Carlene Carter’s music builds on family legacy

When John Mellencamp’s “Plain Spoken Tour” hits Albany’s Palace Theatre on Saturday, Carlene Carter
Carlene Carter will open for and perform with John Mellencamp at Albany's Palace Theatre on Saturday.
Carlene Carter will open for and perform with John Mellencamp at Albany's Palace Theatre on Saturday.

When John Mellencamp’s “Plain Spoken Tour” hits Albany’s Palace Theatre on Saturday, Carlene Carter opens: a surprising, perfect match. On “Plain Spoken,” his 22nd album over 35 years, Mellencamp deepens the down-to-earth populism that inspired the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to co-found Farm Aid.

“We do two songs together,” said Carter last week, adding that she joins Mellencamp halfway through his show before he shifts to full-on rock mode with his band. In her solo opener, “I play guitar and piano, sing and tell stories.”

And, what stories!

Granddaughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter, daughter of country hitmaker Carl Smith (thus, Carlene) and June Carter, and step-daughter of Johnny Cash, she’s country royalty but she earned her own place.

“Grandma was really down to earth,” said Carter. “She had absolutely no idea what kind of impact she had on music,” helping bring bluegrass, Southern gospel, blues and folk into America’s song-stream. At Caffe Lena in 2014, Carter said Maybelle “taught me to fish, cook, put in a garden, play poker, and a little about the guitar.” Carlene said she learned “Carter Scratch” fingerpicking for her “Carter Girl” album (2014), but said she plays that tricky style better now.

Asked about the first recipe she learned, Carter laughed, “Son-of-a-bitch stew! — that’s anything you can get out of the garden and a piece of meat; you keep putting stuff in it until it tastes good!”

Early rocker

When she was very small, only Elvis’s “Mystery Train” would put her to sleep as her mother danced her around — “So I guess I grew up rocking!” Her mother also brought home all kinds of records. “One day, she said to me, ‘This young man is going to change music forever.’ It was a Bob Dylan album, and I was maybe 6 years old.”

Carter also learned her family’s work ethic. “With them, it was always ‘Suit up, and show up, for the fans,’ ” she said. “Even if they were exhausted and their feet hurt, when the curtain went up they would look great, walk great and come out singing like bells.” Soon, so did she, in the Johnny Cash show by age 15. “They just threw you out on stage and if you could swing it, you got to stay,” she said. “Some stayed [including stepsister Rosanne Cash] and some didn’t.” When she’d see her friends’ parents arguing — hers did not — “I wondered if it was because those other families weren’t playing music together.”

Leaving high school after 10th grade, she studied music business at Belmont in Nashville. When she found a $100,000 error in a royalty statement for the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash hit “Ring of Fire,” she earned a $1,000 bonus. She learned other, practical music-biz wisdom in the family band.

“I was taught to be respectful and polite but also to be strong,” she said. “So, you get paid before you go on stage — not after.”

Writing “Easy From Now On,” a 1976 Emmylou Harris hit, established Carter as a songwriter; she often collaborated later with then-husband Nick Lowe, her later fiancé Howie Epstein (who died before they could marry) or ex-NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson.

Touring with Clint Black and Merle Haggard in 1990 validated her as a performer. “Oh, God! — he was such an amazing talent!” she said of Haggard. Citing his homelessness and prison time, she said, “He had a past, and a dark side; a lot of the great people do, including my step-daddy.” She said Haggard “could write a great song, and he could just break your heart with how he sang it — he always gave me goose bumps!”

On that tour, she thought, “I’m opening for Merle Haggard, and I have made it! I felt, ‘I’m home, I’m doing it, and it’s country.’ Of course, now country has caught up to my energy level, now that I’m about to turn 60 years old!”

Carlene Carter opens for and sings with John Mellencamp on Saturday at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave. at N. Pearl St., Albany). 7:30 p.m. $115, $79.50, $59.50, $39.50. 465-3334

More music

Dangerously candid, musically sharp singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III returns to Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) on Sunday. Fame, folly and family; aging, desolation and death — he sings it all and often makes it surprisingly funny. 7 p.m. $55 advance, $50 door, $22.50 students/children. 583-0022

Tony Levin leads his jazz-rock trio Stick Men at the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady) on Saturday. Veteran of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel’s band, Levin plays the 12-string Chapman Stick, each hand making notes independently; Markus Reuter uses a similar touch style on ordinary-looking guitar and Pat Mastelotto plays electric and acoustic drums. The music is fiery, exploratory, energetic and strong. 6:30 and 9 p.m. $22.50 advance, $25 door. 348-7999.

Hendrix-inspired guitarist Robin Trower returns to The Egg on Wednesday. Trower has explored jazz, blues and progressive rock since leaving 1960s drama-rockers Procol Harum. With Bryan Ferry (ex-Roxy Music), the late Jack Bruce (Cream, etc.) and his own band — Chris Taggart, drums; and Richard Watts, bass and vocals at The Egg Wednesday — Trower makes punchy, colorful, bluesy wails. “Where You Are Going To” hit recently, his 26th solo studio album (plus 11 live sets) since 1973. 8 p.m. $49.50, $34.50. 473-1845.

Chicago sibling indie rockers Wild Belle (Natalie and Elliot Bergman) play the Hollow (79 N. Pearl St., Albany) on Tuesday. The swirling, ornate pop on their second album “Dreamland” boasts a big, dance-y, varied sound. 8 p.m. 9 p.m. $15. 426-8550

Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]

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