Carlene Carter has one of those personalities that make it difficult to be somber when she’s in the room. The singer’s infectious laugh and lighthearted banter fill the studio where she is performing songs from her latest album, Carter Girl. However, when it comes time to discuss the project, which features her fresh takes on a variety of classics from her family catalog, the daughter of June Carter Cash settles down and becomes serious (albeit with a smile).
“It was always in my mind that I would do this one day,” she confesses. “Out of respect, I waited while [my family members were still present. My grandmother was still alive; and my mother and my aunts – I didn’t think it was the right time, because they were still active in making records and touring and stuff. After Momma had passed away I gave it a good amount of time, because I had wanted it to be a celebration of the music.”
Music itself, of course, is no departure for Carter, who has a formidable multigenre catalog of her own dating back to the 1970s. However, while her past work was directed to establish her own identity, Carter Girl is, finally, where she comes full circle and examines her rich heritage. Here, too, she puts her uniquely “Carlooney” stamp on things, handling the family jewels with a light but deft touch that appreciates the music without being awed or intimidated by it.
As fans of the Carter legacy might imagine, the process of choosing songs for the album was a lengthy one. “I took about a year honestly just because it was so important to me and there are about 500 songs to choose from,” she explains. “I also wanted to try and use not only the first generation of the original Carter Family, but the second generation – which was my mother and my aunts – and then my generation, which was the third generation. So, trying to tip my hat to all those things.
“I finally got things down to a hundred songs, then I got it down to 50 songs, and then eventually going backwards and forwards with my producer, Don Was, we came up with the list.”
Not surprisingly, Carter unearthed some gems along the way. That said, “I actually started with the ones that I knew first. That was on my first list – the ones I had sang, the ones I knew, the ones I was familiar with. Then I started going, digging around for one that I liked the story of; or the fact that it had made me wish I had written it. That was a large part of it for me.”
“There was a lot of songs that I found that I was surprised by,” she admits. “One being ‘Little Black Train.” I had never heard that and no one in my family had ever sang that to me as far back as I can remember. So that was a surprise, and then I put my slant on it … my kind of style. It’s still very much a Carter family tune, but it’s just got a little bit more Carlene in there!”
When asked to recommend a particular song to fans off the new set, Carter is definitive: “I think personally the most intimate song to me is ‘Lonesome Valley 2003’ because I’m talking about my mother’s passing and what it was like afterwards. And John’s passing; my step-father – Johnny Cash. And then, my little sister had passed,” she notes, recalling the paticularly difficult year which marked the loss of all three. “So when I’m singing that song I’m not just thinking of them; I basically used an old Carter Family song ‘Everybody’s Gotta Walk that Lonesome Valley’ — something that I’ve sang most of my life whenever I worked with the Carter family that was part of our set. I share that one with Vince Gill and he’s got such an angelic voice.”
Gill isn’t the only special guest Carter features on her album. The singer packed her project with both standout peers and loved ones: “I was really lucky – I got to share a song with Willie Nelson, one with Kris Kristofferson and one with Elizabeth Cook. My cousin Lori’s on it. Very family-oriented. My husband’s on two songs.”
“I was pretty much told as a young kid, when I started playing music, that it would be my responsibility one day to keep this music alive,” Carter notes. “Someone asked me, what does this feel like to you? What does it feel like to do this record? To do this now?
“To sum it up in a couple of words, I said, it feels like home. That’s the way I’m looking at it, and the way I feel.”