Carlene Carter: Country Music Royalty

May 31, 2019

Bow down — or politely curtsy — in the presence of country music royalty like Carlene Carter. As the daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter Cash, the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash (who bought her first electric guitar from Sears), and part of the groundbreaking Carter Family, it's fair to say Carlene Carter grew up enmeshed in country music.

In a conversation with NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, Carter described her earliest memory of performing. She wandered on stage at one of her mother's shows at the age 3, pointed at the microphone and exclaimed, "I want to sing on that!" Carter also wanted to be a rockstar, and understood the responsibility she had to carry by continuing the legacy of the Carter family's music.

Carlene Carter appears on Ask Me Another at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mike Katzif / NPR

Early in her career, Carter moved to England to write songs for artists like Emmylou Harris and The Go-Go's while opening for bands in vastly different traditions of music including The Clash, Bow Wow Wow, and UB40. She joked of these punk acts, "They kinda dubbed me cow punk."

She's since become a prolific and successful songwriter and musician in her own right, carving out a place for herself with hits singles such as "I Fell In Love" and "Every Little Thing." Most recently, Carter released an album with John Mellencamp in 2017, titled Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.

Carter's 2014 studio album Carter Girl was a family effort. "That album was an album I knew I'd always make," she explained. Carter invited different members of her multi-talented family to write songs with and for her. A guiding principle for the project, Carter shared, was that "I wanted them all to be songs that I'd wished I had written. I wanted them to make them mine." And she has avidly woven her love and commitment to her fellow Carters into her work.

As part of along matriarchal line of musically talented Carter women — including her mother June Carter Cash — Carlene Carter is now hoping to pass on the Carter Girl legacy to those next in line, her granddaughters, who also show an interest in music. She said of the younger generation: "They're scared because grandma's like, 'Here I've got all my stage clothes saved for you!'"

For her Ask Me Another challenge, Carter, whose voice and music was once used for a pinball machine, guessed which musician or band is featured in a real pinball machine based on its physical description. *pinball music plays*


On performing her 2014 album Carter Girl:

"I actually was singing songs that I understood and that I felt a part of."

On finding direction in her career:

"When I don't know what to do, I go back to my roots, back to the Carter Family. And it always has served me so well."

"I get really attached to the idea that I am carrying this on. I do feel them around me. There's nothing like singing with family and being able to sing those songs is like singing with them. I love it."

Heard on Trace Adkins And Carlene Carter: Cowboys And Cowpunks.

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While Elizabeth and Jarrod get ready for the final round, it's time to welcome our next special guest. You know her from her hits "I Fell In Love," "Every Little Thing." And she has a new album with John Mellencamp called "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies." Please welcome back Carlene Carter.


EISENBERG: Hi, Carlene.


EISENBERG: Thanks for coming back.

CARTER: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. I'm having a great time.

EISENBERG: OK. Just to refresh for everyone, your father was country music Hall of Famer Carl Smith.


EISENBERG: And your mother was June Carter Cash. And you and your mother both grew up performing as part of the family.


EISENBERG: Do you remember the first time you thought, hey, I want to do this?

CARTER: I think the first time I ever was onstage, I was three years old. I walked out onstage in the middle of a performance, and Mom was - Mama saw me coming. And I said, I want to talk on that...

EISENBERG: The microphone.

CARTER: ...Pointing to the microphone. And that was it. And I remember thinking all I ever wanted to do was grow up and be a Carter girl.

EISENBERG: And your stepfather Johnny Cash bought you your first guitar from Sears...


EISENBERG: ...An electric guitar when you were...

CARTER: It was in a silver tone - electric guitar, and it actually plugged into an amp. It was cute, but I really wanted to be a rock 'n' roller.


CARTER: Yeah. Yeah. I wanted to be a rock 'n' roller. I wanted to study classical piano, and I wanted to play "Boogie Woogie" on the piano. So I had all these things that I wanted to do before I was 12 years old. I had great inspiration, you know?

EISENBERG: No kidding.

CARTER: I really did.


EISENBERG: So you know, you've mentioned that your grandmother said to you even when you were a child that when we're all gone, it's your responsibility to...


EISENBERG: ...Keep the music alive.

CARTER: Yeah. That was instilled in me from - as far back as I can remember them ever talking about it, it was like, you know now when we're all gone that you have to keep this music alive, and you have to carry it on. And the thing was - it wasn't just that I needed to remember all the old songs. I needed to add to it, as well...


CARTER: ...You know, much like my aunts and my mom did, too, and Grandma did after the original Carter Family. They added on. And so our generation - the third generation - we started adding on.

EISENBERG: And did it ever weigh - like, the weight of it...

CARTER: I never looked at it like that. I looked at - it was like it was a gift, and I've got to share it. So I do the best that I can. And I don't expect that I'm just going to, like, shake the whole wide world up, and everyone's going to - it's going to be on everyone's lips. You're all going to be singing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" all day long.




