There comes a time when we dip into the well to find what nurtures us. Often, we are seeking a connection between past and present. A pilgrimage refreshes the soul, expands our sense of purpose and reminds us of who we are.
Two members of a famous country family went to the well, and this year they released two very different versions of their inheritance.
Part I – Carlene Carter
Carlene Carter’s collection is called Carter Girl, and it draws from her long line of musical relatives. The Carter Family’s recorded history began in 1927 with A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her sister, Maybelle (who married A.P.’s brother). The sound is commonly referred to as bluegrass, although it is technically the gospel music and shape note singing that came from the Appalachian region of Virginia where all the Carters grew up.
After the trio disbanded, Maybelle continued to perform, bringing her daughters, Anita, Helen and June, into the mix. June was married for a time to a singer named Carl Smith. They named their daughter Rebecca Carlene Smith. The girl, who sang with her aunts and grandmother, took the best of names from both families and called herself Carlene Carter.
I’d like to say that Carlene is a lot like her mama, but with an edge. In fact, June Carter DID have an edge, especially in her youth, just not as jagged as Carlene’s. She inherited her mother’s attitude and became as famous for her on-stage profanity as for her singing talent. But that was a long time ago.
Carlene is now in her late 50s and has put her stamp on her family’s old sound. Carter Girl is a collection of old Carter Family tunes. She skipped over the family’s biggest hits and went to some songs that are less identified with the early band. The music is different now. It has Carlene’s trademark edge.
Carter and her producer, Don Was, didn’t really change the music; they added to it and improved on it. Traditional instruments are used, and the sound is clearly old, yet electric undertones and strong drum lines bring the music into the present. There is some gospel, a waltz or two, and a song with a clear polka/Norteno beat. Most were written by the original Carter group. One song, “Tall Lover Man,” was a hit for June Carter. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” was written by Carlene about her grandmother, Maybelle, and reflects on an iconic Carter recording. “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” features a remix of vocals by the middle generation – Helen, Anita and June Carter – with Carlene in the foreground.
Did I mention that Carlene does duets with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook?
Carter Girl is a treat. It lets us hear how these 80- and 90-year-old songs work in the present. Gotta wonder how the next generations of Carters will take it forward.
Part II – Rosanne Cash
Rosanne Cash, like her stepsister, has had a string of successful recordings. Her latest is a collection of songs she wrote and produced with her husband after a road trip through the Southern states. While it is more to my personal taste than Carlene’s work, it is just as poignant as a reflection of family history.
This is an intersection of music royalty. Rosanne’s dad was Johnny Cash. She was the product of Johnny’s first marriage. His second marriage was to June Carter, who was Carlene’s mother. And so it was that Carlene and Rosanne found themselves on stage together, if not at all the family reunions.
Rosanne looks more like her mother than her dad, but you can see his strong features in her face. She doesn’t have Johnny’s low, deep voice; hers is stronger and more melodic. Since 1995, she has been married to writer/producer John Leventhal, who has his own list of stellar credits. They perform together regularly. When the road brings them to northern California, Rosanne honors her father by performing for prisoners at Folsom.
But about this CD: Rosanne and her husband said they were stunned they visited the places in the South that made news for civil rights activities as well as music. They were so moved by their experience they began to write music about what they saw and felt on their trip. The outcome was The River and the Thread.
This was a trip of emotions. They visited Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Arkansas, and it is clear Rosanne connected with the feel and the smell of the place. “A river runs through me,” she sings.
Rosanne knows how to weave words to subtly convey a story. She has always been a poetic songwriter. John wass expert at weaving the textures of the notes and the instruments. She saw the South as the home of her ancestors. He saw the region for its place in history and music. The combination of personal and professional views gives us a full, rich perspective. Don’t look for a particular style or genre on this CD. These folks break the mold with their sound. The couple even co-wrote one of the songs with Rosanne’s ex, Rodney Crowell. Kristofferson played on this CD, too.
The River and the Thread has notable depth and is worthy of repeated listens. Rosanne’s CD has had more publicity than Carlene’s, but they are too different to compare. It’s hard to say which CD might have long-term potential. Find me in 60 years, and we can talk about it.
You can see Rosanne Cash perform at Folsom's Harris Center for Performing Arts October 3rd, 2014.