Carlene Carter’s place in the history of American music was assured long before the conception or recording of her new CD, Carter Girl, but its creation makes for a solid insight into her world. As daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, and granddaughter of Maybelle Carter, her view of the machinations of the music industry is informed by family and history, and the weight of both of these factors has influenced her career of some 35-plus years. During that time, Carter has issued nine studio albums and over 20 singles, leading up to this new record.
Carlene Carter comes from a legendary musical family; her grandmother was Maybelle Carter from country music heroes the Carter Family, her mum was June Carter Cash, and her stepfather was Johnny Cash. Carlene has revived their songs before, but never with this intensity and emotion. Producer Don Was has recaptured the energy she showed in the late 1970s when she recorded in London with the likes of Graham Parker, Dave Edmunds and her former husband Nick Lowe, but there's a new maturity to her stomping, brooding treatment of Little Black Train, or the thoughtful Give Me the Roses, one of several songs about death.
A great legacy can be a blessing and a curse, and when your mother is June Carter and your stepdad is Johnny Cash, you're going to have a lot to live up to in the minds of most folks. Carlene Carter has built a pretty remarkable career for herself as a vocalist, and after a dark period she made an impressive comeback with 2008's Stronger. But it's rare when a critic or biographer doesn't mention Carter's place in one of country music's founding families, and on 2014's Carter Girl, she embraces their vital role in country music's history while also putting her own stamp on their body of work.
Stepsister Roseanne Cash acknowledged her family heritage on her 2009 album The List, comprising songs dad Johnny had urged her to learn and love. Now Carlene, daughter of June, bigs up the ancestors with a collection of material her mother and other members of The Carter Family regularly performed. Not that Carlene has ever shied away from the influence of her folks; as early as 1980 she was singing the likes of Foggy Mountain Top on an album produced by her then-husband Nick Lowe, but Carter Girl is a full-on eulogy to country music’s first family.
Redoubtable singer and songwriter Carlene Carter made one of her many comebacks in 2008 with the appropriately titled Stronger, and while it’s taken her a few years to follow it up, Carter Girl is worth the wait. Rather than present a new set of her own songs, however, the daughter of June Carter Cash instead celebrates her family legacy with songs written or popularized by the legendary Carter Family. Smartly, Carter and producer Don Was bring these tunes into the second half of the 20th century, giving them a modern Americana sheen instead of trying to recreate the sound of pre-WWII hillbilly music.
Carlene Carter says she’s been waiting her whole life to make “Carter Girl,” which finds the third-generation representative of country’s most famous family honoring her lineage through a collection drawn from the Carter Family and from mother June and aunts Helen and Anita (collectively the Carter Sisters), along with a few topical contributions of her own. Carter’s pose on the cover evokes her mother, but this isn’t meant to be a sepia-toned reproduction of those old songs. Instead, Carter brings them into her musical world — charging June Carter’s murder-suicide ballad “Tall Lover Man” with the sort of twangy, poppy, country-rock treatment that has always been the daughter’s calling card, giving an update to A.P.