Having success in the early '90s with her own brand of music, "I Fell In Love" and "Every Little Thing" catapulted her into fame. She married Rockpile's Nick Lowe and hung out with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, all while living in London. "They used to like the little wild streak in me and the fact that I never hid anything," Carter explained about how her family would react during those heady days. "They would get a kick out of when Nick and I would pick them up in London in a limo after having been up all night. They would laugh and John would laugh."
That fun girl spirit has never left Carter, onstage and off.
"It was always strongly suggested that I carry on the music of the Carter Family," she wrote in the liner notes to her latest CD. "I've had a wonderful time exploring all styles of music throughout my career but no matter where I've roamed creatively, I always return to the music of the Carter Family... It's always felt like home."
I talked to Carlene about those roots and how her own songwriting has been influenced by those who came before her.
Carlene Carter: The first leg went really, really good. The audiences have been so receptive and really accepted me and I've gotten great reviews, which is always nice. And of course working with John is an added bonus because he and I really enjoy each other's company, particularly musically. He asked me to come out and sing one of his songs from Ghost Brothers ["Away From This World"] and then he and I duet on another song from that ["Tear This Cabin Down"]. It's really fun to go out and see the audience again after I've been out and done my thing and be a part of his show. It's just a little cherry on top.
Songfacts: What do you think is Mellencamp's best gift as a songwriter?
Carlene: I've admired his songwriting for many years and I think he's like a poet. He's very poetic in his lyrics and one of the things I like about him is that he doesn't always follow the standard rules of a song in the sense that he doesn't always rhyme on the second and fourth line of the verse.
I saw an interview with him not that long ago and he talked about his songwriting and that it comes from somewhere else for him, his own stream of consciousness, or it's being delivered to him and he's just putting it out there. He's a very smart man and he says what he thinks. There is an honesty in his songwriting that is very deep. He's also really good at making it so infectious that you can't stop singing it. Every night I walk away from the show with one of his songs in my head. I need to try to keep more of the songs that I'm trying to finish writing in my head [laughs].
Songfacts: How early did you feel the pull to write a song?
Carlene: I certainly felt the pull of music very early on. As soon as I discovered a piano in our living room when I was a kid, Mama started teaching me a boogie-woogie song on it, and I was obsessed with it. Most kids would come home and go straight out and play, and I would come inside and play on the piano. Then she got me a ukulele. That all started when I was about six years old.
The songwriting for me didn't come until I was about almost 17, and it came at the suggestion of Mom who said in such an innocent way, "Now, Honey, you look good and you sound pretty good when you sing and I think you're really going to like it but what you really need to do is you need to see if you can write a song. There are no rules. You can make up anything you want to and if you can just write one song, maybe a song like 'Ring Of Fire,' something like that, then it would change your life."
I love that story because she said it with the most earnest heart of a mother giving her daughter career advice. After that I became obsessed with songwriting. I wrote a whole bunch of bullshit early on because I didn't know how to do it.
Songfacts: Do you remember one of your earliest songs?
Carlene: The first time I ever wrote a song, I used the movement from a Tchaikovsky piece on the piano, the chord progression of that, to write. I wrote like a poem and made it into song form, what I thought a song should be like. It actually wasn't too bad. I couldn't sing it for you now, I have no idea, but I was very into what was coming next in my life at that age, and having left home so young I really was feeling optimistic about the things that might come my way in my life. I still have that joy of a young girl as a writer when I am onto a song. Now it's a little bit different for me over the years and I've learned how to channel it a bit better.
But I actually recorded a demo of that song, and God knows where that's at. It was around the same time I wrote "It Takes One To Know Me" that I gave John for his birthday. I gave him a song 'cause I had no money and it was his birthday and what do you get Johnny Cash anyway? [laughs] So I had written this song for him and he said, "I'm going to record it," and he didn't record it that I knew of. Time was ticking and Waylon Jennings - it was one of those nights of sitting around playing songs to each other with different writers - he heard it and said, "I want to cut that." And I said, "Well, you got to ask John because it's his song, I wrote it for him, and it's his present." So he called John up and John said, "No, that's my song." [laughs] And at the time, Waylon was huge, just huge, and it would have been awesome.
