HE best advice Johnny Cash gave his stepdaughter Carlene Carter was to be herself on stage. Stay true to who you are and audiences will know they are getting an authentic performance. All these decades later, it is a mantra she repeats every time she steps before a crowd.
“The first time I went on stage as an adult was touring with the Johnny Cash Show. I’d sang as a child. But my grown-up initiation was as part of that band. I learned how to sing in front of a lot of people and to hone my skills alongside some of the greatest performers of all time.
“What I learned was to be yourself. Then you’re never on auto-pilot. Whenever I get to a point I’m so tired that I forgot the verse of a song I know I’m burnt out.”
There is no hyperbole in describing Carlene as “music royalty”. She is the daughter of country icon June Carter and Carl Smith, an esteemed songwriter in his own right. June was married three times, first to Smith, then to race car driver Rip Nix and finally to Johnny Cash. Carlene, meanwhile, will be best known to non-country audiences from Cash biopic Walk The Line, in which she was portrayed by Victoria Hester. Was it strange seeing herself on screen?
“It wasn’t weird,” says Carter, 60. “When they’ve made a movie about your parents you might have mixed feelings. That’s only natural. I thought it was a good film. John and June had such a huge life and it captured the spirit of how they fell in love, the extraordinary music that John was making at such a young age coming out of the air-force… it was all in there.”
She took naturally to performing and was not over-awed by her family reputation. “Maybe early on, I didn’t look so comfortable on stage. It was never anxiety. I feel the audience are friends that have come to see us. That was always how we look on it in the Carter Family. I’ve never suffered stage fright.”
Carter has been steeped in showbusiness as long as she can remember. Her family didn’t just play music — they obsessed about it too.
“I remember when I was six or seven years old my mom coming home with a Bob Dylan record. She told me and my sister, who was maybe just four, that this man would change music forever.
“When she put the album on, we thought it was like the baby Jesus being born. That’s how big a deal it was.”
Though arguably overshadowed by her illustrious clan, she has achieved success in her own right. Carter has released 12 studio albums and achieved more than a dozen hits. Her biggest was 1993’s ‘Every Little Thing’, which reached number three on the American country charts and is a live favourite to this day.
Her personal life has been just as colourful . Carter has married four times, including to English songwriter Nick Lowe (writer of ‘Cruel to Be Kind’, a hit for Elvis Costello).
The death of sister Rosie Nix-Adams due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 2003 meanwhile inspired perhaps her best album, Stronger. That tragedy had followed a dark period for Carter during which she struggled with substance abuse. In 2001 she and then partner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, were arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and of drugs (Epstein died not long afterwards due to heroin use).
But today she is happily married to actor Joseph Breen and in a good place, emotionally and in her career. She’s looking forward to returning to Ireland, which she first visited as part of her step-father’s ensemble in the 1970s. In fact, her links to the old country run deep — during her latest tour, she will squeeze in an in-law’s wedding in County Clare.
“We’re going to see our niece get married on the family homestead. I also can’t wait to play in Ireland. I love those smaller, intimate shows. It’s as if you are singing in someone’s living room. Touring is like living inside a bubble. It is a place I love to be.”
- Carlene Carter plays Whelan’s, Dublin, Tuesday; Ballymaloe Grainstore, Shanagarry Wednesday; and Glór Centre, Ennis Thursday