Interview: Carlene Carter’s New Album Pays Tribute to Her Carter Family Heritage

"Now that it's been 11 years since my mother passed away, I felt it was time to do my tribute to the music."

By Kurt Wolff

Country music would not be what it is today without the Carter Family, the most legendary group in the genre’s 92-year history.

When the original Carter Family (A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter) recorded their first tracks at the famous Bristol Sessions in 1927, they brought with them heavenly harmonies, superb musicianship and a huge collection of folk and traditional songs that have become standards in modern music.

On her brand-new album Carter Girl, which hit stores this week, third-generation Carter Family member Carlene Carter pays tribute to that legacy. Her album includes classics that were recorded by the original Carter Family (A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter), some well known and others less so; in addition, the album features songs written by Carlene, her mother June Carter Cash and her aunt Helen Carter.

“In all the musical paths I’ve followed, I’ve always tried to include something of the Carter Family,” Carlene Carter told “Whether it was a song collected by A.P., or one that my mother or grandmother wrote. It was always instilled in me from a very young age, that I would carry on the music of the Carter Family and keep it alive.”

“Now that it’s been 11 years since my mother passed away, I felt it was time to do my tribute to the music.”

Carlene Carter interviewWatch our Carlene Carter Interview

In our in-depth interview, Carlene told stories behind some of the album’s stand-out tracks, such as original Carter Family classics “Gold Watch and Chain” and “Black Jack David” (which features Kris Kristofferson as guest vocalist), June’s song “Tall Lover Man” and Carlene’s composition “Lonesome Valley 2003.”

The latter song is a powerful piece that captures the pain of losing her mother June and her mother’s husband Johnny Cash in the same year.

“It’s hard to write about your mother passing,” said Carlene. “And it’s hard to write about how it was after she passed … and then how John [Cash] passed. It’s a lot to cover. People try to do biopics of that kind of lifespan, and it’s impossible. Try putting it in a 4 or 5 minute song.”

Carlene Carter and her mother  June Carter Carlene Carter and her mother June Carter (Courtesy of Carlene Carter and The Carter Family)

In the process, Carter also shares first-hand accounts of her interactions with her uncle A.P. Carter, her aunt Sara Carter, and her grandmother Maybelle Carter. She talks about the music that was everywhere in the house as she was growing up, thanks in large part to the passion of her mother and grandmother.

“I remember [June Carter] playing ‘Ring of Fire’ to me, I was only 4 or 5 years old. She said, ‘this is going to be a big song.'”

She also talks fondly of her father Carl Smith (June Carter’s first husband), a legendary honky-tonk singer in his own right and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Carlene explains why he walked away from his music career and never looked back — as did the woman Smith later married, Goldie Hill.

“My daddy retired the year I started making records,” said Carlene (her debut album, Carlene Carter, was released in 1978). “He had had a very long career, very successful, and he’d just had enough. He wanted to be a horse trainer, a rancher. He wanted to be a cowboy. He never talked about back in the day.”

“He said it challenged him more to be a horse person than it ever did to be a country singer. I think it just came so naturally to him, because he just had that clear, beautiful voice, and a great personality. When he and mom [June Carter] met, they were the sweethearts of the Opry.”

Watch‘s full interview with Carlene Carter.

Carter Girl is in stores now.

Carlene Carter Girl album cover



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