But after Mom and John passed away, it hadn't been a year since they had died that I got a call from my little brother saying that they had found in the vault a demo that Mom and John had recorded as a duet and would I put my voice on it. So I got to sing with them, the first time that I had sang with them after they had passed away, which may sound weird to people but it feels so good, like they're in the next room. It was very emotional for me to do it.
Then on my record Carter Girl, I had Helen, Anita and Mama [collectively known as the Carter Sisters] sharing a song with me, and John was on all the choruses of it ["I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow"], off an album that we had done together. I've transferred the 24 tracks that I have to digital now so that I can go back and hopefully include another one of those somewhere down the line. But I think the Carter Family and the record that I just did has influenced what I'm writing these days.
Carlene: In my early teens I did admire a lot of the pop music of the day, and the craft of songwriting. I admired the writers. I was one of those liner note junkies that knew who wrote every song on every record. I was infatuated with Jackson Browne. I was infatuated with Elton and Bernie Taupin. Even before I started writing, I had a songbook I got of Elton John's and it had "Border Song" in it, a lot of different ones. I was infatuated with Bernie's lyrics and as it came to pass, he and I became friends many years later and I've been able to write a song with him in my lifetime. That was a huge goal that I thought would never happen.
I wrote with Susanna Clark, "Easy From Now On." Susanna and I were great pals and she called me up one day and she said, "I have a great line for a song: 'It's a quarter moon in a ten cent town.'" I said, "Come over." By the time she got there, I had already sorted out the whole music, the melody and everything, and had started on the first verse. Then the second verse was, "It's a quarter moon in a ten cent town." From that we made a song.
Songfacts: So you enjoyed collaborating from very early on.
Carlene: I found that I loved the collaboration, writing with someone else. It inspired me. I do tend to write a little bit more by myself these days, just because I'm working really hard and my alone time, when I'm writing, I'm by myself.
I collect ideas from here and there - I don't know if I'm going to turn around and sound like John Mellencamp now, but when you're around a certain kind of music a lot it tends to filter into you. In my case, really studying the music of the Carter Family has brought about a shift in my writing that I'm really enjoying. It's pure and uncalculated. But when you're a writer and you want other people to cut your songs, sometimes you try to think of it in their voice. But these days I tend to write more things that are more from personal experiences and hopefully I've written enough songs about everybody that's passed away in my life that I don't have to write any more. At least not for the time being.
Songfacts: Do you predominately write on the piano or an acoustic guitar?
Carlene: I do both. The songs I write on the piano tend to not be uptempo, just because there is a soulfulness to the piano that I find really healing and comforting to me when I'm playing it. So I find my melody, I find what I want to say and then it kind of carries itself. It's a very soulful trip that I go on. The muse comes and takes my hands and makes them go places that I'm not expecting.
Probably because I've been playing guitar more and also playing alone without a band, and then also trying to challenge myself to play the style of guitar my grandmother did, I've started translating things more to guitar than I used to.
Everything used to run through my brain. Even when I wrote something on the guitar it would go through my brain from piano because when it's your first instrument, you don't remember not knowing how to do it. It's always in your head when you're playing. Some people don't have that. I had it for a long time but now it's becoming where I'm able to play whatever I hear in my head on guitar, which I never could do, and basically it's just out of freaking laziness [laughs].
You know, I watched this great documentary not long ago on the Eagles, the first one that they did before they broke up. Jackson Browne is in it a lot and either Don Henley or Glenn Frey were talking about living upstairs from Jackson Browne and how he would play a song over and over and over again. And I went, That is exactly how I write. It's bizarre. It drives people nuts that are in the house with me but it goes like that until I get carried to the next part of it.
Songfacts: Do you usually hear a melody first or words?
Carlene: I usually get a feeling first. It's a feeling that I get before I ever even touch an instrument or write a word down. Now and then I will jot something down that I say or that I hear somebody say in a certain situation that sparks a creative note in my head. Then I'll make some notes or I'll be writing about something, how I'm feeling, and it turns into a song. It's like, which came first, the chicken or the egg? And I never really know.
