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NPR Arts & Life

Carlene Carter: Country Music Royalty

Carlene Carter appears on <em>Ask Me Another</em> at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.
Carlene Carter appears on <em>Ask Me Another</em> at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.

Bow down — or politely curtsy — in the presence of country music royalty like Carlene Carter. As the daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter Cash, the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash (who bought her first electric guitar from Sears), and part of the groundbreaking Carter Family, it's fair to say Carlene Carter grew up enmeshed in country music.

In a conversation with NPR' s Ask Me Anotherhost Ophira Eisenberg at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, Carter described her earliest memory of performing. She wandered on stage at one of her mother's shows at the age 3, pointed at the microphone and exclaimed, "I want to sing on that!" Carter also wanted to be a rockstar, and understood the responsibility she had to carry by continuing the legacy of the Carter family's music.

Carlene Carter appears on <em>Ask Me Another</em> at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mike Katzif / NPR
Carlene Carter appears on <em>Ask Me Another</em> at TPAC's Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.

Early in her career, Carter moved to England to write songs for artists like Emmylou Harris and The Go-Go's while opening for bands in vastly different traditions of music including The Clash, Bow Wow Wow, and UB40. She joked of these punk acts, "They kinda dubbed me cow punk."

She's since become a prolific and successful songwriter and musician in her own right, carving out a place for herself with hits singles such as "I Fell In Love" and "Every Little Thing." Most recently, Carter released an album with John Mellencamp in 2017, titled Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.

Carter's 2014 studio album Carter Girl was a family effort. "That album was an album I knew I'd always make," she explained. Carter invited different members of her multi-talented family to write songs with and for her. A guiding principle for the project, Carter shared, was that "I wanted them all to be songs that I'd wished I had written. I wanted them to make them mine." And she has avidly woven her love and commitment to her fellow Carters into her work.

As part of along matriarchal line of musically talented Carter women — including her mother June Carter Cash — Carlene Carter is now hoping to pass on the Carter Girl legacy to those next in line, her granddaughters, who also show an interest in music. She said of the younger generation: "They're scared because grandma's like, 'Here I've got all my stage clothes saved for you!'"

For her Ask Me Another challenge, Carter, whose voice and music was once used for a pinball machine, guessed which musician or band is featured in a real pinball machine based on its physical description. *pinball music plays*


On performing her 2014 album Carter Girl:

"I actually was singing songs that I understood and that I felt a part of."

On finding direction in her career:

"When I don't know what to do, I go back to my roots, back to the Carter Family. And it always has served me so well."

"I get really attached to the idea that I am carrying this on. I do feel them around me. There's nothing like singing with family and being able to sing those songs is like singing with them. I love it."

Heard on Trace Adkins And Carlene Carter: Cowboys And Cowpunks.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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