It’s no doubt a blessing and a curse – she’s a part of the Carter Family (bonus, her step-dad was Johnny Cash) but as has been the case with Rosanne Cash, there’s a tendency to think only of the lineage, of their place in the line, the foot up.
Carlene Carter cut a handful of great records in the early 1980s and 1990s and was proudly pushing a country-music angle (her dad was honky-tonker, Carl Smith; June Carter’s first husband) before there was ever any marketing-angle. She was proudly defiant, blissfully unaware of the taglines – oblivious.
And it still feels that way now with Carter Girl. Alt-country’s been and gone and Americana is the catch-all now, and Carter’s music is of course within the large Venn diagram, obviously. But you never, for a second, figure she’s making any of the sounds on this latest record, nor on any of her albums, due to any attempt to fit in. Trends come and go, she happens to be (sorta) connected to one now. And always there’s the baggage of that history. But also that family heritage to now serve – as well as protect.
Carter Girl features some of Carlene’s best songs. And her voice, world-weary and wonderful, works so well in the duets. A highlight of this set – her first record in a decade or so – is Troublesome Waters. Willie Nelson joins her, as does his “Trigger”. Both sounding as good as ever – preserved, pickled, doused in whatever green fug keeps Willie sounding as old/young/timeless as ever.
Vince Gill is there too for Lonesome Valley and thanks to some studio trickery (Don Was on the boards) she’s joined by the ghosts of several family members for the closer I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow. They’re still working today. That Carter Family sound (and ethos) has been there in anything and everything Carlene Carter has put down. But never more so than with Carter Girl; a record that has a contemporary warmth to it, but is steeped in the rich history of song that she could never subtract herself from if she tried (though why you would want to is a separate discussion – even despite that occasional curse-feeling).
Elizabeth Cook and Kris Kristofferson round out the album’s guest-appearances. But in the writing and singing it is Carlene Carter’s show – she walks tall and proud through all of this. A lovely album.