CARTER: ...It's not going to happen. But it's like we carried on in our own way. And in my music myself - that I've written, I considered it's Carter music.


CARTER: And that's it, and that's the way it goes. And I'm happy.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And early in your career, you moved to England, and you were writing songs for Squeeze, the Go-Go's, Emmylou Harris. And you are doing your own stuff, and you're opening up for bands like The Clash.

CARTER: Yeah, I played a festival with The Clash, Bow Wow Wow and UB40. And the only thing that probably got me away with it is I had on rubber pants and (laughter) - and Beatle boots. And I looked the part. And I went out there, and I sang (singing) if I was on some foggy mountaintop.



CARTER: What are you going to do? (Laughter) So they kind of dubbed me cowpunk. And I - you know...

EISENBERG: That's one of my favorite descriptions.

CARTER: I think maybe the see-through plastic mini skirt got me that - yeah.


CARTER: It's mildewed now. Don't worry.


EISENBERG: So this 2014 album, "Carter Girls" - this is a collection of songs that were written or co-written by a member of the Carter Family. It's 12 songs.



CARTER: It was hard. It was...

EISENBERG: Yeah, how many songs - like, over 800? How many are you going through?

CARTER: Yeah, there's definitely at least 750, if not more. And I wanted them all to be songs that I wish I had written. I wanted them to make - make them mine. So I wasn't just singing a lot of Carter Family songs as a vocalist. I actually was singing songs that I understood and that I felt a part of. And I've got to say that in all my life, in all the things that I've ever done, when I don't know what to do, I go back to my roots and back to the Carter Family. And it always has served me so well.

EISENBERG: Like coming home.




CARTER: And, you know, that album was an album I knew I would always make. And I waited a good amount of time till after my mom had passed away to do it because they were so incredible. But I just remember, you know - gosh, I'm starting to get a little emotional. But sometimes I do - I get really attached to the idea of, you know, that I am carrying this song.


CARTER: And I feel them around me. There's nothing like singing with family, and being able to sing those songs is like singing with them. I love it.

EISENBERG: Have you told your daughter that it's her responsibility to...

CARTER: She - oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.


CARTER: And my granddaughters, too.


CARTER: And they're scared 'cause Grandma's like, hey, I got all my stage clothes safe for you.


EISENBERG: All right. Carlene, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

CARTER: OK. I'm ready.

EISENBERG: Carlene Carter, one of the amazing things we found about you when we were doing research that stood out was that your voice and music is in a pinball machine.


EISENBERG: It's called Road Shows Red. You play the character Red, who is described as a brassy country girl with a heart of gold...


EISENBERG: ...And a freewheeling way with a bulldozer.

CARTER: Yeah. And I have a hard hat on (laughter).

EISENBERG: You have a hard hat on. Was it weird to do a voice for a pinball machine?

CARTER: I tell you what. That was one of the easiest recording sessions I've ever done. They gave me a list of states, and I got to say, Alaska.


CARTER: I got to say, Tennessee, Music City, USA. I mean, it's like all this list of things. And then I got to say, oh, you missed it.


EISENBERG: So we love pinball, and so we wrote a quiz for you called Pinball Music.


EISENBERG: It's simple. I'm just going to describe the features of a real pinball machine. You just tell me the musician or band it is themed after.


EISENBERG: OK. Here we go. This machine features a miniature version of its star, complete with shaking hips. Shoot your ball at the cute little hound dog, or fire it up the left ramp...

CARTER: Elvis Presley.

EISENBERG: That's right.


EISENBERG: I didn't even have to say the rest of the clue.


EISENBERG: This pinball machine was released in 1979 when its featured star was crossing over from country to pop. According to the marketing materials, during the game, the song "Here You Come Again" plays, quote, "for extra entertainment pleasure."

CARTER: Dolly Parton.

EISENBERG: Yes, that's right.


EISENBERG: On this machine, you can shoot your pinball up Gene Simmons' outstretched tongue and into his mouth.

CARTER: Oh, Kiss.


CARTER: French kiss, I'm guessing.


EISENBERG: The makers of this 1967 pinball machine originally avoided licensing fees by theming it around a fictional mop top band called the Bootles.


CARTER: The Beatles, the Bootles. OK. The Beatles?

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

CARTER: (Laughter) OK.


EISENBERG: Carlene, you did great.

CARTER: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you did amazing.

CARTER: I love y'all.


EISENBERG: Carlene is performing at the Nashville Palace on June 7 for the annual event Next Generations: Sons and Daughters of Country Legends and July 8 at the grand opening of Johnny Cash's Kitchen and Saloon right here in Nashville. Carlene Carter, everybody.

CARTER: Love you guys.


CARTER: (Singing) Oh, eat your heart out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.