Carlene Carter starts dancing as soon as she comes onstage. The crowd at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville surges forward when she appears, pushing at the edge of the wooden stage, and Carter meets every eye, smiling wide, snapping her fingers, moving her hips, bobbing her head in beat to the music of her opening number.
“They’re only jealous ’cause I’m so cool,” she sings, looking serious until the end of the verse, when a smile breaks out over her entire face. And just like that, with the first song not even half-over, she has everyone in the grasp of her hand. Most of the audience is dancing now, too. They’re into the music because she has drawn them in. She is cool, effortlessly. And although the last few years have been so rough that at one point a rumor circulated that she was dead, she’s back. And she is undeniably, absolutely dancing-and-singing-alive.
Three months after that September 2006 performance, Carter has just finished a long, hilarious story concerning the time she performed at a Catholic church with a priest as her opening act. She is a miraculous storyteller, drawing the listener into the tale with the same ease and power that she imposes on someone bouncing along to one of her songs.
Then I ask her about being seen as a rebel within the country music industry. She says she’s just who she is and sometimes that has made people see her as difficult.
She leans forward, her big hands both flat on the table before her. Her face becomes more angular, solemn except for the little smile playing on her lips. “Look, you’re sitting right across from me,” she says. “Do I look like I’m an asshole?”
No, of course not, but this feels like an inadequate answer. Apparently I am not too convincing because she lets loose a full-fledged Carlene Carter laugh that echoes against the ceiling in the little conference room adorned with gold records and long, white-sunshined windows amid the Music Row offices of publishing administrator Bug Music.
“Well, maybe I do,” she laughs. “I don’t know. Maybe I do look like one.”
What Carter mostly looks like is her mother, June Carter Cash. Especially since she let her hair go brown. It’s more than that, though. Carter’s mother lives in her posture, in the way she strolls across a room with determination and force, in the gentle way she folds her hands atop one another on occasion, in the way everyone turns toward her when she enters a room. Carlene, like June, is a force of nature.
She also looks like her grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter. This is all in those haunting blue eyes they share. And even though that laugh and smile are both charming, she also looks like she carries around a perpetual sadness. Maybe the beautiful longing of all those old Carter Family songs is rolling around in her collective memory, but the sadness — curtained in all that laughter and dancing — is thicker than that.
Above all, she looks like a survivor.
Carlene originally let her hair go back to its natural color, leaving her trademark blonde locks behind, when she took on playing her mother in the musical Wildwood Flowers a couple years ago. Since then she has been mistaken for June many times. The resemblance even struck Carlene. “The first time I walked by the mirror and noticed it, I just shivered,” she says.
It turns out that the decision to keep her hair brown after the play closed was a big moment for Carter. “I’ve found a lot of freedom in being my natural color because I was always blonde,” she says. “And now I’m getting gray hair. And I think I deserve them. I want to move gracefully into the rest of my life — the next half of my life, ’cause I’m gonna live to be a hundred.” Another burst of laughter, which often punctuates Carter’s sentences.
“I think it’s about being comfortable with who I am, not trying to fit some sort of idea of who you are or were. I’m much more comfortable as myself. In my previous sobriety — it went almost ten years — I was still trying somehow to be something people expected me to be, this little vixen. Fun. Quirky.”
Here Carter snaps her fingers, dances around in her seat, tosses her hair to illustrate that party girl.
“I bit off a lot to chew with that whole persona. Doing cartwheels and shit. I can’t do cartwheels no more.”
She can, however, still sing the fire out of a song, and dance, and let go a peal of laughter. She also says that she’s just what the title of her new album says: Stronger.
“There was a point where I thought I just could not stand it anymore,” she says, referring to the darker days in her past. “There came a time when I thought, I just can’t take it.”
But she did. And before we go into that, it’s important that we go back to the very beginning of a life that would make a movie to rival Walk The Line any day.
“I never did drugs because of my childhood,” Carlene says. Although her parents had divorced when she was two, she kept a good relationship with both of them. Her father, Country Music Hall of Famer Carl Smith, had remarried to former country singer Goldie Hill, with whom Carlene grew close.
The first word that comes to mind when she thinks of being little? “Happy. I’s happy. Lots of music, riding horses, fishing. I loved my grandmother like crazy because…she loved to play cards and drink coffee and play music. Me and my sister, Rosey [not to be confused with her stepsister, Rosanne Cash], were tight as could be, we just played all day long, always outside; we had a fort. Just seems like it all went by too fast for me. I’m trying to regress a little now.”