5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Lives are filled with regret.
Carlene Carter’s story is well documented. In brief, she is the child of June Carter and Carl Smith, ex-wife of Nick Lowe, star of the “Cruel To Be Kind” video, a recording artist with several memorable performances before becoming an overnight success in 1990 with “I Fell in Love” and a series of hit and near-hit singles.
Then came the darkness, the lost and non-recording years, the substance abuse and career implosion. I’m guessing Carter has her share of misgivings about her life, the opportunities squandered, the negative impacts she may have had on herself and others.
I’m confident she has no uncertainties surrounding the recording of Carter Girl, the album many of us have been waiting for her to create since we first heard her sing. Beneath the spunk, rockin’ country, and the irreverence, and long before “I Fell in Love,” many knew that she would one day release an album that truly spoke to and explored her familial and musical roots. Performances from her TNN series Carlene Carter: Circle of Song—clips of which are on YouTube—reveal the appreciation she had for the music of the original Carter Family, of Mother Maybelle, and that of the Carter Sisters.
For the last decade—as she cleaned up her life and fully embraced the legacy afforded to her—Carter has grown stronger and fully blossomed. She was well-received in the theatrical performance Wildwood Flowers, and her album Stronger made numerous year-end ‘best of’ lists in 2008.
While she has consistently kept her family close on her albums—A.P.’s “The Winding Stream” was featured on Little Acts of Treason, which also featured Carl Smith on a reprise of his chart topping “Loose Talk,” Stronger‘s title track and “The Bitter End” contain more than a little autobiography, she’s recorded “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Ring of Fire,” and “My Dixie Darlin'” on various albums, and as liner writer Jim Bessman notes, going back to 1978’s “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” Carter was using the Carter scratch method of picking—never has she dedicated an album highlighting her family’s importance on her music.
Now in her late-fifties, and completely comfortable with herself and her place as a bridge to country music’s past, Carter has, with producer Don Was, brought together an all-star band and several guests to celebrate and honor the legacy of her family. She has frequently spoken of having felt an obligation to carry the music of the Carters to subsequent generations, and with Carter Girl she has certainly done Maybelle, A.P., Sara, June, Anita, and Helen proud.
The album includes ten songs selected from the immense Carter catalogue. To her credit, Carter hasn’t selected only the most familiar songs—no “Wildwood Flower,” for example, nor then “Will The Cirlce Be Unbroken,” “No Depression in Heaven,” or “Keep On the Sunny Side.” She’s dug deep, searching out, connecting with and revitalizing timeless songs.
The formidable “Little Black Train” kicks off the album, as astute a choice as any made with the disc. This song with a clear message of getting right with the Lord pulses with conviction and forewarning, and the vocal harmonies of the amazing Elizabeth Cook and Joe Breen (Mr. Carlene Carter) on the chorus make things that much more intense. As expected, the song is livelier in Carlene Carter’s hands than when recorded by her forbears in 1935, with the rhythm section of Was and Jim Keltner propelling the song.
Cook shows up throughout the album, never more impressively than on the full-blown duet “Blackie’s Gunman.” Carter no longer attempts to hit the highest notes she once did, and leaves these to Cook who nails the harmony parts. Carter’s voice is huskier, more robust than in her video play days, but this works wonderfully with this material. She still sings like a dream. Sam Bush contributes mandolin to this track, making the instrument’s sound to slightly resemble an autoharp.
Aunt Helen’s venerable “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” a hit for Margie Bowes, is the type of song that almost anyone can sing-along with, while “Troublesome Waters” proves once again how difficult it is to listen to others sing with Willie Nelson. For me, this is the album’s only stumble. Willie is Willie, of course, and while it isn’t musical malpractice, it does interrupt the flow of the album. I’ve long wondered why female singers attempt to harmonize with Nelson on slow-tempo numbers. Both Nelson and Carter’s vocal parts sound good in isolation, but to my ears their blend doesn’t. The performance is forced. Would it have worked better had they been eye-to-eye in the same studio when recording? Possibly. I just know I would rather have heard Carter sing the song without Nelson.
More successful is when Kris Kristofferson drops by to join in on “Black Jack David.” The song, one of many that A.P. Carter borrowed from the folk tradition, works largely because the two singers match each other’s phrasing more comfortably than Nelson and Carter do. Carter also provides guitar accompaniment in the style of Mother Maybelle, a very noticeable contribution.
Utilizing modern technologies, Carter closes out the album singing with her mother, aunts, and Johnny Cash on “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” an emotionally abusive song of codependency disguised as a working man’s protest if ever there was one, while Carter sings June’s “Tall Lover Man” like the country classic it should be.
Within an artistic creation with no end of highlights, two of the most dramatic come directly from Carter’s imagination. “Lonesome Valley 2003” is built around the classic spiritual, but is made more intense through the inclusion of Carter’s lyrics sharing the heartbreak of her family’s losses of that year.
The instrumentation of this track is beautiful—Carter’s piano, Rami Jaffee on Hammond, and guitars from Greg Leisz and Blake Mills—while Carlene sings as if she is in a country church, paying tribute to her loved ones. The emotion in her voice is palatable, and she says she genuinely choked up on the final verse. With lesser singers, this would be an affectation; for Carter, it’s the truth: she’s lived this song. Vince Gill’s vocal support may go unnoticed upon first listen, but it’s there on the chorus giving the arrangement additional depth.
The greatest song Carlene Carter may have ever written is re-recorded for this collection. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” originally appeared on the breakthrough I Fell in Love album, and at the time was a dramatic statement that—notwithstanding the country-rock beats of the title track and the video and stage prancin’ that accompanied it—she was a still a Carter girl.
A tribute to her grandmother and her aunts, the song wistfully reminisces about the days and nights on the road in the car with “grandma and her girls.” Now that all those mentioned in the song are gone, including the Wildwood Rose herself, Carter’s sister Rosey, the song assumes additional dimension. It was a stunning performance then, and it is even more so now, and it is on this track that Carter sounds most at ease—reinterpreting herself for a new generation, if they’re listening.
No regrets then with Carter Girl. At 47 minutes, it is a substantial project. The reservations I have with Willie Nelson’s performance are likely a product of my own prejudice; Was and Carter obviously appreciated what he brought to the studio.
The album is more than a tribute album to the various branches of the Carter family. It is the testament of a granddaughter, daughter, and niece committing herself fully to the legacy she has always embraced, a promise long ago made that the circle would remain unbroken.