Music ‘royal’ Carlene Carter gets personal with family stories, new focus

November 20, 2018

(AP/Robb D. Cohen)

Growing up Carter: Musician talks life in the spotlight, future of country (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON — Lots of children dream of becoming doctors, teachers or firefighters when they grow up. But those fantasies never crossed Carlene Carter’s mind.

From a young age, the Grammy-nominated artist knew her future would be filled with music — and it’s easy to understand why.

Carter, 63, is music royalty. Her grandmother — Maybelle Carter, of the Carter Family vocal group — was one of the first country music stars in the U.S.; her father, Carl Smith, had 30 Top 10 Billboard hits; and her mother, June Carter Cash, a well-known singer, songwriter and actress, was the wife of country legend Johnny Cash.

“I learned watching every single one of my family members — they’re great entertainers, and that’s all I wanted to be,” Carter said.

This year, Carter is celebrating 45 years of her musical career. Over the decades, she’s released chart-topping albums and has toured the country “with all the big hat acts of the 90s,” but now, her focus is more personal.

Carter recently moved to Nashville to concentrate on songwriting, even setting up residency at the famed Bluebird Cafe. And after a 2017 tour with John Mellencamp, she is playing smaller venues and sharing stories about her famous family between songs.

“And that’s the way I think music should always be … I’m going to talk to [the audience]; I’m going to know them and they’re going to know me by the time the night’s over,” Carter said.

Singer Johnny Cash, left, and Jerry Wexler, Warner Bros. record executive, plant a kiss on the cheeks of Cash’s stepdaughter, Carlene Carter, during the good luck party held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, June 9, 1978. The party was held to celebrate the release of the 22-year-old Ms. Carter’s latest album, recently recorded in London. (AP Photo/Rick Bocklet)

She is also working on a new album, available in the spring of 2019, with her brother John Carter Cash, featuring old tunes from the Carter side of the family.

“There’s a new instrumental on there that [my grandmother, Maybelle Carter] wrote that we just found on a little tiny piece of tape on her autoharp and that ends the [album],” Carter said.

WTOP recently caught up with Carter before her show at D.C.’s City Winery to find out more about what it was like growing up in the Carter-Cash household, and to hear her thoughts on the future of country music.

Songs and stories

With 13 albums under her belt, Carter has no shortage of material to play on stage. And having grown up in a famous family, she isn’t short on stories to share, either.

“My stories are about things that people didn’t get to ask,” said Carter, who lost her mother, stepfather and sister all in the same year (2003).

“[The audience] wants to know things that only I know, and the other people I am talking about have passed away.”

Carter said she also discusses her “hiccups in life” and tries to “add levity to some hard times.”

“I try to be really open and honest about everything,” she said.

On pursuing music

Carter’s first dream was to become a Broadway star. She took the stage for a year in a London-based musical in the 1980s, but found more success in songwriting.

“My mom gave me the advice to write songs, and that has been my bread and butter most of the time,” Carter said.

“I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I’ve been able to stick around because, you know, it’s one thing to be related to all these very talented people, but you don’t get to hang around for 45 years like I have if you don’t have a little something else to offer.”

Having parents out on tour

Growing up with a father, mother and stepfather in the music industry (not to mention all of the extended family), Carter said time on the road and in the spotlight “was just the way of life for us.”

“I always used to fantasize about what it must be like to have your mom and dad come home from work and have dinner at the same time every day,” Carter said.

That said, those nontraditional careers had an upside. Carter said her mom would often be home for two weeks at a time, each month, between performances.

“And who else’s mom would come to school and play her banjo for your class? And I was completely cringing the whole time, but it was always interesting. There was never a dull moment,” Carter said.

The future of country music

These days, country music has many branches — there’s pop-country, Americana and folk, to name a few. But Carter is confident the traditional country her family has played for generations will always anchor the genre.

“It always comes back to traditional country, eventually. At some point, it will come back to embracing that,” Carter said.

“Really, what the whole thing is about is the song. It’s not about your pyrotechnics on stage … I think it’s all down to a person sitting down and singing a song to someone and meaning it and connecting with the audience. That is what I do it for.”

The taxing side of touring

Life on the road can take its toll on musicians, and Carter admits that touring is different now than it was in her 20s and 30s. The equipment is heavier and the hotels she stays in are nicer. (She prefers soft beds and soaking tubs.)

But still, nothing makes her happier than playing and sharing her music.

“Everything I’ve dreamed of has pretty much happened to me. The thing I dream of most now is that I just get to keep doing it,” Carter said.

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