Carlene Carter says her latest album, “Carter Girl,” is the record she always knew she would make.
On the 2014 album, she unites songs from three generations of Carters – her grandmother Mother Maybelle, Uncle A.P. and Aunt Sara Carter (who made up the original Carter Family), her mother June Carter Cash and the Carter Sisters – and adds a couple of her own.
“I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t know anything,” she says of delving into the family vault to choose which songs to include.
As she waited for producer Don Was to free up his schedule, the song selection and even style and concept evolved.
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“It gave me time to learn the guitar style my grandmother had played on the original recordings. I can’t play them exactly, but as close as I could.”
The album brings Carter – the daughter of June Carter Cash and first husband/fellow country singer Carl Smith – back out on the road opening for John Mellencamp on his Plain Spoken Tour, where she joins the headliner on songs from his musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” She is playing solo acoustic in large theaters for the first time in years.
“It’s important to carry the music out to more people than just myself playing small venues. It’s different to be playing to 3,000 people,” says Carter, who met Mellencamp last June when she recorded a song for his girlfriend Meg Ryan’s film “Ithaca.”
She hadn’t toured extensively since the ’90s, but says she always feels comfortable on stage.
“I grew up on the side of the stage,” she says. “I never had a fear of an audience. I never felt like they were separated from us. We were all in the living room and it happens to be a big living room. I continue to operate on that assumption.”
Carter began her recording career straddling rock and country in the late ’70s, but enjoyed mainstream country success with hits like 1990’s “I Fell In Love” and 1993’s “Every Little Thing.”
“A lot of people said I was a rebel. I wasn’t. I was just trying to find my thing,” says Carter, who was married to English rocker Nick Lowe at the time and was with Heartbreaker Howie Epstein for years before his death. “I always tried to do a Carter Family song on every record (or) songs I’d written in that vein. That’s my way of carrying it on.”
She says her stepfather, Johnny Cash, was instrumental in her forging her own path.
“John was very encouraging to be myself,” she says. “I never, by any regard, ever denied any part of my family roots. John was great about putting us girls out there on the road – me and Rosanne and Rosie and my Cash sisters. They put you out there, and if you had any inclination, you stayed the course.”
Having lost her mother and stepfather in 2003 and her father in 2010, the music of “Carter Girl” can certainly hit home for both the singer and her audience.
“Sometimes I get emotional when I’m doing ‘Lonesome Valley’ or ‘Wildwood Rose,’” she says. “I haven’t had a show where a woman or a man who just lost their mom isn’t sobbing at my merch table. I say, ‘Thank you. I must be doing my job right.’”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
DETAILS: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com.