Carlene Carter Ponders the Unbroken Circle
As country music royalty — a third-generation member of the musical Carter clan — singer Carlene Carter‘s pedigree is unquestionable, and her legacy secure. And even though she now lives in California, her recent visit to Nashville would have been incomplete without a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where many of her ancestors — grandmother Maybelle Carter, uncle A.P. Carter, and aunt Sara Carter, as well as father Carl Smith and stepfather Johnny Cash are enshrined.
It’s hard to see Carlene, who turns 53 on September 26, without conjuring up a vision of her mother, June Carter Cash, not only because they look so much alike, but because Carlene’s laugh, just as her mother’s was, is hearty and contagious. And like her mother, she can be thoughtful and reverent one minute, but her quick wit never lingers far behind.
During an in-store performance at the Hall of Fame’s gift shop, Carlene dusted off a handful of her mid-1990s country hits, including the 1993 Top 5 ‘Every Little Thing.’ She also regaled the crowd with humorous stories of traveling with her grandmother and her young sister Rosey, who would play in the floorboards of the car driven — often at breakneck speed — by her grandmother. That memory became the subject of one of the songs Carlene performed, ‘Me and the Wildwood Rose,’ from her Grammy-nominated 1990 album, ‘I Fell in Love.’ She also introduced several songs from her outstanding new album ‘Stronger.’ Not surprisingly, Carlene at times appeared overcome with emotion, particularly as she performed the album’s devastating title track about sister Rosey’s tragic death in 2003, which occurred just months after the loss of her mother June Carter Cash, her stepfather Johnny Cash, and the drug-related death of her longtime boyfriend, Howie Epstein (former bass player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).
But rather than dwelling on the overwhelming grief and personal challenges she’s faced over the past several years, Carlene, who married for a fourth time in 2006 to musician and actor Joe Breen, took inspiration from portraying her mother in a musical called ‘Wildwood Flowers,’ and turned it into an album full of redemption and hope. Writing most of the songs for ‘Stronger’ in a six-month period, Carlene recorded the demos with younger brother John Carter Cash, then worked on them over the phone with musician-producer John McFee (Doobie Brothers, Southern Pacific), before going into the studio.
“Any time I’m here, I feel like I’m in the holy church. I walk [in there] where it says ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ and my ‘peeps’ are in there,” Carlene told The Boot of her Hall of Fame visit. “I usually have a few tears. It’s a breathless kind of feeling when I go in that room. The words ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ are not there by accident. It’s really what music is supposed to be about — faith and hope and family — and being a little feisty, which Grandma definitely was. I just think about her being a little 16-year-old girl playing that guitar up there in the mountain. It’s inspiring.”
It also gave Carlene a chance to ponder her own legacy, and the lessons her ancestors taught her.
“One of the things I really was instilled with was to be myself, and to carry on the legacy in my own way,” Carlene said. “I didn’t have to be just like them. Music just goes on and on, and it’s supposed to be that way. That’s what I was taught. At the same time, I want to help people remember all [my family] had to do with music.”