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Once country music’s rebel, Carlene Carter returns with album that reflects on her family history

BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Carlene Carter can wear her country music credentials on her sleeve proudly — She represents the third generation of the pioneering Carter Family, the musical group whose recordings starting in the late 1920s are considered the blueprint for country music of the subsequent century.

After nearly 40 years of making music herself, she has just now turned her attention to her family with the recent release of “Carter Girl” (Rounder), a new album of primarily Carter Family songs that are updated to reflect her own life and times. Producer Don Was recorded them to sound, not retrieved from a vault, but as if they were written just yesterday.

Carter is the daughter of country vocalist Carl Smith and June Carter Cash, and her stepfather is, of course, Johnny Cash. While those three undoubtedly served as mentors, Carter says she also spent her earliest life with Maybelle Carter, her grandmother whose fingerpicking style has influenced generations of players.

Maybelle Carter died in 1978, one year before her granddaughter released a first album of her own. Recorded with British rockers the Rumour (the album line-up includes Brinsley Schwarz, Graham Parker, Steve Goulding, and Nick Lowe, whom she later married), her music from that point forward represented the intersection of rock, punk, and country, but her most recent album has brought her home to her roots.

Like many country singers, Carter’s biography provided plenty of source material over the years. Despite several hit albums, Carter says she was creatively sidelined in 2003 after the sudden deaths of her longtime companion, bassist Howie Epstein, her mother, stepfather, and her younger sister Rosey.

Carter now lives near Santa Barbara and is touring, appearing at City Winery Saturday. What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation.

What was the motivation for making this record and redoing these songs you probably heard your whole life?

It’s a pretty much instilled in me at a pretty young age that some day — and at the time it seemed infallible to me that my mother and grandmother and aunts would be not here — but I was supposed to carry on the music and keep it alive. There is such a wealth of music. I look at it as this giant locker full of treasures that I was able to have a key to go in there and pick out these songs … And picking the songs was really fun. It was quite a feat. It took me years to narrow it down to these twelve ones that made it to the record. I had tons of lists. Because they are so timeless. They still relate in a very positive way to what’s going on in the world.

What do you think is their continued relevance?

They have commonality to the human condition. There are songs of faith, songs of hope, there’s songs about forlornness — unrequited love is a big one. And of course we have a murder suicide song — we have to have one of those. Just the positive messages of the songs, which I think are really needed in this time. And I’m also adding my own experience in relation to the music, which is where “Me and the Wildwood Rose” came in and also “Lonesome Valley 2003.” To be able to take an old Carter Family song and then write my own experience to what I felt. Because that’s how I felt: my mom died, my [younger] sister died, John [Cash] died. That year was a rough year … It was a lonely business going through grief. You can try to share your grief with other people, but you have to go through the whole grieving process yourself. Part of waiting to honor the music as long as I did after 2003 was I wanted it to be celebration of the music and not grief-stricken. So by giving it a good healthy amount of time, it all came out the way it was supposed to.

Sounds like the songs were cathartic in getting you to record again.

I took a big rest, basically to get my life together. I was a trainwreck there for awhile. I went through a grieving dark period and not sure if I was going to sing anymore because any time I opened my mouth to sing, these kinds of songs I learned from my family came out. It just hurt really better.

In many ways, Carter Family songs represent the opposite to what is promoted as country music today, which tends to veer away from the darker and more complex themes of the past and is more pop and upbeat.

I think I was certainly part of the movement that moved country music to where things are today. To think of the pop way of songwriting and things being very catchy and having riffs in it — that goes back to me loving pop music, loving the Monkees. And also the technical aspects of how records are made now. I know when I made when [1990’s top-selling album] “I Fell in Love” and other albums, they were much more in a pop way, the way they were recorded and they way they were mixed, and the energy. And even in the videos that we made back then. It all progressed. I feel like I was part of making it that way. So I can’t say I don’t like it because it’s certainly something I do like.

Your renditions of these songs are not old-timey — they sound very modern and are upbeat. You make them sound very contemporary. Why recast them?

It wasn’t a completely conscious effort but we did decide we weren’t going to try to recreate them. Because they needed to be recreated in a new way, in the sense of them being me and where I am, and what speaks to me and how I play. I tried to play authentically as my grandmother would have, except that I have a little more edge to me. I’m a little edgier than they were. They were tender and sweet and I’m a little more reckless. I had to be myself. It couldn’t be me singing these old songs. Because that would have been boring. So we decided to not create what the original Carter Family sounded like, or even the Carter sisters. Because I don’t have three siblings to sing with me, and my granddaughters are not old enough so I don’t have them out there yet. [laughs]

What are your memories of Maybelle Carter?

