Communing With the Dead to Celebrate the Present

Carlene Carter's tenth studio album, 'Carter Girl,' is an examination of her family roots

Even when she was in the most rock ’n’ roll phase of her long, distinguished career—that would be the late 1970s, when she was hanging out in London, cutting tracks with Graham Parker’s band and marrying Nick Lowe—Carlene Carter never had a problem acknowledging that she was a member of American country music’s most fabled musical family.

In later years, she often made that family her main priority, performing regularly with her mother, June, and her aunts Helen and Anita; it brought back memories of how she’d chimed in as a girl when they all sang along with grandmother Maybelle and great-aunt Sara, two of the three musicians (the other being Sara’s husband A.P.) who’d first made the Carter family famous in the 1920s and ’30s. Ms. Carter has even played the role of her mother in the stage musical Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story. So to call her tenth and latest studio album, Carter Girl, a new acceptance of her heritage would be wrong.

Still, Ms. Carter, who will perform at the Cutting Room on June 11, has never done anything quite like this before. Seven selections on the new album are A.P. Carter standards. Ms. Carter also uses her great-uncle’s “Lonesome Valley” as the basis for a song about the 2003 passings of her mom and stepfather Johnny Cash. The remaining four songs fit the pattern: one by June, one by aunt Helen, one by Maybelle and grandpa Ezra, and one reminiscence of childhood by Ms. Carter. Clearly, a decision has been made to engage, as an artist, with the Carter family legacy on a much deeper level. And there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of that legacy involves…well, in a word, death.

Just think about it: All the family members I’ve mentioned so far, aside from Ms. Carter herself, currently reside on a different plane. That’s a lot of dearly departed—some of whom make cameo appearances on Carter Girl’s last track, “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” various components of which were recorded in the ’80s. It’s a little disorienting and perhaps a tad ghoulish to hear all three elder Carter sisters, Johnny Cash and Cowboy Jack Clement joining in with Ms. Carter and her band from beyond the grave, but no more so, I suppose, than it is to hear Natalie Cole engaging in an audio séance with her dad.

Mourning, remembering and duetting with Ms. Carter’s own dead would be enough by itself, but adding to the darkness is that most of these songs were already laced with doom when they were first written. This is classic folk music, after all, full of people dying of broken hearts, killing each other, killing themselves. Sometimes they’re killing each other and themselves; June Carter Cash’s “Tall Lover Man” recounts a murder/suicide with what seems like unbecoming relish.

Yet somehow, despite all this, Carter Girl doesn’t end up being a downer. The opening song, A.P. Carter’s classic “Little Black Train,” is a case in point (see the video above). It doesn’t take much to figure out that the fellow driving the titular vehicle has, to quote that wonderful line in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, come about the reaping. But as delivered by Ms. Carter’s big, booming voice, with rollicking accompaniment by a team of crack players that includes bassist/producer Don Was, drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Greg Leisz, the suggestion to “set your business right” before that train arrives on your doorstep doesn’t sound like a grim warning but rather a joyful invitation: The end could be just around the corner, so let’s start being good to each other right now, and have some fun while we’re at it.

In the slightly modified words of yet another A.P. song (which, maybe not so coincidentally, follows “Little Black Train” on Carter Girl), give us the roses while we live. Expect more of that celebratory spirit at the Cutting Room this Wednesday.