I used to be a little more formulated in it because of wanting to write all my own music, and once I jumped on the train of having hits and going on tour a lot, I had to be more disciplined in my writing - it couldn't just be when I felt like it. Honestly, I could sit down and make up something every day, but I don't do that. I kind of let it fester in there. Let it fester a bit and then it all comes pouring out.
The last album that I wrote all the songs on was Stronger, and that was in 2008. I wrote that album in about three months, which is pretty fricking fast, and I hadn't written anything in years. I hadn't really written anything that mattered to me. So I had stored up all this stuff and it all came out.
With every song I get more inspired to write another song, so once I start that jag of writing, that's when I get on a flow and I'll write a lot. Maybe in a three to six month period, I'll usually be productive. I always have a dry spell of writing after I do a record because I never feel like it's completely done until I'm out on the road and I've sang it a hundred times. And then I start getting antsy and want to do another and start writing more songs and start formulating what I want it to look like.
I'm going to do the next album in much the same way I did the last one with [producer] Don Was. I'm going to use some of my family's music. I wouldn't call it Carter Girl II because that's too cliché. I don't know what it will be but I am going to go back into the treasure chest and pull out a few more songs that I wish I'd written, 'cause there are a lot of them. Then compliment them with things that are mattering to me today. That's where I'm at.
Carlene: Oh, of course, yes! One of the reasons I waited a long time to do this album was because Mom and Helen and Anita were still singing when they were all alive and Mom was still making records and I didn't want to jump out and do a Carter Family tribute record right after my Mom died. It just seemed wrong to me. I wanted a respectful amount of time to go by. Carter Girl came out in 2014 and it took a while to make the record because I waited for Don, when he was available. By doing that though, it was a great gift because the list that I had was very long and almost none of the songs that are on this album were on that list. I was able to get into it and find and really own the songs as my own.
I didn't want it to sound like I was just singing a bunch of Carter Family songs. It doesn't feel that way to me and I forget sometimes that I didn't write them [laughs]. But I am so respectful of them and I would never want to be disrespectful in my portrayal of a Carter Family song because they were passed down to me to carry on. So I do guard them with a pretty heavy monitor on myself. I try to be true to myself and my own musical tastes and bring them to where I'm at musically. And that's the thing about them, they are very timeless songs. It doesn't matter that they were written a hundred years ago. Some of them are probably older than that.
Some are a little bit newer because I tried to cover the three generations by doing one of Helen's songs, one of Mom's songs, a song that Aunt Nita might as well have written because she was so well-known for singing it, which is "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight." That one I was nervous about singing because my Aunt Nita was like a god to me. She was the goddess with this voice and of course my grandmother and Aunt Helen were the best musicians I ever knew in my life. My mom had the spirit that kept them all moving and I think I got the right dose of all of them in myself to be able to carry this on.
"Lonesome Valley 2003" is credited to you and AP Carter [the patriarch of the Carter Family trio]. Why did you choose to rearrange that particular song?
Carlene: What happened was I started writing this song for Mama and all I kept going back to was "Lonesome Valley." When I would get to the chorus, this is what I want to say, I can't say this any better than this. So I basically rewrote the song. I wrote my song with that in it and I meshed them into a song that I arranged and wrote new lyrics to the verses, because really there weren't any verses to "Lonesome Valley;" it was pretty much an all-chorus song and I added musically to the chord progression a bit and my melody and the verses is all my own. That's how I did it. Then my buddy Al Anderson came over one day and I was working on the bridge and he said, "Hey, stick this chord in there, the G base, play the C chord and hit the G base and then resolve it to the G." And I'm like, "That's brilliant!" So Al helped on the bridge.
The lyrics to that are things my little sister Rosey said to me in her last year on earth. She was very down and I would worry about her and I would say, "I'm worried about you. I want you to be okay." And she'd say, "It's just the blink of an eye, Honey. Life is just the blink of an eye." And, "I'm going home to Jesus" and stuff like that. And I'd be like, "No, don't leave me." Then her body would be all messed up and I would say, "You've got to take care of yourself." And she'd say, "It's just a case for the soul." So those words came out of my little sister's mouth. That song was hard to write and I made it through recording it but there is one little spot you might hear where my voice cracked a little bit in the last verse when I'm talking about went home to see my family.
Songfacts: Is it hard to perform the song, or songs like it?
