There may be no one on Earth with deeper music roots than Carlene Carter. Daughter of June Carter Cash and ‘50s chart-topper Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, granddaughter of country-music matriarch Maybelle Carter, and niece of Carter Family players Helen and Anita Carter, Carlene has the blueprints for country music embedded in her genetic code.
It’s a legacy she has alternately resisted and embraced in her 40-year recording career, beginning with her early Brit-inflected rock records and circling back to her rebirth as a country singer with the chops to fit the profile. All of which translates to her new album with rocker-cum-fokie John Mellencamp, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, as well as her 2015 recording, Carter Girl.
“One of the things I had to realize was that I had to make these songs my own—because they are. They’re in my DNA.”
Carter was in New York this week for a three-song performance at the Paste Studio, where she played one of her own compositions from Sad Clowns as well as two songs made famous by the original Carter Family during their Depression-era heyday.
The first song, “Damascus Road,” took a dark road to a story of salvation. “It’s kind of a gospel song, in a way, but it’s also just my personal theme of everybody gets to a crossroads in their life,” Carter said.
The gospel themes in “Damascus Road,” and throughout Sad Clowns, were the seeds of Carter’s alliance with Mellencamp, with whom she toured in 2015 to support Carter Girl. “John said to me one night after I came offstage with him, ‘Hey, let’s make a record together. Let’s do an old-timey gospel album.’”
Up for the challenge, Carter came with a batch of new songs, only to find herself lured by Mellencamp back to her rock inclinations. “He actually has said since we’ve done this—he said, ‘Yeah, we started out gonna make a gospel album and Carlene wrote a bunch of gospel songs, but I didn’t, so…”
Nevertheless, she said, “The album as a whole does have a kind of spirit-based thing going through it, the human condition of life.”
Watch Carlene Carter’s full
Paste Studio session
It was the spirit of her forebears that suffused Carter’s next two songs at Paste. The first, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” was one of dozens of traditional folk songs transformed by the Carter Family into staples of American popular music between the World Wars. The story of a girl whose heart breaks in silence when she sees her ex-flame with another, “I’ll Be All Smiles” ultimately played a formative role in Carter’s musical development.
“My aunt Anita Carter—I called her Aunt Nita—she had the most glorious voice, and I just always remembered her singing that song,” Carter said. “There’s a few that she used to sing that I always just thought, I’ll never be able to sing those songs. And the nice thing about doing [Carter Girl] was that it was kind of like it was in the making my entire life, because I was told at an early age, you know, ‘When we’re all passed away you have to carry this on and keep the music alive.’ I am so blessed because I was left with a treasure chest of material, and I learn something new every day that I dig into that chest. One of the things I had to realize was that I had to make these songs my own—because they are. They’re in my DNA.”
Here’s Carter performing “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”:
And for a special treat, here is a pristine recording of Maybelle Carter performing “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” at Los Angeles’s Ash Grove club in 1963, an exclusive from the Paste Cloud.
Carter closed with “Wildwood Flower,” the song most associated with her grandmother Maybelle, whose singular “Carter Scratch” style of guitar picking pioneered the concept of plucking the bass notes as the melody while strumming the treble notes for rhythm. While it was Maybelle’s brother-in-law, A.P. Carter, who found and chose many of the songs the Carters would record during the 1920s and ‘30s, it was her musical innovations that secured their place in music lore.
“You know, a lot of the Carter Family songs did come over from our brothers and sisters over in England and Ireland, particularly Ireland I guess, and so it was reworked and done like that,” said Carter. “And A.P. would being these scraps of paper and all these things he would go out and collect, or write songs, and he’d bring them to Maybelle and she was responsible for putting it together.”
Here’s an exclusive recording of Maybelle performing “Wildwood Flower” at the Ash Grove in 1963.
“My grandma,” said Carter, “she was so humble. When I asked her one day, I said, ‘So, did you write all of that music?’ And she said, ‘I would just make up a little tune.’ And it was like, this is Grandma’s little tune, is ‘Wildwood Flower.’ I haven’t met a guitar player in my life who didn’t say the first song they ever learned was ‘Wildwood Flower.’”
The song is a veritable map tracing the backroads of American music from Carlene Carter through her mother June Carter Cash, who recored it shortly before her death in 2003, to Maybelle and the original Carter Family, who recorded it in 1928. It’s been performed over the years by Merle Travis, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others, but nobody can play it like a Carter.
“So many of the people that went on to develop more things, they got it from my little blue-eyed grandmother,” Carter said of Maybelle. “She could play with a flat pick, and she played with a thumb pick and finger picks, and I don’t normally do ‘Wildwood Flower’ like that. Today I’m gonna pick it flat pick, and she did teach me to do it that way.”