Catching Up With Carlene Carter

She Stars in New Musical as Her Mother, June Carter Cash

After emerging from a rough spell the last few years, Carlene Carter has lived to tell the story — literally. This week in Nashville, she opened the new musical Wildwood Flowers, starring as her mother, June Carter Cash. The production co-stars her cousin, Lorrie Bennett Davis, who stars as her own mother, Anita Carter. It runs through July 31 in the BellSouth Acuff Theatre, next to the Grand Ole Opry House.

Focusing on the lively dynamic between Mother Maybelle Carter and her three daughters — June, Anita and Helen — the feel-good tale unfolds against a backdrop of acoustic music and family harmony. In her dressing room after the show, fresh from a standing ovation, Carter visited with about capturing a forgotten era in country music history, taking time off for recovery and what her Mama would think.

CMT: When you thought about doing this project about your family, what made you decide to do a musical, instead of a tribute album or a photography book?

Carlene Carter: How could it not be a musical? How could it not be about music? In the period of their lives that we’re trying to get across — all those years when they were little girls and then they were young women and how hard they worked — they didn’t know that wasn’t what most kids did. They just went with their mama. During all of that running around and playing, they were still little kids.

And that whole time too, Mama developed all of her comedy stuff. I just thought it was a lost period that people had overlooked, or never knew about, because they were too young or whatever. The funny thing about Mama, until the day she died, whenever she was on stage, she was funny as hell. I mean, she was just so funny and so endearing. I was her biggest fan.

In fact, last night, this guy came to the show who was in my third-grade class. I said, “Do you remember when Mama came to our class and sang with her banjo?” You know, when you’re a kid, you want to be like everybody else. Well, my mom, instead of coming and being a P.T.A. lady, she would come with her banjo and do her comedy routines and tell all of her funny poems, like “Georgie was a little girl who lived in Tennessee.” That kind of stuff, and the kids loved it. I was so proud but also halfway like, “Why can’t you just be normal?” But I would never trade a thing about my mom. She was such a pistol.

I have great stories. I am going to write a book. I’ve actually started it. I’ve got 10 chapters. It’s not anything serious right now. It’s just me trying to find my voice and my writing style. Plus, I’m concentrating on this right now. I like to do one thing at a time and do it to the best of my ability.

What were some of the special preparations you had to do to get ready for this role?

I had to move back to Nashville. That was one thing. I had to decide that I was ready to do this again, because I’ve been off for quite a while. I wanted my life — the foundation of my life and the way I’m living now — I wanted it to come first. I wanted to find some peace before I took on this thing because I knew this was going to be really emotional.

I had my first meeting with them [the musical’s producers] almost a year ago, and I knew I was not ready. It was still too fresh. It still hurt too much. I didn’t know how to handle it. Now, I’ve found a lot of comfort in it, because it’s such a celebration. I truly feel their presence when we’re doing this. Plus, I love my cousin Lorrie. She’s like my sister. We are so tight and to be able to sing with her every night and do this with her is really a gift. The planets just lined up. God in His great wisdom saw that it all happened when it happened.

When they started coming to me saying, “This is going to happen. Can you do it?”, I was like, “I’m ready.” When I came back to Tennessee, I thought I was going to stay for just the run of the play. I thought, “I’ll stay for the summer.” That’s what I had decided. But I got here and started singing this music with the cast, with Janet and Gina and Lorrie and Mark W. Winchester, who is so great as Chet [Atkins]. That week, I decided I’ve got to come back home. It’s time.

Before that, I went to L.A. and did some things for myself to get myself on track. It took me about a year to feel like I could do it. And it all worked out.

What were some of those things you did?

I actually really concentrated on my recovery, in all aspects. Recovering from losing so much of my family and losing my own love of music, too. I’ve also had problems with my addictions. I really had to get it in perspective — “I’m going to die if I keep doing what I’m doing.” I was really given a good opportunity. MusiCares was really good to me. I can’t say enough how MusiCares helps other people. They really, really helped me. They have the greatest groups and support for musicians in recovery.

What are you thinking for yourself, beyond the play? Maybe a new record?

I’d like to make a new record, yeah. I’ve had a lot of thoughts on that, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with other people about it, about the business. It’s there for me because I want it. I don’t need somebody to offer me a record deal. I can make music myself, whether it’s just in my living room or here or wherever. I believe everything falls into place as it’s supposed to.

I need to write some more songs. I’ve got quite a few new songs that I feel really good about. I think I’m going to go into the studio soon. … I like making records. There are a lot of things I’d like to do. Now that I’m back here, I’d really like to start writing with people and working my catalog. I’ve got a large catalog built up over the last 30 years. I’ve been writing songs for the last 30 years.

At the end of the show, you sang one of your own songs, “Me and the Wildwood Rose.” Why was that important for you to include?

Because it’s about those days. It’s from my point of view. Mine and Lorrie’s points of view as little girls. When I wrote that song, I was still grieving for my grandmother’s soul because she was such a huge part of my life and such my friend. I just wanted to be with Grandma and Aunt Helen and Anita, too. All the time! That’s what I wanted to do as a kid. I loved being with Grandma.

When I wrote it, it was like 1988 or something like that, I wrote it at the suggestion of Howie Epstein [her former boyfriend]. He said, “You should really write a song about those days. You’ve told all those stories. Like how you used to make beds in the floorboards.” Mama always called Rosey “the Wildwood Rose.” [Rosey Nix Adams was Carter’s sister; she died in 2003.] I couldn’t really get “Me and Lorrie and the Wildwood Rose” to work (laughs), but it was about me and Lorrie and Rosey. Also, yesterday was Rosey’s birthday, and she passed away two years this October. This is for her, too. This is her music too. I felt like it was important to put in there.

When I sing the verse about “I’ll always remember the day that she died,” not only do I think about my grandmother, I’m thinking about my mom, Aunt Helen and Aunt Anita. I know it sounds really sad, and I don’t want to get any kind of pity from people, but I feel it every time I sing it. I remember getting on that airplane and I remember riding over there by myself, and we stood in a circle and sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” So I want to do that in life. I want to stand in a circle and sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I don’t want to sing it just at funerals, or when I’m gone, I don’t want people to just do that. I want them to sing “No Swallerin’ Place” [a novelty song in the play] or something.

I noticed when you sang the line you mentioned, you teared up. I think the audience felt that too. But when you started “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” everybody perked up.

I think the whole show is like that. It’s got some tender moments in it, that I’ve actually had some real tears. … Last night I had a strange thing happen. I was standing in the middle of the stage and I completely lost it. Right in the beginning of the show, I looked over at Maybelle, and her head was [tilted] like this and she was looking at her guitar. Gina looked like my grandmother so much that I busted into tears. I know that actresses aren’t supposed to do that, but this is a little different. My mom was never secretive about her emotions on stage, and I never have been either. So, maybe I’m not an “actress,” but I feel like it’s important to feel when you see the show. And I want people to laugh. I want people to come see it because I think if people come see it, they’ll really like it. They probably think, “She can never do what her mom did.” Nobody could! But I’m trying.

You’ve got the look though.

I dyed my hair! That was a brave moment. I’ve been blonde my whole life and not necessarily always naturally. (laughs)

When you sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the end of the night, what goes through your mind?

How much they would love this. When I say “they,” I mean all those who came before us, including Goldie [Hill, her late stepmother]. So many people. Waylon, oh, I just loved Waylon. Merle Kilgore, he was such a card. There are countless ones. But I think about that, and I think about how my mother would particularly love how Lorrie and I are doing something together and that we’re singing their music. Mama would love this. Mama would so love it.