With her 2014 album, “Carter Girl,” Carlene Carter embraced and perpetuated her legacy.
Carter is the daughter of June Carter Cash and 1960s country star Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash and granddaughter of country music pioneer “Mother” Maybelle Carter.
“Carter Girl” holds three generations of Carter family songs. They were previously performed by the original Carter Family; the singer’s mother, June; and her aunts, Helen and Anita. The album also features her original songs “Me and the Wildwood Rose” and “Lonesome Valley 2003.”
“I always wanted to do that album,” Carter said recently. “And at that time in my life, it was the right time.”
But Carter didn’t want to appear to exploit her roots.
“I’m trying to carry the music on,” she said. “That’s what I was charged with as a young child. (They told me) ‘After we’re all gone, you’ve got to keep the music alive.’
“And I found in doing this album that it came down to the basic theory: If the song is good, it doesn’t matter when it was written or how dated it might sound. I can bring it to the forefront by sharing it.”
To prepare for the “Carter Girl” sessions, Carter studied her grandmother’s unmistakable style of guitar picking and strumming.
“I went back to the basics,” she said. “I showed that to the guys in the studio, and they played with me, instead of me playing with them.”
Carter is playing a solo show Friday at the Manship Theatre, presented by the Red Dragon Listening Room. She’s performing solo shows through November and December, following an 80-date tour with classic roots-rocker John Mellencamp.
Opening for Mellencamp as a solo artist helped improve her musicianship, Carter said.
“I’d always worked with a great band before,” she said. “I never had to worry about how good I played. But when I was by myself with the guitar, I found that I could play more loosely, have more fun. I’d just sing the song to the people and share some stories.”
At first, Carter was apprehensive about opening for Mellencamp. She wondered how his rock ’n’ roll crowd would react to her.
“But when it comes down to it, it’s all roots music,” she said. “John Mellencamp is very rootsy. And all the years that he’s been out there, I’ve been out there just about the same amount of time.”
For her first album, released in 1978 and recorded in London with Graham Parker’s band, Carter made the obligatory promotional tour of radio stations.
“Everywhere I went, John Mellencamp had just been there, at every station,” she recalled. “I was in rock ’n’ roll then, so they were taking me to rock ’n’ roll stations and country stations, because they didn’t know what to do with me.
“So the circle of life brought me around to working with John. I really do appreciate the opportunity. I went out there every night, just did my thing, and they accepted me. It went really good.”
Carter will tour with Mellencamp again next year in Australia. They’re also planning to record a duet album.
“We really enjoyed singing together on tour,” she said. “Our voices clicked really good. John got the idea to do an album together. I was blown away. I think we’re onto something really interesting, but I won’t give the surprise away.”
Carter also plans to make expand her “Carter Girl” concept to two more albums. The difference between the first “Carter Girl” album and the upcoming projects is that they’ll contain more of her own songs.
“And there’s a story to every single one of them. I tend to write more in an autobiographical sense these days,” she said. “Back in the ’90s, when I had country radio hits, I wrote ditties. I’m not in the ditty mode anymore. Now, I’m into sharing a piece of my life with you, because I’ve had a life, friend.”