After personal and musical ups and downs and changes throughout her career, Carter is back once again, having just released "Little Acts of Treason."
And this disc also marks yet another different musical period for Carter. "In a lot of ways it was the most I put myself into a record in the sense that I co-produced it and wrote half of it on my own," Carter said in a recent interview. "I just wanted to do it. It was almost as simple as that. I wanted to mature a little bit and move on. I still wanted to have my light-hearted and fun-loving Carlene stuff, but I also wanted to relate to the world that I am actually a woman and not a girl because I'm going to be 40. Sometimes I catch myself and I feel I'm not really being a grown up and I am very much a mom."
Carter, thrice-married with two grown children, marks number 40 Sept. 26.
Howie Epstein of Heartbreakers fame produced Carter's last two albums, but he had other commitments, including touring with Petty and producing John Prine.
"If I'd had waited again, we would still be waiting," Carter said. "I think it was also time for me step out a little bit more."
Carter credited label head James Stroud with being the one responsible for getting her to produce herself. "He said you could do it," she said. " If he says I can do it, I must be able to."
"I was terrified of producing myself because I had relied on Howie so much to keep me on direction," she said of the man whom she also has a relationship. "I had never really realized how much I had paid attention because I relied on him for things he could do that I didn't have to worry about. My security blanket was gone. My most trusted friend in the world would tell me what was wrong and tell me what was good. It was really strange for me to find out in myself to find I had all those qualities in myself for myself. I like a partner. I just enjoy the process of having somebody to bounce things off of. "
But at least on one occasion, that may have been a bit too much for Stroud. "One day he calls up and he says, 'what are you doing?'"
Carter told Stroud she just recorded Bingo in harmony.
Not the kids' song.
"Bingo's my dog," Carter said.
Stroud learned more than he bargained for. "'Carlene, I think it's best you don't tell me everything you do,'" Carter recalled Stroud saying.
"Little Acts of Treason" is one of Carter's strongest albums, filled with a batch of good songs and energy. The focal point is Carter's voice, capable of belting them out or taking it a notch down with ballads (the title track, "Change" and "The Winding Stream").
"Change" was an intensely personal song written at a low point where she was in a bad relationship and suffering from substance abuse. "I honestly thought I'd never record it," she said. "In my heart of hearts, I really wanted to. I thought for myself, I wanted to do it, but I wrote it for myself to remind myself. Its a constant reminder of how it could be."
The disc has garnered a series of positive reviews.
"I feel like I did a pretty good job for the first time," Carter said. "I went kicking and screaming. I ended up loving it. I'd like to do more of that stuff and not for myself. I'd like to find baby artists."
Carter acknowledges the musical diversity of the disc. "That's kind of how it turned out," she said. "It wasn't thought out. I've never been a huge fan of country music other than the really traditional stuff. 'The Winding Stream,' that to me is country music. The other stuff I call honky music. That's a different thing."
"I don't know if I fit into the country category," she said. "I don't know. I'm confused now."
Carter has not always been exclusively a country artist. She did start out that way, however, as her grandmother, Maybelle Carter, taught her to play guitar.
Carlene first sang with the Carter Family when she was four. The Carters were considered the first family of country music, having formed almost seven decades ago.
"I'm aware of it," Carter said of the family legacy. "It's pretty much the way things are. Every time I do an interview, things come up. I'm really proud of it. I do kind of feel like I'm an extension of it, but I don't feel a pressure to be a carbon copy of music they did. What I learned from grandma and mom was to be my own self. I carry it on in my own way. I don't think they would want it any other way."
Carter's mother, June and aunt sing on the new album.
As for her singing childhood, Carter said, "It wasn't like I had to go to work with them. It was fun. I had a normal childhood when I was little. I went to church on Sunday. ..We never had any idea if we had any money or not. Rosie (not to be confused with Rosanne Cash, her half-sister and daughter of Johnny) and I mowed the grass. It was pretty normal. The only time (it wasn't was when) Mom married Big John, and he was at the height of his success at that point. We lived in this big house. People were all over him. It was a different kind of thing."