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Music That Redeems Pain

Carlene Carter and the Unbroken Circle

by MICHAEL SIMMONS

If there’s a better hardcore country record in 2014 than Carlene Carter’s Carter Girl, I haven’t heard it. And yet despite being a tribute to the legendary Carter Family and deep-fried in tradition, its universal themes and liquid, swinging musicality help it transcend any category. Carter and crew have brought light into the increasingly dimming Twenty-Worst Century by making the far-off past come alive and reassuring us: the future may look bleak, but by holding on for dear life to our humanity, we might just survive.

Carlene’s the right dame for this gig. She is third-generation Carter Family – The First Family Of Country Music that first recorded in 1927. The original Carter Family were A.P., Sara, and Carlene’s grandmother Maybelle Carter. Her mother was June Carter, her stepfather Johnny Cash and aunts Anita and Helen Carter. (Her father was honky-tonk hero Carl Smith.) She’s lived a life that’s equal parts country music encyclopedia, rock ‘n’ roll midnight confessions and surreal Southern Gothic novel. The new album is by no means her first bullseye: then-husband, rocker Nick Lowe, produced 1980’s jumped up new wave-a-billy Musical Shapes in London and then-boyfriend Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers helmed 1990’s I Fell In Love which brought Carlene back to the country – both music and nation — and provided hits.

As is wont to happen in this veil of tears, everything fell apart, culminating in 2003 with the deaths of mother June, stepfather Cash, ex-fiance Epstein, and Carlene’s baby sister Rosey Nix Adams all in one year – cumulative tragedies that would’ve destroyed lesser souls. How did she survive? “I don’t know,” she tells me thoughtfully.  “Strength of spirit – I will not go quietly. I will not lay down and die. I thought what am I gonna do without them around, but I embraced my faith, my children, my grandchildren.”

We’re sitting at Yahoo Music studios in Santa Monica, California. Carlene’s just shot a webcast for Yahoo’s Ram Country series and she’s been promoting the new album with back-to-backs so that our yap session also functions as a lunch of turkey jerky and Diet Coke. Though no longer part of country’s youth movement, she’s still high-cheekbone gorgeous, brash, improv funny, and Southern-accented. Now happily married to carleneactor/singer Joe Breen, she’s been working on Carter Girl for two years with producer Don Was. “Nobody wanted to pay for it.  I said there’s a reason my mother left me with the money from [June co-write] ‘Ring Of Fire’ and things like that. I decided I’m gonna put it into this.  It was a ‘when your heart is right, you can’t go wrong’ kind of thing. We went in this not having a record deal.”

In preparation, she made “pages and pages of lists” of songs by the original Carters, her mother and Aunt Helen — and of course her own as well. “I tried to find a balance between unrequited love, murder, suicide and motherhood.” The timelessness of original sins, crimes of the heart, passion in all its forms – this is the blood flowing through Carlene’s music as well as the music of her forebears. Yep, it’s country music – the real thing, not that glitzy, paint-by-numbers Suburban & Western product, assembly-lined by Nashville hacks. Many of the songs are real folk songs — “Black Jack David” can be dated back to 1720. “A.P. [Carter] was a songcatcher and would go around the mountains, knock on the door and say ‘Hey, you got any songs your grandma taught you?’  Grandma told me that he’d also bring [poems] home and she’d have to make little tunes for ‘em.”

These people she calls “mama” and “grandma” are American musical icons and Carlene never forgets whose shoulders she’s standing on. “I can laugh and cry at the drop of a freakin’ hat – all at the same time,” she admits. “When singing these songs, I have to keep myself just the tiniest bit removed. Some bring back memories of singing with grandma and mama, particularly mama, Helen and Anita. During ‘Lonesome Valley,’ when I sang ‘I went back home to see my family/Cause family keeps you strong’ you can hear my voice go. I’d heard that song in my head for so long, my family was singing that song with me – it wasn’t just a labor of love – it was love.”

Vet producer Was delivered. “Don brought all the right musicians. It was this divine thing happening before my eyes. He is immensely talented in all areas, including being a number one bass player. I never saw him get rattled – we all had fun.  He really encouraged me to play guitar and trust my instincts and let me loose a little bit.  Like ‘You go in and do the harmonies with so-and so – you know what you want.’” Bucking yet another music racket habit, most vocals and the band were recorded live. “This music particularly calls for that. It was created to be played and sung together.” And it’s a rare country record where one of the musical strengths is the propulsive drummer, though not a surprise when he’s Dylan/Wilbury/Neil Young pro Jim Keltner. “Jim’s such a musical drummer – he listens to the song and does really subtle things with lyrics. I asked him ‘What do you listen to in the headphones?’ He said ‘I just listen to your voice and guitar.’”

There are also duets with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and young ‘un Elizabeth Cook. But my two favorite tracks deal with that most eternal theme – death. Carlene’s “Me And The Wildwood Rose” – a recounting of the passing of [grand]Mother Maybelle – was first recorded on I Fell In Love. It takes on extra-deep emotional weight twenty-four years on with the passing of “Wildwood Rose” – sister Rosey. “Lonesome Valley 2003” is an updating of an old A.P. song that is usually performed as a jaunty gospel sing-along. Carlene wisely slows it down to a more mournful tempo as she tells us of June and Johnny’s deaths through her eyes.

And yet amidst all the blue mourning in the latter song, there’s a flash of wild-child Carlene’s infamous irreverence. Referring to prayer, she sings “Talked to God and Jesus/And all them guys.” All them guys. Not the wording of a square. “It’s something that a kid may say,” she shrugs. “I didn’t mean to be irreverent.” I ask her about the incident at the Bottom Line in New York in 1979 when she introduced “Swap-Meat Rag” by saying “If this song don’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will.” Unbeknownst to her, Johnny and June were in the audience. “Mama and John come backstage and John was so red-in-the-face mad at me,” she recalls. “The first thing I said was ‘Mama, mama – I’m so sorry I said that word!” and she goes ‘What word, honey?’” [laughs]

What cannot go unmentioned here is a simple fact: Carlene Carter is one of the greatest living country vocalists. Like Loretta, like Tammy, like June – like Cash, George Jones or Merle Haggard – she’s got that sob in her voice. “It’s when you’re really connecting to the song. That’s why I primarily sing my songs, because I know the story. That’s where I had to get with these songs. I put myself in the story of whatever that song is. My husband says I’ve got a voice like moonshine – it burns baby! [laughs] it’s a matter of owning a song and connecting to it on an emotional level.” She’s currently owning songs on a national tour. [http://www.carlenecarter.net/calendar.html]

In a culture of disposable crap and microscopic attention spans, Carter Girl (Rounder) is the antithesis and the antidote. One of the most famous songs popularized by the Carter Family is “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” – a Christian hymn dated to 1907 and a reaffirmation of tradition and family. Carlene Carter’s new masterpiece spans a century of music, but by implication contains the whole of human history in an unbroken circle. She — and her elders — have given us this gift.

Naturally, no matter how well art redeems pain, Carlene will continue to miss her lost loved ones – June, Maybelle, Rosey and Johnny Cash. “I had this dream one night after he died and John and I were sitting at a shopping mall and I’m crying. And John asks ‘Baby why are you crying?’ And I said ‘I just miss you and mom so much.’ And he said ‘Well don’t cry – we’re at the mall!” [laughs]

MICHAEL SIMMONS is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.