Carlene: Some nights it's hard. I get them in my head for whatever reason and I get way into the song and I'll find myself getting emotional and I have to pull back because I'm doing a job. But part of my job is to be real and honest. I tell you what, this tour, there has not been one single night when I've gone out to sign during intermission at the merch table and meet people and stuff, that I haven't had a sobbing woman in my arms who had just lost her mama. And that means I'm doing my job, because I'm touching people, and they thank me for the song. It makes them feel like carrying on.
One of the things about my family is that the fans really thought they did understand them, and they did. And I think I was gifted that from them - they taught me that that was part of the deal, and not just about being successful.
Songfacts: Would you say writing "Lonesome Valley 2003" was emotionally harder than writing "Me & The Wildwood Rose"?
Carlene: It was different because it was en masse. "Lonesome Valley" represents to me the loss of everyone in my life. It was centered around Mom and John and I almost didn't make the last verse have John passing in it but it was part of the story of where I was going. Then my little sister died three weeks after John. I couldn't go to that. I'd already written a song about Rosey dying. But it was part of what I needed to get out of me and even if nobody ever heard it, I'd made my sorrow into music, and that is so healing.
When I am "spinning," as I call it, spinning plates like they do in the circus, when I get too busy in my head and life is happening all around me and there's nothing I can do about it 'cause it ain't my job, I go to music and it settles me down and keeps me happy. It keeps me emotional, and I do want to be emotional and have all my feelings. As an ex-drug addict, I can tell you I used to run from my feelings and now I don't. I embrace them, whatever they are.
Songfacts: There's a song off your second album called "Old Photographs." Is that also about your sister?
Carlene: That was about growing up when me and Rosey were little and living in Madison [Tennessee] where my grandmother lived and passed away. That was where my mama and daddy lived when they were married. It's just about those days, jumping on trampolines. The sun would come up in the summertime and the sun was just a giant clock. When the sun went down we went back in the house. Mowing grass, just being little girls and playing.
There are a lot of songs about Rosey in my life, about us together.
Songfacts: You had a hit in the early '90s with "Unbreakable Heart," which Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers wrote. What was it about that song that called to you?
Carlene: He's been a real dear friend of mine for lots of years. We actually started our careers around the same time. I think they were a little bit ahead of me but I was almost produced by Denny Cordell, who produced the Heartbreakers, and I met Ben back then. One day I was at the house and I was working on the Little Love Letters album and Ben was always around when I was recording. He was over at the house all the time and he was a huge help and great musician. He was going through a divorce, at the end of a relationship, and he called me and said, "I've written this song and I think it's really good." And I said, "Come over."
So he came over and he played it to me and I said, "I want to cut it." He wrote it the day before we recorded it and I just got my hands on it before anybody else did. It's a brilliant song and when he played it to me on the guitar and sang it to me, I was just blown away. I said, "We've got to cut that" and we went right in and did it. I was intimidated to sing that song because it was rangey for me, but I loved it so much.
Songfacts: Do you still recognize the girl who wrote that first album in 1978?
Carlene: Oh my God, I guess I'm still partly her. I was just so wide-eyed and even though I had seen a lot of life and been exposed to a lot of life, I was on my own basically and thrown into this whole whirlwind of being the "It Girl" of Warner Brothers that they just believed in so much. The funny thing is, they were going to sign me but they had never heard me sing. The head of Warners said, "Maybe I ought to hear you sing."
My manager had heard me, Eddie Tickner, who managed Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. I was friends with Emmy and Rodney and they were on Warners and they had said I was cool and good. Management went to Warner and said, We got this blue-blood country girl from the Carter Family who writes her own songs and is beautiful and blah, blah, blah. So they take me to this big party and he says, "Now, we're going to walk in and nobody's going to know who you are." It was this whole calculated thing to see if people reacted to me just walking in. And I was thinking, this is so weird [laughs].
So I go into this party and when we were leaving the party, Ed Tickner and Martin Smith, my managers, turned to me and said, "Okay, you're a hit. They're going to sign you." I'm like, "What? How does that even work?" But yeah, that girl, I thought I knew a lot and I knew nothing. But I had fun.
Songfacts: And you went to London to record.
