An earlier version of this article had the wrong date for Carlene Carter's performance at Wolf Trap. This version has been corrected.
MusicMakers - Carlene Carter
Friday, January 16, 2009
It's not easy for Carlene Carter to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. For her, it's full of ghosts.
"I get very emotional when I go into that building," the singer admits, "especially when I go into that room where all the plaques are. I get overwhelmed when I realize how important they were to everyone else, because when I was growing up they were just Grandma, Mom, John and Daddy. I have such pride in my heritage and such fond memories, but now most of them are gone."
"Grandma" is Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family; "Mom" is June Carter, Maybelle's daughter; "John" is Johnny Cash, Carlene's stepfather; and "Daddy" is Carl Smith, Carlene's father. All four have bronze plaques hanging in the building's Hall of Fame Rotunda. There's a good chance that Carlene's stepsister Rosanne Cash and Cash's ex-husband, Rodney Crowell, and maybe Carlene herself will join the older generations there.
So it was with some ambivalence that Carlene Carter, 53, agreed to perform a free concert in the Hall of Fame during the Americana Music Association's annual conference in September. Wedged between the gift shop's T-shirts and lunchboxes, Carter wore faded jeans embroidered with glittery flowers and a pink blouse printed with black flowers. She quickly warmed to the shouts of encouragement from the dense crowd encircling her.
Backed by her latest producer, steel guitarist John McFee of the Doobie Brothers, and by her regular guitarist, Sean Allen, Carter kicked off the show with "The Bitter End," the first track on her latest album, "Stronger." Set to a spirited country-rock gallop, the song's lyrics are clearly autobiographical.
When Carter's still-robust soprano belts out the opening lines, "A Southern girl, about 15, had a bigger vision than a one-track dream," she's speaking of how she got pregnant, married, dropped out of high school and became a classical piano student, all by the time she was 17. When she sings on the chorus of "a trail of tears, caution to the wind; she followed her heart to the bitter end," the end she's referring to is 2003 when her mother, stepfather, sister Rosey and her longtime lover, Howie Epstein, all died.
"At the time I was writing that song," Carter concedes during a recent phone interview from a friend's house in California, "I felt really bleak about the future because in an eight-month period I had lost so many people that meant the world to me: Mom, John, Rosey and Howie. I couldn't see what the future held for me. But it seemed no matter how much I tried to tear myself up, I couldn't. I'm glad I didn't, because now my life is at a very sweet place; I'm not at the end at all. Now I've decided I'm going to live till I'm 100."
Carter is open about how she has "been barrel-racing through life," a life that included multiple marriages and drug addiction. The death of her younger sister was particularly hard.
"Rosey was my charge," she remembers. "When I was 3 years old, Mama said, 'This is your responsibility; you have to take care of her.' That's what's so hard about not being able to save her from the situation she was in. Even though it was an accidental death, it was a result of the life she was living. I've been down a rocky road, but she was down an even rockier road."
Carter, who performs Thursday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, often wears her heart on her sleeve. At the Hall of Fame, there were more tears when she sang "Judgement Day" from the new CD. "This is a song," she told the crowd, "for my old friend Howie Epstein, now on tour with the angels." Epstein, the longtime bassist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, produced Carter's biggest commercial records in the early '90s and lived with her from 1988 through 2002. He died in 2003 of complications of his long-term heroin addiction. "Tonight I'm going to cry for that hard-hearted man," Carter sang on the ballad's chorus, and she did.
But Carter's performances aren't all about tears, particularly when she sings one of her biggest country hits, 1993's "Every Little Thing," an irresistible bit of bouncy country-pop.
Still, Carter can't seem to escape what she has lost. "I miss the feeling of singing with Helen, Anita [her aunts], Mom and Grandma," she says. "That's where I found the most peace. As Mom used to say, 'There's nothing like singing with your family.' . . . The bittersweet thing is I can't sing with them anymore, but I have the music that reminds me how we used to sing. I have a certain responsibility to carry on that legacy."
Carlene Carter Appearing Jan. 17 at the Barns at Wolf Trap (1635 Trap Rd., Vienna). Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $25; 703-938-2404, 877-965-3872 or http:/