The Hippo


Apr 23, 2019








Carlene Carter. Courtesy photo.

John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter

When: Friday, June 30, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Bank of NH Pavilion, 72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford
Tickets: $39.25 and up at

Carter rounds out Americana summit

By Michael Witthaus

 Carlene Carter’s musical lineage is with her everywhere she goes. 

“It’s the first paragraph of every story, all the people I’m related to — which somehow is supposed to qualify me,” she says with a hearty laugh that punctuates much of the phone interview. “See? Look at all these people she grew up with!”
What’s set Carter apart as an artist, however, is frequently pushing beyond her heritage. In the late 1970s, she left Nashville for London, to make records with Rockpile, Graham Parker’s band The Rumour and Clover — when the latter band wasn’t backing Elvis Costello in the studio. 
Carter’s rebellious activity, marked by her touchstone album Musical Shapes, helped pave the way later for a generation of female performers. 
“The so-called ‘New Country’ boom of the early ’90s,” wrote roots blog No Depression in 2007, “owes a great debt to Carter’s inability to conform.”  
“It was so freeing musically because of the fact that there was no genre, there was no big segregation,” Carter said. “On any day, I could rock like hell if I wanted to, dress however I wanted. ... That whole time of my life was so much about creativity.”
“The First Family of Country Music” — started by A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter in the 1920s and carried on by June Carter Cash with her sisters — always stayed a beacon for Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. 
When her career ebbed mid 1980s, “I wormed my way back into the band with Mama, Helen and Anita and that felt like home,” she said. “All my life, when I haven’t known what I wanted to do next musically, I go back to my roots, where my family and my ancestors come from. I draw on that for strength and foundation.”
In 2014, she made Carter Girl in tribute to that heritage, recording 11 Carter Family songs and remaking her original, “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” a tribute to her sister and frequent singing partner, Rosey Nix Adams. 
“I inherited a huge treasure chest of material,” she said of the selection process that involved winnowing through close to 1,000 songs. “I came across a few that I had never heard or might have heard maybe once. I really tried to find ones that applied to me in some way, that when I sang them, I wish I had written them.”
She received support on the record from Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Elizabeth Cook, and other country stars close to the Carter legacy. The most remarkable backing vocals, however, are heard on  “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” as June, Helen and Anita Carter and Johnny Cash join in via technological magic. 
“I pretty much cried tears of joy every day in the studio,” Carter said. “I really felt my family around me in spirit, and singing with them after the fact, after them being passed on, is such a wild thing. ... It really felt like they were there.”
Carter is currently touring with John Mellencamp in support of his newly released Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. The disc is  officially a record by Mellencamp “featuring Carlene Carter” — a unique credit reflecting the close musical bond that’s formed between the two since they first worked together on the soundtrack of Meg Ryan’s 2015 film Ithaca.
“John gets a little confused when he tells the story,” Carter said. “I corrected him; he doesn’t normally take correction very well, but he did laugh it off pretty good. But that was the first time we connected. ... I flew out to Indiana on very short notice and went in the studio and recorded it. Then we talked all afternoon — that was the beginning of our working relationship.”
By the end of this tour, “we’ll have done over 175 dates together; that’s a lot of work, shows, towns and miles. It’s a wonderful gift in my life.” 
Carter will open with a half hour set and then sing with the headliner on hits like “Pink Houses” and new cuts like “What Kind of Man Am I?” and “Indigo Sunset” — the latter written and sung by Carter.
The new project began as a gospel album, an idea raised by Mellencamp. 
“Really old religious hymns put to music and make them more current,” Carter recalled him telling her. 
The project became something different, while loosely holding to his directive. 
“There are a lot of songs that explore the spirit, that we are just a speck of dust flying through the universe on the tail of an ass,” Carter said.
The current tour is Carter’s first with Emmylou Harris, a performer she points to as responsible for starting her career. Carter and Susanna Clark co-wrote “Easy From Now On,” the de facto title track for Harris’s 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. 
“The next thing I know, I’m sitting in front of Emmylou playing it to her. ... Emmy proceeded to talk about me to her manager, Eddie Tickner, who decided he wanted to be my manager,” Carter said. 
In short order, she was signed to Harris’s label. 
“I really love that Emmy saw something there, and at that time, they listened to her opinion,” she said. 

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