Carlene Carter dives back into her family’s old country roots
Born the daughter of June Carter and her country-singing first husband Carl Smith, Carlene Carter learned all about old-fashioned country and folk music when she could barely talk. She is descended from a Carter family lineage of legendary musicians that dates back to her great-uncle A.P. Carter, who traveled the country collecting traditional songs. And when she was 12, her mother married Johnny Cash.
Carter, who plays Kuumbwa Sept. 28, soon became a sensation in her own solo career, which began in the 1970s. Her latest album Carter Girl revisits songs by the old Carter Family band.
How did you get so much raw emotion into this new album?
We did very few overdubs, and all my vocals are live as we were playing it and all my guitar parts were live. That was cool. I haven’t been able to do that in years. You always end up going back and redoing it, and I think it needed the element and passion of playing live to it. If I start listening to stuff too much, I want to change things, or I want this perfect or that perfect, but I didn’t want to lose the emotional factor of it.
Who’s your favorite songwriter?
My mom is one of my favorites, because she’s a very unusual writer. The thing I admired about her songwriting is there was no particular formula to her writing. It was all stream of consciousness. … I love the song she wrote about my daughter Tiffany that’s on her Press On record, “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe” because it really makes no sense in terms of shape of a song. But at the same time she says everything she wanted to say in it.
Do you remember when she wrote “Ring of Fire?”
I was little. I was probably about five years old. That night she had a group of people over, and Don Law, and Merle Kilgore were there. Because Merle had always encouraged her with her writing, she turned around and gave him half of the song. I love it, because I’ve read interviews about how they wrote it together by him. [Laughs] But Momma never complained about how she gave up half of that song to someone that she cared about. I think [the song] really had to do with how she was falling in love with John while she was married and he was married.
Was it hard getting used to step dad Johnny Cash?
The strangest thing was that we moved from the place where we had known all our lives as home, and that was hard. Mom came home one day and said ‘John asked me to marry him, but we want to make sure it’s OK with you girls,’ so Rosie and I went in the bathroom and had a conference. We decided that Mama was really happy and that we loved him.
Who was more of a disciplinarian, Johnny or your mom?
John had six daughters when he added me and Rosie in there. A daddy with six daughters is the ultra protector. He was pretty strict, and if I was late coming in by five minutes or even if I were on time, he’d be pacing the floors. Every time I would get in any kind of trouble—and I was really a pretty good kid, I never intentionally did anything wrong—I was always grounded for three months. It was never three days or three weeks. Three months. [Laughs]
You’re famous for saying that one of your songs would “put the cunt back in country.” Do you regret those words at all?
Never. I only ever said that one time, and I had no idea my parents were in the audience. It was just a joke the band and I had made up, and I of course I have no damn filter and was feeling really frisky. After I came offstage, the band said, ‘Hey did you see your mom and dad out there?’ And I was like ‘Oh my, no, they’re not here.’ As soon as they came back stage, I said, ‘Mama, I’m so sorry. That word.’ And she goes, ‘What word?’ And John was furious with me—he could hardly talk.
Carlene Carter will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Gold Circle tickets are $40/adv, $44/door, General Admission tickets are $25/adv, $29/door. For more information, call 479-9421.