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Once a Carter Girl, always a Carter Girl

By Dan MacIntosh, April 2014

Expectations of being a "Carter Girl" - the way Carlene Carter refers to herself with her latest album title - must be extremely daunting at times. "It's as difficult as you want to make it," Carter explains. "I've always just embraced the fact that I was born into this family and very proud to be part of it."

However, much like her mother, June Carter Cash, Carlene has always been a free spirit and fiercely individualistic.

"I think in the very beginning, there were expectations of what I was supposed to sound like, or what kind of material I was supposed to do. We're talking back in '78, ‘79," Carter recalls. "And I just found I had a great label at the time who allowed me to experiment with different things and try different kinds of music. But all the time, I'm still a Carter girl. It doesn't matter what kind of music I'm singing. And being a songwriter, too, I'm just contributing to the catalogue of the Carter family, the way I look at it."

Carlene Carter singing at Austin City Limits - Me and the Wildwood Rose 1994

"Carter Girl" is an album where Carter covers some of the best known, as well as a few not so well known, Carter Family songs. And to hear Carter explain it, this project's been a long time coming.

"It's been in my brain for years and years and years," she says. "I always knew that I would do this record one day. Right after I finished the album ‘Stronger,' which came out in 2008, I decided the next thing I did was going to be this. I wasn't really sure how to go about it. It had to be all the right things, at the right time."

Singing Carter Family songs is not just carrying on a musical legacy for Carter; it's also extremely personal. "I miss them every time I sing these songs," she confesses. "I miss their voices with mine. So, I had to be ready in my grieving process to not have this be one of those things that is hard for me to pull out of me because it hurts to sing these songs."

In addition to its 12 songs, Carter had a little help from a few famous friends, including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. "Well, when we started out I had a list of lots of different people I thought would be great on the record, either playing or singing with me or doing duets," Carter explains. "The first three guys on the list were Willie, Kris and Vince Gill. I had already pretty much decided who would do which song because they belonged on it."

These special guests also fit the family nature of the album. "Those three guys are like family to me and were like family to my family. And after that, I didn't really have to look any further for male guests. I always looked at Kris and Willie as sort of like uncle/brothers."

There's also one special female guest.

"Elizabeth Cook just has that great high voice, and I dubbed her an honorary Carter girl," says Carter. "'Blackie's Gunman,' my duet with her, is such a fun song and an obscure one. A lot of people had never heard it, including myself. I just used her like crazy. I just asked her to be on the record, and the next thing she knew she was on six tracks. I said, "'Have you got one more in ya?'"

For Carter, it was also essential to hire the appropriate producer. Carter has always respected Don Was' work, and she's really happy with the special ways Was helped create this full-length.

"One thing I really wanted in my record was that, whoever produced this, was going to understand a little bit of what I might be going through," she notes, "and also get my personality on the record; my emotions and stuff. And sometimes you have very perfect records that have no real true emotion to it. Pretty much all my vocals and all my guitar playing are live when we tracked the record. And apart from doing the vocal overdubs, for harmonies and stuff, my performances were when we put down the basic tracks. For me, that was easy because getting into that moment and recording the tracks is not the same as playing it with the guys."

Carter also appreciated the way Was supported her guitar playing. "I tried to fire myself a bunch of times off the guitar," she admits. "And Don was really just encouraging to me, and he was really great about reminding me to trust my intuition and that I had great instincts – particularly regarding the making of this record."

Although Carter believes she waited long enough until she was emotionally ready to make this record, there are places where she had to fight back the tears.

If you listen to the song ‘Lonesome Valley,' I remember that was one of the last songs we did on the first day of tracking, and there is a moment I almost cried. And if you listen closely, it's in there. ‘I went back home to see my family/'Cause family keeps you strong.' I kind of get a little crackly there. And being sort of a perfectionist in some regards, I wanted to go back and re-do it. But the thing about it, it was more important to get the performance of the real thing for me, instead of getting it just perfect. Just perfect in the sense that it landed just right or the tone was perfect. I think it's perfect in its imperfections because it's real. There's not anything on it that I would change at all."

Carter particularly credits Was with helping her get past her tendency for perfectionism. "That I owe to Don because I told him upfront. I said, ‘If you leave me alone with this stuff, I'm going to start messing over it, and I'll mess it up.' So he was the perfect match for this."

Listening to "Carter Girl," it's astounding how much Carlene now sounds like her mother, June. And Carlene will not deny how much she learned from watching her mother and the many others in her famous musical family perform. Carter has also always had a great sense of humor, just like her mother.

"I learned from the sides of the stage and onstage, how to be an entertainer from my mom and the Carters and from John (Cash); and watching them, it's got to be thousands and thousands of shows I saw in my lifetime. My mama raised me, and she had a wicked sense of humor. And she had great timing. And I always feel the most comfortable and the most happy when I'm playing music onstage. And it's not a matter of applause – it could be 5 people there or 5,000 or 15,000. It doesn't matter to me. I'm having a good time. And I feel so fortunate that I've been able to make whatever kind of living it was per year since I was 16 as a songwriter and as a performer. I'm 58 and I started when I was 4."

Once a Carter Girl, always a Carter Girl.