WALK THE Line told the story of Johnny Cash and his tempestuous love affair with the woman who was to become his wife - singer/songwriter June Carter. It won an Oscar, two BAFTA Awards, and three Golden Globes and the soundtrack won legions of new fans for the Carter/Cash family.
One person who watched at close quarters the courtship between Cash and Carter was June’s daughter (from her marriage to singer Carl Smith ) Carlene Carter.
“There was definitely some friction between my father and John over his relationship with my mother,” Carlene tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “There was a period of about six years when John and my mother were ‘doing the dance’ when they were on the road together. They finally got married when I was about 12.”
Carlene has also had her fair share of marital ups and downs. She married four times and was for many years romantically linked with Howie Epstein, bass player with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Her model looks and stints of substance abuse saw her dubbed the ‘wild child’ of the Carter/Cash family and the ‘femme fatale’ of American country music.
After more than a decade away from the limelight Carter returned with the album Stronger in March 2008. Elvis Costello said of it: “I couldn’t let a day go by without writing a note about CC’s record. It is astounding.”
As part of the European tour promoting the album Carlene undertakes an Irish tour and will play Campbell’s Tavern, Cloughanover, Headford, on Saturday February 20 at 8pm.
A living tradition
The Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock and Roll states: “The Carter Family pioneered modern country music by setting folk songs to string band back-up, and were one of the most popular groups in America.”
AP Delaney Carter met and married Sara Dougherty in 1915. Together with Sara’s sister Maybelle (who married AP’s brother Ezra ) they formed The Carter Family Band, drawing heavily on the Irish and Scottish songs of the Appalachian region.
Over the next four decades the Carters toured throughout the US and made many landmark recordings. ‘Wildwood Flower’, ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, ‘Wabash Cannonball’, and ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ became massive hits and were a huge influence on the young Johnny Cash in Arkansas.
Throughout the 1940s Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen, and Anita performed as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. The 16-year-old June was the star of the show as her hard work ethic and unique comedy timing set her apart from the others. In the late 1940s she carved out a successful solo career with upbeat country tunes.
In 1952 Carter married honky tonk country star Carl Smith and three years later their daughter Carlene was born. It would only be a matter of time before the young songstress pursued a music career of her own.
“I feel my mother instilled in me a certain responsibility to carry on the Carter music,” Carlene says. “She also created an atmosphere where you could keep creating new music, and was always very encouraging in that regard but she never said ‘You have to do this or you have to do that’.
“It was just that music was the family business and I happened to love it. It’s funny because my daddy never brought work home and once when a teacher asked my brother where his father worked he said ‘At the airport’. He was just so used to the fact that Mom and Dad were going off on tour that he just sort of assumed that they both worked at the local airport!”
Throughout her teens Carlene served her apprenticeship on the Nashville songwriter scene and in 1978 released her eponymous debut album.
“I’d been making the rounds in Nashville and I had a little bit of success with Emmylou Harris recording one of my songs,” she says. “The hardest thing about releasing my first album was that there were a lot of pre-conceived notions of what I was going to sound like. That was partly why I moved to London and recorded with Graham Parker’s band The Rumour.”
When Carter arrived in London she became the poster girl of the pub rock scene. She recorded with, and later married, Nick Lowe, and introduced Elvis Costello to country music.
“I was a little ahead of my time in terms of what was going on in Nashville,” Carlene states. “What I was playing was a bit too rocky and edgy for regular country radio. It was around the time that Crystal Gayle had all her hits and I didn’t really fit that mould. There was a lot of music happening in London and it was all very different and all very exciting. It wasn’t as categorised as music was in America at that time.”
Following her successful sojourn in Europe she returned to the US and had another crack at Music Row in Nashville.
“It took really until 1980 for me to find my niche in terms of the type of music I wanted to play,” Carlene says. “Up until that time I was pretty much finding myself and I’d this huge weight of expectation around my shoulders.”
Carlene found her own voice as the decade progressed and in 1987 joined her mother and step-father Johnny Cash on the road as featured vocalist. Three years later she released her fifth studio album I Fell In Love, which proved to be her most successful. She became a star of VHI and CMT and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Controversy has followed Carlene around for most of her adult life and in the late 1990s tabloid headlines replaced positive record reviews.
“I’ve gotten a lot more press out of things that have absolutely nothing to do with music,” she says. “I’ve always been pretty honest though and my albums are all pretty autobiographical and about real things.”
The songstress has battled with addiction and this has been played out the public domain. However, she always had a significant presence in her corner in the shape of Johnny Cash. When he showed her the video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ it had a poignant significance for them both.
“I lived with Mom and John for about six months,” she says .“One day John sat me down and said ‘This is my new video.’ When I saw all the imagery and how John was saying goodbye it just killed me! We really had a special bond, John and I, because of our battles with addiction and we sort of understood each other. ‘Hurt’ was the last thing I sat down and watched with John and it was a really great experience.”
Carlene’s mother June passed away in May 2003 and Johnny Cash joined her less than a year later. When Walk The Line was released shortly afterwards it celebrated the life that June and Johnny had shared together.
“It was pretty much on track,” Carlene says. “They got married when I was nearly in my teens so I do remember a lot of it. It was a little heavy sometimes because John was really ‘out there’ but overall I have pretty good memories.
“Joaquin Phoenix did a great job playing John and the singing was pretty accurate but the only thing is that he’s very quiet and not that tall and when you think of Johnny Cash you think of this big huge guy.
“I met with Reese Witherspoon one afternoon and told her how Mom juggled having two young daughters with being on the road. She was very interested in the relationship between John and my mother and all that. After losing so many people that were close to me I had to pick myself up by my boot straps and get back out on the road. I think John and my mother would have wanted that.”