Family Musical Legacy Is No Burden For 'Carter Girl'

"You have to carry on the legacy of Carter Family music," Carlene Carter's mother told her. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with country singer Carlene Carter about that and her new album, Carter Girl.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BLACK TRAIN")

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) There's a little black train a-coming, set your business right. There's a little...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's a song called "Little Black Train," recorded in 1930s by a group recognized as the first family of country music, the Carter Family. A.P. Carter wrote it, and he sings it here with his wife, Sarah, and sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BLACK TRAIN")

MARTIN: Fast-forward to the present day. Another member of the family has put her own spin on the song - Maybelle's granddaughter, Carlene Carter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BLACK TRAIN")

CARLENE CARTER: (Singing) There's a little black train a-coming, set your business right. There's a little black train a-coming, and it may be here tonight...

MARTIN: Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, says that from the day she touched a guitar, her mother told her she'd have to help carry on the legacy of the Carter Family music. She's doing just that with her new album, "Carter Girl." Carlene Carter joins us from the studios of member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Welcome to the program, Carlene.

CARTER: Thank you. I'm really, really glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We're happy to have you. So that's kind of a heavy thing to hear as a kid - that it's your responsibility, so to speak, to carry on your family's musical legacy. Has it ever felt like a burden to you?

CARTER: No. Actually, I've always embraced it completely and felt very fortunate to have been born into such a talented family. But as a kid, you know, I just loved traveling with them, and I loved that, you know, at home, they would practice in the living room. And we would just - me and my little sister would just, like, sit at their feet and just watch them, and listen to them sing. And we'd get to stay up late on the weekends to listen to them on the Grand Ole Opry.

MARTIN: You have got some big names working with you on this album.

CARTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Don Was produced it and plays bass. There are contributions from Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Elizabeth Cook. I want to play a track, though, right now, with the great Willie Nelson singing "Troublesome Waters." Let's play this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLESOME WATERS")

WILLIE NELSON: Troublesome waters, much blacker than night are hiding from view, the harbor's bright lights. Toss in the turmoil...

MARTIN: It's such a beautiful song.

CARTER: It's amazing. I'm so honored that he did it. And actually, I'll tell you a little funny story. I went to Texas to record his vocal on the track after he'd said he would do it. And I got there, and he was in Nashville. They, last minute, decided to go to Nashville and work on his record.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

CARTER: And I'm going, but I'm in Austin waiting for you. And it was funny. So within, you know, about two, three hours, I had his vocal back and could listen to it. But I missed out on getting to actually be in the same room. And it's a drag because I've known him most of my life, and really do...

MARTIN: Is this the first time you've gotten to collaborate with him this way, though?

CARTER: It's the first time I've ever sang with him on a record. And I have, you know, charged the stage or rushed the stage, as they say, a couple of times when - many years ago, when he was doing "Circle Be Unbroken." And I happened to be at a show, and I remember being with Emmylou and Rodney. And of course, if you were there, you just went up there. It was like - I was like, oh, I'm on stage with Willie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLESOME WATERS")

CARTER, NELSON: (Singing) Troublesome waters, I'm feeling no more...

MARTIN: There is one song that you wrote on this album, a very personal song called "Me and the Wildwood Rose." Let's take a listen to this, and talk about it on the other side.

CARTER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, ''ME AND THE WILDWOOD ROSE'')

CARTER: (Singing) In a big, shiny car, we'd head down the road; sing for the miners who brought out the coal. Many times, slept on floorboards, cold, on a quilt with my little sister, the Wildwood Rose...

I had a little sister named Rosie Carter, and she was named Rosanna Lee Nix. Well, Momma always was about having little nicknames for us kids. And Rosie's was the Wildwood Rose. So we, you know - we grew up in the backseat of that car. And we had our own little world in the floorboard.

And it sounds crazy, but we traveled all over the country with them, mostly in the summertime and on weekends. But we'd always do the fair circuit 'cause that was always a nice time for us to get to be with Mom, to get to be with Grandma and Aunt Helen and Aunt Nita. And just - I have the greatest memories. And I remember being a kid and just wanting to do that, and be out there with them and sing those songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND THE WILDWOOD ROSE")

CARTER: (Singing) And if I could change a thing in this world, I'd go back to the days of Grandma in her pearls, singing sweet and low for me and the Wildwood Rose...

MARTIN: Your little sister Rosie, I understand she passed away that same year that your mom...

CARTER: She did. She passed away three weeks after John passed. He passed away in September, and Rosie passed shortly after; and Mom, four months before John. And it was a brutal year. And, you know, in life you think, well, my parents are - obviously - going to probably die before I do. But you don't really expect your little sister to check out before you. And it was a, you know, just a tragic accident. And I miss my sister a lot, and she should be here. And she should be singing on this record, but she's on tour with the angels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND THE WILDWOOD ROSE")

CARTER: (Singing) Hey little rose...

MARTIN: Why was this the right time in your life to do this?

CARTER: I'd been wanting to do this album for a long time. It didn't seem right to do it while they were living. I didn't seem right to do it while they were recently passed, to sort of jump out there and do my Carter Family tribute. It felt like I'm to a point now that I can actually celebrate the music completely and not have it be hard to do. It's a joy, and that's what I wanted the record to be - is a celebration of the music of the Carter Family. And I hope I've achieved that. I feel like I have. I'm very proud of it.

MARTIN: Well, it's been such a joy to talk to you, Carlene Carter. Her new album is called "Carter Girl" It comes out Tuesday. She joined from the studios of KCLU in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Carlene, thank you so much.

CARTER: Thank you so much, Rachel. I really appreciate it.

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