By the time Carlene Carter went to record her rock- and new-wave-informed debut LP in 1978, the then-twenty-two-year-old was twice-divorced and saddled with an intimidating musical legacy: her mother, June Carter, and her stepfather, Johnny Cash. Her genre-spanning approach on her self-titled record was an unorthodox move, but not surprising from someone who had always done things her own way. In subsequent decades, Carter was a frequent presence on the country charts and earned a Grammy nomination. But by the early aughts, her career was derailed by personal struggles and tragedy, leading to a lengthy hiatus from recording that lasted until 2008. In recent years she has toured frequently with John Mellencamp, and she contributed vocals and songs to his recent Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. They're currently on tour together along with Emmylou Harris. From the road, Carter caught us up on her long career and "the Carter scratch."
INDY: Your first LP came out nearly forty years ago. What kind of career were you imagining at that point?
CARLENE CARTER: I always wanted to be an artist that—my music was my music. And I didn't particularly fit. That's been a blessing and a curse in some ways, because it's held me back from being a rock artist or held me back from being a country artist because I fell into that straddling-the-fence mode. But I've hung in there long enough that I've kind of achieved that now. I just make the kind of music that I feel like making on any particular day.
Was it inevitable that you'd end up fully embracing your family musical tradition?
Whenever I haven't known what to do musically, or felt like I was finding myself at a dead end creatively, I would always go back to the music of the Carter family because it's the most authentic music I've ever known. It's so basic and so timeless. And that would always bring me back around to writing about what I know or what I've written in my life. That's the kind of stuff that feeds my soul.
You're on tour now with John Mellencamp and Emmylou Harris, and you're all participating together at certain points.
It's my first time, after all of these years of my history with Emmylou, that we've actually been on a tour together. We're just enjoying that so much. The other night, Emmy and I both were both passing up our dressing room bags, walking down the hallway pulling our own bags. People think we have all these assistants and people who do stuff for us, but there's me and Emmy going down the hallway, and she says, "Look at us, Carlene, a couple of old gals and we're still out here doing it!"
And your collaboration with John Mellencamp had been gestating awhile.
I've worked with him before in the studio and I've been on tour with him for a couple a years, so we know each other quite well and kind of know where we're gonna go. But he pushed me a little bit to try some different things, vocally. At one point he had me screamin' and hollerin' on "All Night Talk Radio." We ended up not keeping that screaming stuff, but I was like, I don't want to hurt my voice, and he's just like, "Hey, just come on, scream it!" There were some funny moments like that. I'm always having a good time in the studio. If I'm not, it usually means it's not gonna be very good.
Would you call this a creative rebirth?
I look at every project like a rebirth. It's new and shiny and exciting, and you're always bringing more days of your life of experience to something, and more experience of working with someone or working on your own. I've certainly become a better musician in the last several years because I challenged myself to go back to the basics of playing acoustically alone, and I had to become a better musician to do that. I had to be able to play my grandmother's style of guitar. And it was something I always knew how to do but never really practiced. I've always had great bands, so if somebody else in the room can actually play better than you, why would you not have him play it?
What kind of musical styles have you had bone to up on?
The Carter scratch is a style that my grandma invented to make it sound like there's two guitars playing instead of one. You can adapt it to any kind of music—it actually works well with reggae. You're playing a rhythm with your point finger and your middle finger and picking out the melody with your thumb while keeping that rhythm going. Some people find it very hard. My grandma played it with a thumb pick and fingerpicks, and I can do that, but most of the time live I play flat-pick style just because it sounds better.
Do you ever break out anything from the new wave era?
Oh yeah, sure. Nick Lowe is still one of my dearest, dearest friends, always will love him. He taught me a lot about the craft of writing songs and practicing my craft. I'm always interested in hearing Nick's new record. I listen to a wide variety of what got me where I'm at. The funny thing about working with John is, for a certain segment of my life there was a soundtrack to my life that Mellencamp was part of, and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would work with him. It's a funny old world how that works.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Made from Scratch."