Such a well-rounded person. She was like a normal grandmother in that she taught me how to plant a garden. How to quilt. And then she would go out there and stop a show just by playing a guitar and singing. It was like she was a perfectionist and she would always want to practice, and she would always want to do things over again, and she would give you that look if you hit a wrong part. On the other hand, she was really, really encouraging. She wanted me to learn how to play the right way. I remember I was playing the Opry one night I was asked to play “Wildwood Flower” like my grandma played. And I played it wrong! It’s because I was a little kid when she taught me and she made it easier for me to play. She taught me how to play it with a flatpick. I just don’t like to fingerpick that much. I can do it, but I get all tangled up. She never told me it was wrong. She told me to just play the melody of the song and keep strumming every time there’s any room.

She was the greatest. She loved to gamble. When I was 14, we were in Las Vegas and it was in the middle of the night and she’d say, “come down and play slots with me.” I’d say, “grandma, I can’t go down there, I’m only 14!” And she’d say, “put on some false eyelashes and let’s go!” [laughs]

So you performed with her only a few years before making your own album in England with The Rumour.

I got to work with her in early 70s and I played piano on some of it. The Carters are not really known for that, but they were always picking up songs. She wanted to do [Brewer & Shipley ‘s 1971 hit] “One Toke Over the Line” because she thought it was a good little gospel song. She thought it said, “one toe over the line, sweet Jesus.” And we go, “no grandma — one toke.” And she goes, “what’s a ‘toke’?” So it was really cute. She was always available to ask questions. I wished I asked more things. I wish I learned more from her. I wish I learned the autoharp better from her.

Did going through these old songs tell you anything new about your family history?

I’m learning stuff every day about this music. It really dawned on me when I went diving into this that I knew so little. I only knew what I was told. I didn’t pay any attention to any of the historical books because I was getting it from horse’s mouth. You have to understand: my mother was a great exaggerator to make stories more interesting. And I was getting these stories and [aunts] Helen and Anita would say, “she making her more important than she is.” So by doing this I tried to learn as much history as I could.

Musically, your solo career has veered sharply from your family past into rock during the punk era.

It wasn’t against them at all. I was just having my own good time. [laughs] I just had my own thing going on, I was creating my own self. And I always went back to the Carter Family when I would get bored or I didn’t know what do with the next record. I’d go back and infiltrate the Carter Family and get covered up in that music and it could inspire me to go out and do even more stuff with myself.

I’ve always been an adventurous artist and not scared to try things. I wasn’t always successful. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. I think I had a pretty well rounded career in the sense of trying different things. But it wasn’t a rebellious thing. People like to say I was the wild child and I was rebelling against my family. That wasn’t the case at all.

You’ve had your share of personal hardships in your life. Did Johnny Cash, being your stepfather, prepare you for that with any advice from his own life?

Absolutely. He was a wealth of information. He knew more words to more songs than any human I ever met. And in a very broad spectrum of all kinds of music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe I probably would have never heard of if it wasn’t for him … So he was constantly teaching us stuff. My mom was really wonderful too. She came home with Bob Dylan’s first record and said, “we saw him at the Newport Folk Festival and he is going to change the course of music in the world!” I just remember being that little kid and sitting cross-legged in front of the stereo and listening to Bob Dylan.

They didn’t put any boundaries in music. If it was good, it was good. John embraced all kinds.

What was your mother’s influence on him?

Mom had rubbed off on him a lot being so generous with fans and appreciating the fans too and spending time with them. John had not come from that place, as he was pretty much out of the gate at the start. He was never one who tried to fit in. His music had its own label, even: it was “Cash Music.” So between the two of them, the message was, “be as authentic to yourself and do good work.” And write songs. That was pretty much it. Watching them, I learned a lot. I never felt uncomfortable being in front of an audience.

What was it like making your early music with one of the best Brit-rock bands on the planet at the time: The Rumour.

You add that kind of music to my sweet little country songs and we had a blast. They called me the blue blood country girl … It was great, my first record. It was the first time the Rumour produced anybody. It was just really exciting and it sounded so different than what I imagined what I would be doing. They brought their flavor to me. If I had sold as nearly as many records as I had good reviews, it would be awesome.

Carlene Carter performs 8 p.m. Saturday at City Winery, 1200 W Randolph St. $35/$30/$25. Visit citywinery.com.