It was probably inevitable that Carlene Carter would crave a career in music.
The daughter of June Carter and country singer Carl Smith, and grandchild of Alvin Pleasant (“A.P.”) and Maybelle of the famous Carter Family, Carlene was surrounded by music and fame from the time she was in the womb.
As a child, she traveled and sang with her mother, grandmother, and aunts Helen and Anita, who performed and recorded as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Her own career began in the late 1970s, but took root when the title track of her 1990 album, “I Fell in Love,” earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
In 2003, Carter was swamped in sorrow by the deaths of June and her husband, Johnny Cash, and Carlene’s sister, Rosey. Carlene’s current CD, “Carter Girl,” pays tribute to three generations of her family’s music. The album presents well-known and obscure Carter Family songs: June’s “Tall Lover Man” and her aunt Helen’s “Poor Old Heartsick Me.” Carter also features her own “Me and the Wildwood Rose” and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a eulogy to the passing of June and Johnny Cash.
While en route to a show in Connecticut, Carter, 58, shared memories of her family, discussed the new album and her participation in Farm Aid, which brings her to Walnut Creek Amphitheatre on Saturday.
Q: How were you invited to take part in Farm Aid?
A: Willie and I did a duet on my “Carter Girl” album. I’ve known him forever and I’ve worked with John Mellencamp on several projects. John and I share the same manager, so it was nice to be invited.
Q: Your ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries lived in the region of southwest Virginia known as Poor Valley, where they struggled to farm that rocky soil. And here you are, participating in Farm Aid in 2014.
A: Isn’t it awesome? A hundred years later, here I am trying to keep it going. What would we do without the farmers? It’s not just the Carter side, but the Smith side, too. My grandparents in East Tennessee were farmers, too. I asked my dad what they farmed, and he said, “Food for us to eat. That was it.”
Q: Your CD, “Carter Girl,” pays homage to your family’s musical legacy. How did you decide to do this album?
A: It really came from the seeds planted in me at a very early age. Mother and Helen and Anita and my grandmother were all gone. To carry on the music of the Carter Family was instilled in me.
I waited what I thought was a respectful amount of time after Mama passed. It felt really good and I felt closer to them. I made it through the whole record without crying. The last day I started crying because I was so thrilled with the outcome and that it was finally happening after almost two years of working toward it.
Q: You feature Carter Family classics, such as “Give Me the Roses” and “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” along with lesser known songs – “Blackie’s Gunman” and “Little Black Train,” for example. How did you choose which songs to include on the album?
A: I made lists of songs. I started out with the ones I had sung with them. Usually, I only knew one verse because I never got to sing more than one verse. And I listed the ones I’d heard them do. I found a whole treasure of songs I never heard. If I identified with something, I’d listen to it. And I wanted it to be songs I wished I’d written.
Q: You grew up with one foot in traditional music and the other in rock and roll, and your career reflects that. “Carter Girl” begins with the 19th century gospel song, “Little Black Train,” which you do in a rocked-up arrangement. Yet you adhere closely to Carter Family style with your acoustic treatment of “Gold Watch and Chain.”
A: (“Gold Watch and Chain”) is one I had always loved and remember hearing them do, and I sang that with them. I did try to find songs people weren’t familiar with. Even though “Little Black Train” had been around since the 1800s,I thought it was foreboding and a little bit edgy. So I plugged in my electric guitar ...
Q:Why do you think so many Carter Family songs remain relevant today?
A: It doesn’t matter what year we’re in. We all have fantasies. Women want to leave their husbands or men want to go walking around or riding horses picking up little gals in villages. It’s the same human condition. And there’s a thread of spiritualism to all of it, I think. The common denominator is usually love. People ask, ‘How did A.P. write them?’ I say, ‘He didn’t, but he kept them alive.’ He had the wherewithal and desire to go out and walk those miles to visit people, and ask, ‘Did you know any songs your grandmother taught you?’
Q: What do you remember most fondly about traveling with your Grandmother and the Carter Sisters?
A: Grandma’s driving! I don’t remember if they had speed limits back then. I remember us getting pulled over. She must have been doing 120. One hundred miles an hour was normal. I was 17 and went on a trip with them when we drove 22 hours to play one show. We ran out of gas at a place called Duck, West Virginia. We wrote a song called “Stuck in Duck.”
I thought my mama hung the moon, and I wanted to do what they did. That is my biggest memory. It’s like in my song, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”: If I could change a thing in the world, I’d go back to those days. Those were some of the happiest times I’ve had.