The Carter Family name is one well known and well respected in the music world. Carlene, daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, was kind enough to chat with me about growing up in the Carter family music world and how it shaped her as a musician.
When you’re growing up, what your parents do for a living shapes you. For Carlene, music was constantly a part of her life. Carlene says, “It was fun, it was different from my friends, it was a way of life. It wasn’t until I started school that I realized not everyone’s parents did that. Grandma (Maybelle), Mom, Helen and Anita would rehearse a lot at our house when I was young.” And June thought it was important to expose her children to all kinds of music. “My mom was great about bringing home records that she thought mattered… like when I was 5 or 6 years old she brought home Bob Dylan’s first album and I remember her saying to me, ‘now, honey, you sit here and listen to this because this young man is going to change music forever.’ I look back on that and go ‘thank you mom’ because she broadened the horizon for me from the get go by taking me to see Broadway shows and musicals in New York and bringing home records and if I liked something on the radio she would get it for me.”
Carlene spent a fair amount of time growing up backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. “I was surrounded by music but at the same time my family was very down to earth and continued a home farm life.” The family grew their own food and canned vegetables. Carlene’s music education was a continual part of life. “Early on I was told this is Carter Family Music, so I’m really appreciative for that distinction for someone’s music being its own genre. The same thing happened when Johnny Cash came into our lives. Mama would say this is Johnny Cash music and the same thing with Elvis Presley. Obviously the Opry was very country but I didn’t grow up with those boundaries in place. I’m very grateful for that because I never felt that I fit into a particular genre, which gave me license to be who I wanted to be. I had a real well rounded education musically.”
With Carlene’s upbringing, she does have a memory of the first time she was on stage. Carlene recounts, “I was standing on the side of the stage when I was 4 years old, it was down in Chattanooga TN… It was a place we loved to go with mama and the Carters because it was a fair. I remember I was standing on the side of the stage in my little dress and ankle socks and mama was out there talking on the microphone and it was a big shiny silver one and mama was whooping it up… it was really fun and I walked out on stage and mama said, ‘well, hello. What are you doing?’ And I pointed at the microphone and said ‘I want to talk on that.’ Mama said ‘Well, what do you want to say?’ And she picked me up and I said ‘My Charlie dog had puppies.’” Carlene laughs and continues, “I was never afraid of the stage because my mom and my loved ones were on stage so I thought that must be a good place.”
Carlene’s first instrument was a ukulele given to her by June. Then, when she was six or seven she moved on to piano. “I was that kid who came home from school and just wanted to play piano. When I sit down and touch it what comes out of me is that emotion into that piano. It makes me forget every problem in the world and heals me or makes me happy, it has a positive effect on me. Sometimes, when you want to sit in your sadness, you don’t go to the piano because you don’t want to feel that because you want to sit in the mess a little longer. Music has been therapy for me all my life.” When Carlene got older, she graduated to guitar. She and her cousin, David, were the same age and she wanted to play with her boy cousins because they played rock music.
It would have been hard not to become a musician in the Carter family seeing as music was everywhere. Everyone in her family contributed to her music knowledge and even those outside of the family helped. “Carl Perkins taught me how to play my first bar chord,” Carlene said. By the time she was a teenager, Carlene was traveling with her family and singing songs with them on the road. June told her, “Well you sound pretty good and you look cute so I think they’re gonna like you.” June also encouraged her songwriting telling her, “If you just write one simple special song that people really identify with it will feed you for a long time…If you can write one song like “Ring of Fire…” as Carlene repeats this information she laughs. “Ring of Fire” is only one of the most famous songs of all time, so no pressure, Carlene. However, Carlene says this advice gave her the bug for songwriting.
Carlene says that Johnny Cash was also a big part of her musical education. “We would sit on the bus when we were travelling and he’d teach me and Rosie and Roseanne songs for hours by all these different writers, things he thought were important for us to know. He told us ‘When you don’t have a pick use a matchbook.’”
By the time Carlene was grown and pursuing her career, music took her to England. “My management had this idea to take a real country girl, with country roots and take her to England and put her with a rock band which was exactly what I wanted to do.” It was in England that Carlene met Dave Edmunds which led to her meeting her now ex-husband, Nick Lowe. “I saw Rockpile play on Old Grey Whistle Test and I knew of Nick although I didn’t really know much about him yet.” Carlene and Dave started working on music together so Dave brought in his bandmates from Rockpile to help. She says that she and Nick immediately liked each other. She says, “I remember thinking, I’m going to marry this guy… Not too long after that I went to see him on Top of the Pops with my manager… I saw him sing “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and he asked if I’d like to go to dinner with him. So we had a date planned for the next night and for some reason Nick decided he was going to stop drinking on that date. He was a little off his game but he was great and we really hit it off. [After] we went out we went back to my hotel and wrote a song together called ‘Too many teardrops.’” Carlene says after that point they continued their relationship long distance.
After a while, Carlene and her daughter moved to London and Carlene and Nick got married. “One thing I’ll say about Nick is we had a fabulous time together. We really enjoyed our lives together. I built a life in England that I loved. The thing about a lot of women that marry British pop stars is they go over there and think it’s going to be like when they met them in America but I had no delusions about that. I knew I had to make my own life because I knew he was going to go on tour to America and not be there. And we’re still great friends.” When they got married it was right when Nick’s song, “Cruel to Be Kind” had been released. “The ‘Cruel to be Kind’ video is our wedding. Trust Jake Riviera who is Nick’s manager to get us married and have a great wedding and make a video and somehow have the record company pay for it. It was a fun time and we both had a lot of energy and we were both really inspired.”
I asked Carlene how she ended up singing “Baby Ride Easy” with Dave Edmunds instead of Nick Lowe. She told me how when she met Dave they started working together on music. It was about this time that Rodney Crowell was also around and he and Carlene used to sing “Baby Ride Easy” together. She taught Dave the song and they started singing it every time they were together. “We made everyone sick of it… But we honed it and it was the first time I’d connected on a harmonic level with someone and Dave taught me a lot about harmony and also opened my eyes to a lot of country music that I had never delved into. The first country record I ever bought was the Flying Burrito Brothers because I liked their suits and I thought they were cute,” Carlene laughs. “I’m very grateful for my time in England to hone my craft and practice [it] and not be fearful about it.
Years (and many records) later Carlene is back in Nashville about a mile away from where she grew up. And she is very much connected to her roots (and Carter Family music). “My brother and cousins, all Maybelle’s kids, decided to get together and make a Carter family album. We recorded at the Cash cabin and we somehow managed to pull together five generations of Carters all on one album.” Across Generations was released in October of 2019. Carlene says, “It’s not your traditional kind of record, but it’s definitely a piece of art and a piece of history and a piece of the future, too.” Carlene Carter has kept her family business alive and continues the Carter family story and legacy in Tennessee.