performances by Terri Clark and Erin Enderlin, the two-hour show at Nashville’s iconic listening room was yet another reminder of the empowering role of women in country music.
Carter, who recently moved back to her Music City birthplace from Los Angeles, drew the crowd in instantly with the call-and-response refrain of her 1994 single, “I Love You ‘Cause I Want To.” Carter’s Tennessee-via-Virginia upbringing as a member of the First Family of Country Music shone through as she played guitar with the commanding ferocity she learned at the knee of her grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter. Her humor, a gift passed down from mom June Carter, offered less of the traditional and more of the off-the-cuff hilarity as she recalled wearing a see-through plastic mini-skirt at New York’s Bottom Line. “That dang skirt would fog up on me… I needed a dehumidifier,” she said. Carter was also partly responsible for one of the night’s funniest bits, which led to Berg cracking up during the final verse of her otherwise somber, “Oh Cumberland.” As the virtual assistant Siri started talking when Carter lifted her iPhone off the table, Berg found it nearly impossible to finish the song.
Switching from guitar to autoharp, Carter noted that her instrument was made from a tree planted in Hiltons, Virginia, the area known as Poor Valley, by her great-uncle, A.P. Carter — another of the founding members of the Carter Family. With her daughter sitting nearby, Carter told the story of her mother June’s song about young Tiffany from the 1999 Grammy-winning album, Press On. The song, called “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe,” concerns the aspiring actress and her fascination at the time with Quentin Tarantino’s films. As comical as it was chilling, when Carter strummed the autoharp and sang, “I thought he was a good old boy from Knoxville, but Quentin Taran-tiner makes the strangest movies that I’ve ever seen,” it was impossible not to hear June Carter Cash’s mountain-grown voice and feel her warm spirit in the room. But as the song ended and Lowe told the audience that Tarantino had to convince people he was not dating her, Peters quipped, “That’s the most unique thing I’ve ever seen at the Bluebird… and I’ve seen a lot of stuff at the Bluebird.” Carter then pointed to a corner of the tiny club and said, “Especially that room back there,” a comment that led to a number of best-left-unprinted memories from her fellow performers. Other songs she offered, with her daughter Tiffany Lowe adding harmony, included the autobiographical “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” about her travels with Mother Maybelle and the family matriarch’s death in 1978.
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Other highlights of the night included Peters’ “On a Bus to St. Cloud” — recorded by Trisha Yearwood in 1995 — her haunting “The Matador” and “Disappearing Act,” a track from her outstanding 2018 LP Dancing With the Beast and one that reduced Berg to tears. Peters explained that the song was inspired by her late mother, noting, “After she died, she started coming back and feeding me songs.”
Berg’s contributions throughout the night were also exceptional, and including the touching “Back When We Were Beautiful,” which has been covered as a duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, as well as her CMA-award-winning hits “You and Tequila” and “Strawberry Wine.” Enderlin, an obvious disciple of the other participants and an extraordinary songwriter in her own right, offered the mournful honky-tonk ballad, “Til It’s Gone,” and Terri Clark, her frequent collaborator and a Music City veteran whose early years performing at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broadway remain evident, reached back the vastly underappreciated 2000 album Fearless for “No Fear,” a song she co-penned with Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Clark then introduced “Nashville Girls,” a song that has never been officially released due to her parting ways with the record label she recorded it for at the time. The song, however, has some impeccable credits as it was written by Berg and Peters and recorded by Clark with vocal assistance from Reba McEntire, Sara Evans and Martina McBride. The uproarious, lighthearted and twang-filled tune, while it may have been written several years ago, captures much of the sentiment directed at female artists today in their effort to gain more traction at country radio, in a chorus that says, “God love ya, we need more of ya, Nashville girls.”
Carter also sang an emotionally charged version of “Change,” a track from her 1995 Little Acts of Treason album that references some of the darker periods of her life, issues and incidents about which she has been refreshingly candid. But even as she, Peters, Berg and the other performers, as well as the audience, ended the night singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a song that is unmistakably about death, the air was heavy with celebration, giving Carter her own full-circle moment — a musical homecoming shared with family and friends.