Forty-four years of rocking the boat, and there’s no stopping in sight
Carlene Carter is the embodiment of women pushing boundaries, expressed through the deep roots of country. A girl born into the legacy of generations perpetuating Southern Americana music, her rebellious heart coupled with "a lot of freedom" nonetheless never let her stray from the origins she loves.
Although being thoroughly a product of her surroundings, she has never grown complacent with the confines of country. Instead, she has utilised her extraordinary career to expand her surroundings to ensure anyone like or even unlike her will equally belong.
“All the country music I really listened to when I was a young girl was Carter Family music that was in the house all the time, so I had no way around that, but I really loved it. And Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. And it wasn’t so much that they were country in that they were just their own unique things each one. So that’s one of the things that inspired me to just… Be me. And still try to carry on the Carter Family legacy and the tradition of the music.”
Do you see yourself as someone who pushes the boundaries of country, or as someone who is trying to pull country back to its roots?
“Oh, I’m definitely a boundary-pusher, and I always have been. But I would say that early on in my first four or five albums that I recorded in England, I had no boundaries, I could do whatever I wanted to, so I was doing all kinds of stuff, and it was one of the most creative and fun times of my life. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as good as I have gotten to be after all these years, so it was like, that was… I had a lot of freedom.”
There is a place in country music for women who know their worth, and feminism and female empowerment permeate Carlene's music, with lyrics conveying the complex concoction of traits women can inhabit and exhibit at will. Strength, tenderness, tenacity, wilderness, love. But the music also tells the stories of a lifetime fully lived. The stories of a young adult wildly enamoured by everything the other represents, of mature love, of a craving to release the energy bursting from inside, of a woman standing on her own two feet and standing by who she is, of the cruelty of time and the heart-breaking losses it inevitably claims.
“I was irreverent, so I think that’s why it was ahead of its time. I just say whatever pops in my head, and sometimes I come up with something where I go: “that’s really… No one is gonna get that. No one is gonna understand what I’m talking about, but that’s okay”. You gotta kinda have that little bit of… You know what you like, and you know who you are, and be a little thick-skinned to hang around for a lifetime.”
And a lifetime it surely has been. Carlene’s discography started with the eponymous album “Carlene Carter” released on March 14th, 1978, and the records have kept coming until the newest studio album from 2017. Looking back, not only was she always an “independent woman” and “her own boss”, but she was also surrounded by other strong women who were equally determined to carry Southern music to international audiences. When reminiscing about always staying true to herself while cementing her place in music, even when everything seems to dissuade her, she particularly looks back to a specific advice from her old friend and fellow country music icon, Dolly Parton.
“Dolly’s got it, man. She got the right idea. She told me when I first started out, she came to my first record release party. And her and I and Emmylou and Nicolette Larson were all getting our pictures made together. It was a big deal for me, and I’m standing next to Dolly, and she whispers in my ear, and she goes: “Honey, just keep on smilin’ nooo matter what”.”
There’s something about Carlene that’s so down to earth. So genuine and so inviting, exuding a complete lack of grandeur or prejudice, almost as if she’s oblivious to her own fame. Even if you’ve never heard her music before, being in her presence feels like you’re exchanging memories with an old friend.
“There’s something for everybody. No matter how old they are, or what kind of music they particularly like, it’s a cross section of a lot of different styles. But mainly it’s all consistent in the fact that it’s all true. And it’s all… Fun… I have fun. You’ll have fun, that’s what I’ll say. You wanna have fun, then come on! [...] I just always felt really lucky and really at home in music and on stage and all those things because I grew up with it, and it never seemed like the audience were strangers. They were my friends, they came, you know. And I connect with them on that level, and that makes me really happy. And I think it surprises them sometimes, and they’re happy. And I love telling stories about the songs that I have written and what they are really about. That’s kinda fun. There’s some interesting ones out there.”
In five years, the Carter Family will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their first record, but regardless of the long history of playing Americana music, Carlene is adamant that the music can continue to rejuvenate and keep blossoming from these deeply planted traditions.
“As long as people keep writing good songs, we’re fine. If it turns into too much cookie-cutter stuff, and too many trucks and beer-drinking and nothing else then I think… There has to be something in there that inspires us all along, you know, to wanna keep listening.”
For her upcoming show at the G! Festival, the aim is to revisit the music released in 1979 and 1980. “They’re much more kinda raw, but they’re kinda country still, ‘cause I’m a country person. I have a high energy show [...] I’ve always tried my best to stick to what I know or what I want to find out, and so I go try different things and I come back to my roots, which is basically country, but rocking country.”
Carlene Carter plays on the Beach on Thursday evening at 19:20.