Carlene: Telling me I was going to London to record, my first reaction was, Dave Edmunds, I love that song "I Hear You Knocking." And then the whole Nick thing and everything just happened. I made a life for myself in London. I had a handful of girlfriends that married English rock musicians and spent so much time stuck in London while the guys were touring America, and they all ended up getting divorced and leaving. But I made a life for myself. I made friends and had my own world.
The best thing about it for me was that I basically ran away to the old world to find something new. Because if I had stayed in Nashville, I would have been cookie-cuttered into something that I really didn't want to be. I didn't really realize that or think about that so much. I was too country for rock and too rock for country, and it wasn't the way Linda Ronstadt was. So going to England freed me up to just make a record and to do whatever I wanted to.
And the thing about the radio over there was that they actually played my first single on the radio all the time. Then right after me would be The Clash. I toured with The Clash and Bow Wow Wow, all these different acts. It was the perfect opportunity for me to have my own freedom to experiment and I will say that Warners were awesome in having the patience to try and build an artist out of me. That was the best part about that stroke of genius they had to take me over there.
I may have possibly turned out to be more successful had I stayed in Nashville and been on the Nashville train, so-to-speak, but I would have always been regarded as somebody's daughter a little bit more. I wasn't worried about that stuff, but that was the number one question I got asked, and still get asked: Is it intimidating to be the daughter of? I've always looked at it like, Hey, I've been born into the coolest damn family in the world.
Songfacts: I didn't realize you played with The Clash.
Carlene: I did. Not a whole tour but I played dates with them and stuff. I'd be on these festivals and I'd be in between Bow Wow Wow and The Clash or UB40, all these different kinds of things. There was no segregation of music in London and that was the cool thing about the radio there. They would play Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You" and then they would play Boy George. It was all over the place and I loved that. It was just music, every kind of music. You could have a hit, it didn't matter if you were trendy all the time.
They called me Cowpunk. They called me the rebel because I left Nashville, because I was very open about anything I was doing and I was pretty wild. But there was people that did lots of worse things than I did. I was just having a big time. It was just a different world back then.
You know, I listen to country radio every now and then and it sounds a whole lot like my records from the early '90s. I like to say I take responsibility for Taylor Swift's wardrobe [laughs]. I paved the way for her to wear her little dresses.
Songfacts: In terms of your songs, the ones that you've written, out of the women in your musical genealogy, who do you think you are like the most?
Carlene: I think I'm a conglomeration of Grandma, Helen, Anita and Mom because they all influenced me in particular areas. I really have tried to be a better singer than what my mom would say she was. A lot of people say I sound just like my mom. I think I sound a lot like her because I'm her daughter, but I also have my mom's drive and comedic sense, outgoingness and ambition – but not maybe as ambitious as Mom in her heart of hearts was. She had great lofty ambitions but she brought me up to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I could actually achieve anything I wanted to. I was never really intimidated by trying to do what I wanted to do.
My grandmother was a perfectionist, as my Aunt Helen was. I wish I had a little bit more of my Aunt Helen's harmonic sense. She was the one that knew every part to everything and I've had to work at it a bit but that's another trait. My Aunt Nita just had this beautiful voice. She was very quiet-spoken but there's a mischievousness to her that I think I have. So I think people would say Mom but I do think it's a true amalgamation of all of them.
When people ask who raised me, it was all of them, not just Mama. Because Mama when she married John she was gone so much and when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandma and my aunts and traveled with them and stuff. So I think this has all just rubbed off on me in different ways. I adored my grandmother and I never for a moment thought that I would even play halfway the kind of guitar she does. That has been my greatest challenge in the last several years because I decided I was going to learn how to do it and I still don't have it down just right but I'm getting there. And that's the thing about it too: It never really felt like she was completely there because she was always working at it. And that's what I do now, I work at my playing.
Carlene: That is a first for me. I'm pretty stoked about that. It's something that every artist would dream to do and I certainly did and I figured I might be there someday on somebody else's bill and that's fine. I'm getting to go so I'm excited. Sometimes I go, "I'm on the road with John Mellencamp. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's my friend. This is weird." [laughs] But that's the thing, I've never really been too affected by stardom, per se. Things I got excited about were the Monkees coming to the house when I was a kid.
