No, her songs are not about trucks.
With half her family in the country music hall of fame, Carlene Carter’s got more to sing about than Fords and Chevys. Many of her relatives set the destiny for country music’s upsurge in pop music by singing bluegrass and country twanged songs about love, substance abuse or religion.
The daughter of country music superstars June Carter (of The Carter Family) and Carl Smith, and stepdaughter to Johnny Cash, Carlene Carter is keeping the family legacy strong—though she admits to playing a little more aggressive than her ancestors. “I’m always going to be kind of a little left-field of the Carter family in some ways, even though I’m completely a Carter,” she tells BTRToday. “I just have a different kind of feel for it.”
Though she’s endured enough turmoil in her life to inspire country songs for centuries to come, she talks with an optimistic and peppy tone. “Keep on smiling no matter what,” she says in a soothing southern accent. When BTRtoday spoke to her on the phone she was enjoying a well-earned day off from the tour before having to get back on the bus for an overnight trip. “I really want my sixties to be my most productive decade, and so far so good,” she adds.
Already this year she’s released the album with Mellencamp and is working on another album, Forever Words, which features an array of different country stars taking the poems of Johnny Cash and turning them into songs. Carter says she’s especially excited about this project. “It’s where country is now,” she says. “It’s very basic but very experimental and fun.”
During her travels, she continues to write music for her own future projects. She fully intends to create a full-length album this year with a one-woman multi-media tour. “I’m a mover, which is getting hard on the old bones I guess,” she laughs sincerely. “It’s so worth it though.”
Being the busy woman she is, it took a month of rescheduling and reorganizing to get Carter to take a break and chat with us. Below we discuss Carter’s childhood upbringing in the heart of country music, her life struggles, writing music and the “new” Nashville.
She advises anyone writing music to always stay true to your heart and to not follow any rules.
BTRtoday (BTR): What are you working on?
Carlene Carter (CC): Mainly, I’ve been working my little tail off promoting the record and playing shows. I’m finding myself being very active throughout the whole night of this tour with John Mellencamp.
I love touring. That’s the whole process of writing a song and then recording it and then being able to go out and play it live for people. It’s the whole package for me. I could do without quite as many miles as I’ve got on my body, but that’s part of the deal. [Laughs]
BTR: Did growing up with the country music idols as parents affect your music writing process at all?
CC: I got some very good advice really early on; write from the heart and there are no rules about writing. You don’t have to rhyme or censor yourself if you don’t want to. I’ve experimented a lot publically, by making records where I was just interested in a certain kind of feel that I was into at that time, and I did that for quite a lot of years. But when I get to a crossroads of what I should do next I always come back to my roots of the Carter family. That always grounds me.
BTR: How does old school country music influence you?
CC: Well, let’s face it, those songs that came from the years that my grandmother and great aunt and uncle were in the original Carter family, those were timeless songs. If you can continue to draw on that kind of inspiration then that leads to another song. Going back into that little treasure chest. The feeling I get from that is what causes me to write a song.
I don’t have to have a lot of heart-wrenching drama in my life; I’ve had plenty of that. I just go back in a time capsule for a few minutes; I don’t have to relive it all. A lot of people tell me they can’t write [songs] when they’re happy, and I just think that’s crazy. Just crazy, people! I’m happy and I still write.
BTR: Is there anything in today’s music scene that inspires you?
CC: Well, I love singer/songwriters that are entertainers or storytellers. There are a lot of people that I like, but I really go back to the stuff that really moves me. Like last night on the bus we were listening to NRBQ—they’re kind of a musician’s musicians and Al Anderson [NRBQ guitarist] is a great friend of mine. He and I wrote some of my hits and I’ve probably written more songs with him than I have with anybody.
BTR: What kind of music do you tend to listen to these days?
CC: I listen to whatever comes up. I know there are a lot of artists that are dipping into country now because country has opened up to not being quite a good ‘ole boys club as it used to be. Beyoncé dipped her stick into the honey, and Justin Timberlake—it’s pretty interesting. Then there’s the whole scene of LA moving to Nashville, which has really changed the Nashville perspective. I live in CA, but it really doesn’t matter where I live, I’m always going to be a Tennessee girl at heart.
BTR: What was growing up in country music like?
CC: When I was a little kid I got to live in New York some ‘cause my mom was in acting school there. She always liked to tell the story of me being pushed around central park in my baby carriage by Elvis [Presley]. I never met Elvis, but I guess I did when I was a baby.
Mom gave me a lot of great advice about being a writer and owning my heritage and carrying it on, the legacy of the Carter family. So I try to do that in everything that I do. But I’m always going to be kind of a little bit left field of the Carter family in some ways. Even though I’m completely a Carter. I just have a different kind of feel for it. I’m a little more aggressive in my playing and when I hear music I cannot stop from moving. I’m a mover, which is getting hard on the old bones I guess. [Laughs] It’s so worth it though.
BTR: What do you think of this new Nashville scene and new country music? Do you think the old school twang is going to be lost or it’s just getting revamped?
CC: I think everything goes through its phases, but it always ends up coming back again to the classic stuff. We’ve had a lot of different resurgences in country music. It’s really down to the song though. I think that goes across the board, not just in country. Nashville has always been a songwriter’s place, the songwriter’s haven. There are probably more songwriters congregated in that area than anywhere in the world, which is pretty cool—well, as far as self-proclaimed songwriters.
BTR: So do you think country music is moving in a good direction?
CC: I’m all about change is good. Certainly, we’ve taken country music into a new century with a lot more pop-ness and rock-ness to it. And with that comes a younger crowd, we’re making new country fans all the time.
BTR: What’s your favorite part about working in country music and writing country music songs?
CC: I get to share a little piece of myself and hopefully touch somebody and make their day better. Even if it makes them cry, it could be a healing cry. People really do listen to the lyrics a lot more, and that’s something I love about country music in particular. I also think country has become the new rock ‘n’ roll in a way. Rock is so different now than it used to be.
BTR: Do you have any advice for people trying to bring that old school country style back?
CC: Write from the heart, write your own songs, keep your own publishing and always be true. Use your imagination. I’ve been having a love affair with creativity my entire life and it’s never betrayed me.
BTR: What do you have in store for the future?
CC: Well, next year is my 40th year of making records, so I’m going to take a one-woman show out on the road. It’ll just be an evening spent with me, which is kind of what I do anyways. I’m going to add some audio visual stuff to it with a lot of pictures and videos and lots of stories that I haven’t told yet—all intertwined with the musical journey of my life. It’s quite ambitious, but I’m going to do it.
I’m also hoping to have a record out sometime next year. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover in however longer I’ve got. I really want my sixties to be my most productive decade, and so far so good.