Carlene Carter embraces her country music heritage in ‘Carter Girl’

Country singer-songwriter Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter, who has a new album, "Carter Girl," exploring her heritage as a third-generation member of country's revered Carter Family, in West Hollywood on Feb. 12, 2014.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t as if Carlene Carter was short on source material to draw on for her new album, “Carter Girl,” the first of her 37-year recording career in which she fully embraces her place in country music hiistory as the daughter of June Carter (Cash) and the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family.

“I made a list of every Carter Family song I knew that they had sung or I had sung when I was with them,” she said of her periodic drop-ins as a member of the Carter Sisters touring unit that included her mother and two aunts, Helen and Anita Carter.

“I also used the box set that Bear Family put out, ‘In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain,’ ” she said, referring to the exhaustive nine-CD set encompassing 99 tracks that the German Bear Family label issued in 2000. “I made those kind of my workbooks.”


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But as it turns out, she also collected more than a few suggestions along the way from her stepfather, Johnny Cash.

“John knew more songs than anybody I ever knew,” Carter told me recently in West Hollywood for a full profile that will be appearing in Calendar in the days ahead of her L.A. tour stops next week at the Grammy Museum (on April 15), Amoeba Music (April 16) and her full set at the Hotel Café on April 17.

One question I put to her: Did Johnny Cash ever give her a list of songs he recommended that she know, as he did for his daughter Rosanne Cash, which she famously used as the template for her 2010 album “The List.”

“He did make the list,” said Carter, the child of June Carter’s first marriage to country singer Carl Smith. “He may have given Rosanne a different list than he gave me, but I never thought of it like that. I just felt like he wants me to learn these songs because he thinks they’re cool. That was the idea of it.”

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The album includes several songs credited to A.P. Carter, Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter, the original Carter Family as well as some from her mother and aunts and a couple of her own reflections on her place on the family tree, “Me and the Wildwood Rose” and “Lonesome Valley 2003.”

“My grandmother [Maybelle] told from the time I was a small child until she died, and then Mama and Helen and Anita told me, ‘You’ve gotta carry the music and keep it alive and bring it to other generations.’ It’s a big thing to be charged with.

“I try to bear it well,” she said, “and that was the fun part about choosing the songs. I really discovered so many songs that I didn’t know. And I thought I knew a lot of them.”


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