Aspiring artists face few challenges more daunting than escaping the shadow of a family member who has established a reputation in the same field.
That goes double for Carlene Carter.
The veteran singer and songwriter not only is the daughter of one of the most prominent female figures in all of country music -- June Carter -- but she’s also the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, who along with her brother-in-law A.P. Carter and his wife was part of the Carter Family, a trio whose recordings and radio performances played a crucial role in bringing country music to the world nearly a century ago.
Oh, and her stepfather happened to be Johnny Cash.
So, although Carlene Carter grew up with some of the most vaunted figures in country music history, she spent a major part of her early adulthood separating from the family tree.
Now, however, at age 58, the woman who briefly was married to British pub rocker Nick Lowe and spent quality time in the ‘80s with Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is reclaiming her country heritage with a new album, “Carter Girl,” that was released last week (April 8).
“Honestly, from the beginning of my career it wasn’t the right time,” she said over a lunch at the restaurant of her West Hollywood hotel during a recent stop in Los Angeles. Her straight brown hair falls nearly to her waist, much as her mother’s did throughout her life. “It wasn’t the time to be doing something like this. It really would have looked like I was falling on the laurels of my family’s heritage, and I never wanted that. I was so much my own person.”
Besides, she notes, for much of the early part of her life, other family members were gladly carrying the torch for the Carter Family legacy. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, her mother and two aunts, Helen and Anita Carter, toured on their own and then with the Johnny Cash Show once June and Johnny started working together.
“They were all still living and it was being actively pursued,” she said. “I’d join up with them every once in a while for a year or two, in the middle of trying to think what my own next step would be.”
It’s taken almost four decades for her to feel comfortable embracing the music her mother and grandparents brought to listeners in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Those include relatively well-known songs such as “Give Me the Roses” and “Poor Old Heartsick Me” and more obscure numbers Carter found digging through her relatives’ archives, such as the haunting “Little Black Train” and the Old West-style character study “Black Jack David,” which she performs as a duet with Kris Kristofferson.
Other guests on the album include Willie Nelson -- like Kristofferson, a longtime family friend -- Vince Gill and singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook. And there’s a posthumous collaboration on the closing track, “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” featuring long-ago recorded vocals by June, Anita and Helen Carter along with Johnny Cash.
In addition to the original Carter Family songs and later material popularized by Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Carlene has two songs of her own in the mix, “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” a new version of a song she wrote for her 1990 album “I Fell in Love,” and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” which she expanded and updated after the deaths of her relatives.
Carter’s motivations for coming to this material now include the pursuit of her own career as a singer, songwriter and actress (she spent 13 months in the mid-'80s starring in a production of the musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in London’s West End theater district) before the devastating losses of her mother, stepfather and her younger sister Rosey within a span of less than six months in 2003. It soon became apparent that the responsibility of keeping the music in front of audiences would fall squarely on her shoulders. But that didn’t happen right away.
“Every time I’d start to sing one of those songs I sang with them, I’d burst into tears because my grief was so huge,” she said. “I had to get to a point where it felt good again, instead of hurting.”
In 2005, Carlene took a role in a Nashville production of the musical “Wildwood Flower” in which she portrayed her own mother. “It was about her early days, up until the time Mom left [the Carter Family act] and went to work with John. I sang these old songs every night, and that’s when I realized, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ ” she said. “But I’d already written a whole new record, so I wanted to did that first.”
About four years ago, she also got a new manager -- Randy Hoffman, who encouraged her to embrace the Carters’ music, and that led to “Carter Girl.” Carlene says she’s felt a sense of fate at work in putting the album together.
“I had a wish list,” she said, “and all my wishes came true. I wanted to work with Randy Hoffman, I wanted Don Was to produce it, I wanted to do this Carter record and I wanted to be on Rounder Records. And all of ‘em happened. Check check check. I believe in the power of positive thinking and praying. Dear Lord!”
Current president of Blue Note Records, Was is also known for producing several latter-day Rolling Stones albums and Bonnie Raitt’s multiple Grammy-winning “Nick of Time” album in 1989.
“It’s a big deal for her to come to terms with her heritage, just as it is for anybody,” Was said in a separate interview. “At some point, you think about where you sit in your family lineage; it doesn’t matter if you’re making records or driving a taxi, you become aware you’re part of this continuum that moves through you. I think the normal steps that everybody goes through are rebellion, denial and, ultimately, acceptance.
“Having accepted that she’s part of the Carter Family, how do you do that in a way that’s got honest self expression, as opposed to imitating what your grandparents did?” Was asked. “I think she hears things in a way where she found how to be part of the Carter Family and be true to herself.”
Carter is doing many solo performances -- more akin to one-woman autobiographical theater than conventional concerts -- focusing on the music of “Carter Girl.” She’ll be doing three stops in the Southland in the days ahead, including a Q&A session and short performance on April 15 at the Grammy Museum downtown, an in-store appearance April 16 at Amoeba Music in Hollywood and a full set on April 17 at Hotel Café.
“Unless people are historians, they won’t go back and look at thise old songs and they wouldn’t have heard them otherwise,” she said. “My hope with this is to be able to keep the surprise in that. And I am the queen of surprises.”
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2