Carlene Carter grew up surrounded by the music of her grandmother, mom and stepdad, music she was charged with continuing from the time she started playing piano at 7.
That music, rooted in the 1920s, is now classic, the output of the First Family of Country Music, the Carter Family, Carlene Carter's mother, June Carter Cash, and her stepfather, Johnny Cash.
“I do feel I’m responsible to carrying on the music,” Carter said. ”That’s what I was charged with as a kid. When I was a little girl, I was told, ‘When we are gone’ -- when you’re a kid you never think they’ll ever be gone -- ‘you have to keep the music alive, the Carter Family songs and add your own songs.'”
She did just that on “Carter Girl,” her 2014 album filled with 10 Carter Family songs and two originals that reflect on her family and its music. And she continues each night when she takes the stage opening for John Mellencamp, as she will Tuesday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
“I’m really about my family and really proud of being a Carter,” she said in a telephone interview from her Nashville home. “I’ll spend the majority of my set talking about them and the music.
“I was thinking about it, so many of my stories are about my family life, not about being related to a lot of famous people. That’s my grandma, that’s my mama, my daddy, my aunt, my uncle, my stepdaddy. I’d probably tell them even if they weren’t well known. Then you throw in a few ex-husbands ...
“Sometimes I’ll come up with something out of the blue and I’ll remember something. But I always tell a story about Kris Kristofferson and Willie (Nelson), too. Some people might think I’m name dropping. But I’m talking about my family and close family friends. Most of them are gone now, they were very real people.”
Carter does her set solo, singing and accompanying herself on guitar, piano and an autoharp carved out of a tree that was planted by her great uncle, A.P. Carter, who was married to Maybelle’s sister Sara, the other two members of the Carter Family.
“It gets me right back to where I started in the very beginning of my career, back when I was in Nashville going around to different clubs cutting my teeth playing guitar and piano,” she said. “I’ve added autoharp. I’m multi-instrumental now.
“I make the most of my time when I’m with John, getting the audience really warmed up and in a good mood and comfortable. I welcome them to the evening of the John and Carlene act. On paper, it doesn’t look like the perfect combination, he being a rock artist and me up there playing guitar and piano. But he wanted me to do that. I was a little bit intimidated for about one show. That was it.”
Carter has been working with Mellencamp for about three years, including opening for him on the “Plain Spoken” tour the past couple of years. By Nov. 4, when the tour ends in Grand Forks, North Dakota, they will have done more than 125 shows together.
That partnership has gone so well that Carter and Mellencamp have recorded an album set for release in February. Initially reluctant to talk about the record -- “It would be like giving the family recipe away. I can’t do that” -- Carter then described it a bit.
“It’s really different,” she said. “He wrote some songs. I wrote some songs There are some covers. If you come to the show, we’ll probably do two songs from it, so that will be a good introduction. It’s called ‘Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.' Somebody asked me, ‘Do you like being called a hillbilly?’ I’m not a hillbilly and I’m definitely not sad. I’m not taking it personally. Well, maybe I am a hillbilly.
“He has one of the best bands I’ve ever worked with. They just get the songs, and John is wonderfully creative in the studio. I learned a lot working with him. After having been in the studio so much all my life, to have someone surprise me was kind of neat. There’s a voice that happens when we sing together, it turns into moonshine, kind of. It turns into another voice. We were meant to sing together.”
Carter’s been singing for as long as she can remember and playing for more than 50 years.
“I started playing piano when I was 6, ukulele at 7,” she said. “I messed around on guitar until I got an electric guitar and amp from Sears that John (Cash) bought me. I was 12, no, I think I was 10. It was before he married my mom. I grew up listening to rock music. The only country music I heard was the Carter Family and then there was Johnny Cash. He had his own music.”
Carter began singing with the Carter Family at 17, and by 23 had recorded her first album, fusing country with rock ‘n’ roll, a mixture she perfected on her second album, 1980’s “Musical Shapes” recorded with Rockpile, the band of her then-husband Nick Lowe.
The ‘90s brought the hits “I Fell In Love,” “Every Little Thing” and a duet with her dad, country singer Carl Smith on his hit “Loose Talk.”
Devastated by the loss in 2003 of her mother, stepfather, sister and longtime partner Howie Epstein, who played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Carter stepped away from the studio for years before returning with 2014’s “Carter Girl,” a disc that was hailed as one of the best Americana recordings of the year.
“Americana is where I belong now,” she said. “Country is where I belong. But country has changed so much. It’s about the young, the shiny and new. Which is OK. I was the young, shiny and new once. “
Very happy in her fourth marriage, to actor Joseph Breen, Carter says she’ll be where she’s most content when she walks onto the Lied stage Tuesday.
“I’ve said in the past, mostly to my husband, most of the time I’m spinning plates all over the place,” she said. “When I’m on stage I’m more me. When I’m on stage, that’s where I’m most comfortable. So just push me onto the bus and get me out there.”