Carlene Carter tells me she’s “always been a rockin’ country kinda woman,” and who can argue with that assessment?
Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, has repeatedly stepped out of the mystique of her country music family and done things her own way. For her 1978 debut album, she brought in Graham Parker; his British pub-rocking band, the Rumour, and Nick Lowe, whom she later married and divorced.
Subsequent releases featured such heavyweights as the Doobie Brothers, Benmont Tench, Albert Lee, James Burton, and Levon Helm. So it’s probably no surprise that Carter teamed with John Mellencamp for his most recent album, 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. It’s a surprise, though, on Mellencamp’s side, because it is the first time in his long career that he has shared billing on an album.
“My career catalog has always had a lot of surprises, and some were surprised that the collaboration with John came when it did,” Carter says. “It’s been a creative and natural meeting of two artists who like what the other artist does. It was a celebration of our likeminded influences.
“I was so happy that people wanted to hear us sing together more than just live. I loved working on the album, and the band was the best — hands down! We're like a functioning dysfunctional family — never a dull moment.”
The band was comprised of guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic, bassist John Gunnell, drummer Dane Clark, violinist Miriam Sturm, and keyboardist Troye Kinnett. Additional musicians were guitarist Izzy Stradlin, drummers Stan Lynch and Kenny Aronoff, bassist Toby Myers, guest vocalist Martina McBride, and backup vocalists Christie Brinkley and Lily & Madeleine.
Carter wrote the album’s “Damascus Road" and co-wrote “Indigo Sunset” with Mellencamp. She sang lead on both songs and on “Sugar Hill Mountain” and “My Soul’s Got Wings.” She does other vocal work and plays guitar and autoharp on two songs.
Though she made many contributions, “the album came together quite quickly, and I wasn't really there for all of it,” Carter says. “I guess it was maybe 10 days total for me to do my songs and chirp in on the ones they recorded when I wasn't around.”
Why the title Sad Clowns & Hillbillies?
“I must be entirely honest in my answer,” Carter responds. “I have no idea. It was John's title always, and I guess I ought to ask him. I’m sure it has something to do with the circus and the Grand Ole Opry. Ha ha — that’s where it came from.”
I mention to Carter that I saw her and her husband, Joe Breen, performing before Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen at the Towne Crier Cafe in Beacon, New York, three years ago.
“I adore singing with my husband,” she says. “We have a beautiful, soulful feeling when we sing together. I was extremely excited to share some shows with Chris and Herb. The first country record I ever bought was the Flying Burrito Brothers (founded by Hillman and Gram Parsons). I didn't know it was country. I just liked the Nudie suits on long-haired cute guys! Ha ha.”
Carter says being related to June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash, and having to walk in their footsteps, has never been an albatross in her career.
“It never has hurt me,” she says emphatically. “They helped me with advice and led by example. I watched them perform all my life. I can’t get better teachers.”
I ask Carter, who lives in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, which members of the Carter/Cash family she now feels closest to.
“My family is scattered, and we go through periods when we talk a lot, then not so much,” she says. “These days I'm close to my brother John Carter Cash. He’s my little brother always — we’re our momma's kids. I’m very close with my cousin Lorrie Carter Bennett, Aunt Nita's daughter. We still sing together as much as possible.”
Carter says the musicians she most admires are Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Nelson, and Dolly Parton.
The best concert she attended as a spectator was during her teenage years.
“I went with my momma and big John to see Kris Kristofferson at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when I was 14 years old. Kris was amazing, but Linda Ronstadt opened the night. She had on a flower headband and a blue jean miniskirt and sang ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles.’ The minute she opened her mouth, I said, ‘I'm going to do that when I grow up!’ Three years later, I was doing that song on stage, so that show will always be a moment embedded in my memory banks.”
Carter mentions another concert — Elton John and Kiki Dee at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium — that she says most influenced her as a musician.
“His piano playing stayed me and inspired me,” she says. “I went out and bought an Elton and Bernie Taupin songbook and learned every song I could find on the piano.
“My guitar influence? It was Eric Clapton playing ‘Layla’ on the Johnny Cash Show. I was 13, and I lost my mind!”
Carter’s future musical endeavors are bright, with a new solo album and a Carter Family album on the horizon. “I feel in some ways that I've just hit my stride as a singer, a songwriter, and an entertainer,” she says.