Carlene shares writing credit on "Lonesome" with her great uncle A.P. Carter (currently in the Billboard Top 10 as cowriter of the pop phenomenon "Cups"), and the track features vocals by Vince Gill. Other guest artists on the CD are Willie Nelson on "Troublesome Waters," Kris Kristofferson on "Black Jack David," and "Elizabeth Cook steps in as an honorary Carter Girl," Carlene adds, "singing harmonies on six of the twelve songs." Family is represented by cousin Lorrie Carter Bennett (daughter of Anita Carter), and Carlene's husband Joe Breen, each heard on two songs.
The CD was produced by Don Was and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, both on Carlene's wish list for the project, and she says Carter Girl has "lots of fabulous musicians: Don on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, Rami Jaffee (from The Wallflowers and Foo Fighters) on keyboards. Greg Leisz plays steel guitar, acoustic, and electric too. Sam Bush is playing mandolin on three songs. Blake Mills plays most of the stringed instruments, electric guitars, and tiple, which is a kind of mandolin. I play piano, and acoustic guitars in the style of my grandma, but it's different from the 1920s! I'm really glad I was able to pull together all of these perfect people."
"Cowboy Jack Clement played acoustic guitar on 'Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow,'" Carlene continues, "and we used an old track for that to have Helen, Anita, momma, and me, along with Big John, singing background on the chorus. We built a new track around our vocals from the Wildwood Flower album we did back in 1986. Kind of a cool thing to have the technology to bring it as a part of this project."
Looking back on her own musical history, Carlene remembers, "I started my career singing with The Carter Family at 17. My first album came out in 1978." Recorded in England with rock band Graham Parker & the Rumour, that self-titled debut was named "Tops in Pops" by TIME Magazine, while Newsweek called Carlene "a stunning newcomer." At the album's release party in L.A., Dolly Parton whispered in her ear, "Keep on smiling, no matter what!" Advice, Carlene says, that has served her well.
Her third album, Musical Shapes, now considered ahead of its time in mixing country and rock, was recorded with her then husband and producer Nick Lowe and his group Rockpile in 1980. Making their home in London, Carlene spent a year on the West End stage in the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, then filled in for her aunt Anita one night when The Carter Family played Wembley with the Johnny Cash show. She ended up touring with them for the next two years, until she felt ready to go out on her own again, encouraged by Dwight Yoakam, who told her, "Carlene, there is a place for you in country music."
More advice came from the man Carlene affectionately refers to as "Big John," her stepfather Cash. "He was a huge influence on my becoming an entertainer and a strong woman, not just a chick singer-songwriter, because of his encouragement," she recalls. "'All music is good if you're being yourself,' he told me. 'Don't let labels of being country or rock ever hold you back! Just be yourself. Then you are unique and can't be held in a box musically.'"
Working with producer Howie Epstein (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Carlene Carter became Nashville's homecoming queen of 1990 when her rockin' "I Fell in Love" topped the country singles and video charts, and the album was named one of the year's 10 best by TIME, People, and Stereo Review. Award nominations followed for the Academy of Country Music's Top New Female Vocalist, and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female at the 1991 Grammy Awards. Her dynamic personality made her a natural as VH1's first country video hostess with her own daily hour, The Carlene Carter Show, and she had another smash hit single and video with "Every Little Thing," from Little Love Letters, in 1993.
Producing her next album, Little Acts of Treason, in 1995, Carlene got her father Carl Smith out of retirement for a duet of his hit "Loose Talk" (#1 for 7 weeks in 1955), and included The Carter Family and Johnny Cash on "The Winding Stream." Back on television with a series of specials for TNN, Carlene Carter: Circle of Song featured many friends and family members; and she made history with two other famous Nashville daughters, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis, on what USA Today called "the first all-female major country tour" in 1996. Her first "best of" collection, Hindsight 20/20, with 20 songs spanning 20 years of her recording career, was also released that year.
European tours and appearances on other albums continued, including a Waylon Jennings tribute covering his anthem "I've Always Been Crazy," but Carlene's life was devastated by the deaths of longtime partner Epstein, mother June, stepfather Cash, and sister Rosey Nix, all in 2003. Her performance of "Jackson" with Brooks & Dunn at the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute concert (which The Tennessean named "the show's emotional highlight"), led to Carlene being cast as her mom in Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story, a new stage musical about June's early years with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. The show ended with Carlene's emotional tribute to her grandmother and Rosey on "Me and the Wildwood Rose" segueing into "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."
Carlene continued to honor Rosey on the title track to her next CD, Stronger, produced by old friend and musical collaborator John McFee (of The Doobie Brothers and Southern Pacific) in 2008. Elvis Costello called the record "astounding," and Bernie Taupin wrote that it was "a staggering achievement by one of the great voices and fearless hearts of country rock." USA Today said simply, "It's great to hear her again."
Carlene Carter's songs have continued to be heard again too, as "It Takes One To Know Me," her long-lost birthday present to her stepdad when she was 19, closed the Johnny Cash box-set The Legend in 2005; and "Easy From Now On," first recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1978, was included on the 2007 #1 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend CD by Miranda Lambert, who said, "That's a ridiculously great song." Another one of the current generation's strong female country singer-songwriters, Ashley Monroe, is a distant relative of both the Carter and Smith families, and as she told CMT News, "I grew up knowing Carlene was my cousin as well. Wore her little tapes out." Sirius Outlaw Country radio host and frequent Grand Ole Opry guest Elizabeth Cook says, "Carlene is my hero."
As Carlene prepares for the release of Carter Girl early next year, she is also excited to be doing shows this fall where she is singing some of the songs from the CD to a live audience for the first time, including Farm Aid on September 21, which was another full circle moment for her, having attended the first Farm Aid in 1985. Wherever she performs, Carlene knows that she is doing her part to honor those who came before her, in her own way. "From the day I first touched a guitar or piano," she recalls, "my mom said, 'You have to carry on the legacy of the Carter Family music. It's supposed to be passed on and passed around.'" Nearly a century after their first recordings changed the course of American music, that circle remains unbroken by Carlene Carter.