I didn't even realize how much I loved George Jones until I moved to England and George Jones used to sit on our couch and sing. And I was like, Okay, I'm really missing out on a lot of stuff. I couldn't really understand how some people held certain people in high regard so much because I just wasn't exposed to that music. All I knew about country music was Carter Family music and John. Johnny Cash music was just Johnny Cash music and Carter Family music was just Carter Family music. They were just their own thing and that's why I strive to be myself. And that's the thing about categorizing these awards: I never know where the hell I would even fit [laughs]. I guess I'm Americana now.
Songfacts: It's funny how you turn into that.
Carlene: It is. It's like when you turn 50 you automatically become Americana. It's okay. I don't mind a bit. There's nothing more American than Carter Family music.
Songfacts: You open Carter Girl with their song "Little Black Train" but you made it a little bit different.
I had the lyrics in front of me and I kind of knew what it did. Basically, it's just two chords through most of the thing, then it goes to three chords, but I came up with that guitar thing, so that's my little rocking. When I do it live, it's got even more energy than on the record.
I just thought it was a great little opener and that it said a lot about the progression of the song being timeless and also the contents. That was another challenge in the choosing of the songs. My list leaned very heavily towards the spiritual side, the spiritual songs, and I had to really get in there and try and balance that out to where it wasn't just a gospel record, because the whole album could have been that way. Not that I wouldn't want to do that someday. I just thought it needed to be a little broader, since I was trying to cover three generations of Carter songs in one record.
Songfacts: Who are your three wise men of songwriting – the three songwriters who inspire you the most?
Carlene: My mom for one. And not just because she's my mom but she is the one that gave me the information that has guided me: there are no rules, you don't have to rhyme, you just have to be truthful.
It would be crazy to say that Elton and Bernie weren't huge, particularly the lyrics of Bernie. I want to put John in there and my dad but it seems like I'm just saying my family. Dolly Parton. I've got to put Dolly in there cause Dolly writes from the heart.
But I have a million. I loved Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther. I like Don Henley. I was crazy about Linda Ronstadt. I saw her play when I was 13 or 14 at the Troubadour and Kris Kristofferson was opening for her. I saw her go onstage and she just had this voice that killed me and she had on her bluejean mini-skirt and had a tambourine and I said, I'm going to do that when I grow up. She made a big impact on me. She always chose great songs and a lot of those writers I talked about were from those days. I think Kris Kristofferson too. It just goes on and on.
Songfacts: Is there anything else happening with you besides the tour? Any new music you're working on?
Carlene: I'm trying to write the theme song for a movie that my husband is making called Wounded Eagle Flying. It's almost done but I'm just tweaking it. I had to kind of turn it around and make it a little bit more a song that he could possibly sing if he wanted to be the one singing it in the film. I had to take out a line, "Now I'm a grown-up girl." He can't sing that [laughs]. But I'm enjoying that and it's funny, the way John Mellencamp and I met was he invited me to come and sing this song he had written for the movie that Meg Ryan has coming out called Ithaca. That was when we became friends, when I went to Indiana and recorded with him and the guys this really cool song called "Sugar Hill Mountain" that's in the movie. And the movie is wonderful. We got to see a rough cut of it and I was very impressed.
My other goal is to campaign for my mother and my aunts to be put into the Country Music Hall Of Fame because even though the Carter Family is in there that was not Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters or June Carter, the other Carter family. They're going to say, "Oh, you're already in there." Well, they're not and my mom certainly had a big impact on country music and I think that she should be in there. That's come up over the years so I'm hoping that for next year I can campaign for that. I know that there is an internet thing going on where they're trying to raise awareness about the contributions the Carter Sisters made to the Grand Ole Opry and country music period. So I think they should be admitted into the Hall Of Fame.
I loved singing with them and I learned more from them than I did anybody else in all the years I've been out and about and making records with different producers and different artists. I always look back to my roots. When I didn't know what to do musically, I would go back to the Carter Family. So my job is to carry on this music, so that's what I'm going to do. Of course I'm going to keep adding to the catalog of Carter songs with my own songs.
March 13, 2015
Carlene's website is carlenecarter.net
Photo Credits: Marina Chavez
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