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An Oak Ridge Boy and a Carter Girl: Conversations With Joe Bonsall and Carlene Carter, Plus a George Michael Exclusive

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photo credit: Caroline True

According to George Michael's peeps...

"Global superstar George Michael will release his first album in seven years when Symphonica arrives in stores March 18th on Island Records in the U.S. The album, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone and George Michael, was recorded during the wildly successful 2011-12 'Symphonica' tour of the UK and Europe. The first single released to support the album is the dramatic ballad 'Let Her Down Easy.'"

Presented here is a snippet of George's version of The Police's "Roxanne."


A Conversation with Oak Ridge Boy, Joe Bonsall

Mike Ragogna: Joe, with your new live album Boys' Night Out, the Oak Ridge Boys are celebrating their 41st anniversary. And it's with President George H. W. Bush, our 41st president. That's way clever! How did that come about?

Joe Bonsall: Our friendship with President Bush or the event?

MR: Okay, both! How did the friendship begin and how did that lead to this performance?

JB: Our friendship with George Herbert Walker Bush dates back to 1982 when Ronald Reagan invited the Oak Ridge Boys to perform on the lawn of the white house for the annual congressional barbecue and a young, tall, skinny vice president came running at us during sound check--a lawn-of-the-white-house-sound check is kind of surreal anyway, but there we are doing it--and he come running towards us claiming to be our biggest fan. He said he couldn't be at the show that night, he had to leave town, but was there any way we could sing a few songs for him? So we said, "Of course!" He started requesting album cuts, so we said, "Oh wow, this guy does know our stuff." Even from our 1977 album Y'all Come Back Saloon, he wanted to hear "Freckles." He said, "I love 'Freckles.' Can you guys do 'Freckles'" We did the best "Freckles" we could for him. He gave us all the Vice-President of the United States t-shirt, which I never even knew existed back then and I have tried to find it...I've got it here somewhere, I know I do. But anyway, it struck up a friendship with him that lasted all of these years. We campaigned with him when he ran for president, we campaigned with him when he ran against Bill Clinton and lost, we stayed friends all of these years. He invites us and our family to see him and Barbara up in Kennebunkport. I wrote a book several years ago called G.I. Joe And Lillie about my parents in World War II and Barbara Bush wrote the forward. We've just been good friends all of these years. We were there for his fiftieth wedding anniversary, his eightieth birthday party; we've just stayed close. Every year, we play Galveston, Texas, at the Opry 1894. It's an old theater in downtown Galveston, and a lot of those years, George and Barbara come over from Houston to the show, and they did this year. What made it kind of unique--and of course this is our forty-first year--we were told by the RIAA that we've sold an excess of forty one million albums worldwide, and here comes president forty-one. Everything's looking like the number forty-one here! What we did to be a little bit different--and I've got to tell you this is Duane Allen's wife Norah Lee Allen's idea, Norah Lee who works at the Grand Ole Opry in a backup group and has for forty years on that stage--she called and said, "You know how his affinity is for socks? You guys have even made fun of him for years for his goofy socks that he wears! You guys ought to buy some goofy socks and when he gets there, y'all ought to show him your socks." We thought, "Well that would be funny." So we sent our tour director Darrick [Kinslow] to Wal-Mart and got all kinds of goofy socks. I guess they have a goofy socks section at Wal-Mart. [laugh] But we put on all these bright, goofy-colored socks and him and Barbara went into the dressing room, we got on the bus, put on our socks, went up to the dressing room door, took off our shoes like a bunch of kids and ran in there and showed him our socks. He laughed so hard and he pulled back his pants and showed us his socks, which were the most unique pair he'd ever had on. He had an emblazoned photo of himself on the socks. We just laughed and laughed, and I guess they took pictures and the next thing you know, it's released as a piece, Forty One And Forty One And Forty One. It was a fun event. Nobody got a really good picture of this, but that night on stage, they were sitting out there in the audience and we all put our feet up on the speaker and pulled back our pants and showed our socks on stage. They were some ugly, goofy socks!

MR: I'm looking at a picture of the socks right now...yikes, you're so right.

JB: [laughs] Mine, I think, were yellow with little red hearts on them. Who would even wear these things? But he's become kind of known for the socks, man. I think it's kind of he is about to turn ninety, right? I think he's eighty-nine, but he's still out there going to things. You look at TV at night and there he is at this game, there he is at Duke with Coach Krzyzewski and then there he is celebrating this and there he is doing a Points of Light event and there's Barbara still speaking for illiteracy and women's issues and hospitals, and they both are still so involved with the Cancer Center there in Houston. I don't know man, it's like I always tell him, I feel the same way when we're around Chuck Yeager, who's also a good friend of ours who's the same age. He celebrates his birthday with us every year and here's Chuck Yeager and George Bush. I always say, "Man, I'll be sixty-six in a month, I've been with the Oak Ridge Boys for forty-one years. If I ever grow up, I want to be those guys!" I ask Chuck Yeager, "What have you been doing lately, sir?" and he says, "Well, I've been over in South Africa teaching young boys how to fly F-16s." What? [laughs] That is just unimaginable to me. The energy level and the service that these kind of people have brought to our country over all these years... Your political swing doesn't matter, be a conservative, be a liberal, it doesn't matter. You've got to sit back and look at a guy like George Bush and think about his being ambassador to China, think about his being the head of the CIA, think about his being Vice-President, President, World War II hero, all the things that he has done over all these years, and you've got to just be in awe of the man and what he stands for.

MR: And you guys are still his musical ambassadors after all these years.

JB: You know, we are. He had a favorite Oak Ridge Boys song from years ago. The original title was "Portrait Of An American Family," and he's always loved that song. In fact, the last couple of times we've seen him, he's asked for it and we didn't really have it ready to sing for him. This time we knew he was going to be possibly coming to Galveston, so we worked it up so that on stage that night we could sing "Portrait Of An American Family" for George and Barbara because he just loves that song so much. So we even find ourselves customizing our shows for him. We make sure "Amazing Grace" is on the show. These are things that we know he really loves.

MR: Forty-one years is a long time for any group, my friend. What is it about the Oak Ridge Boys that makes it so enduring and endearing?

JB: First of all, we don't know how to stop. I think we've been able to plan every aspect of our career, we've been able to look at everything we've ever done and try to do it right, but we've never been able to plan how to even slow down, let alone stop. I think it's in the DNA of the Oak Ridge Boys. I think as long as we're feeling good and singing good that we'll just keep on singing. In fact, I threw a tweet out there yesterday--I do the @OakRidgeBoys on Twitter--I threw an April Fool's tweet out that said, "Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift will be opening for the Oak Ridge Boys' Farewell Tour April 2015." They weren't even noticing the joke of Luke Bryan, Blake and Taylor opening for us, they weren't even noticing that. They saw that phrase, "Farewell Tour" and people were freaking out. I had to give it away that it was April Fool's much quicker than I wanted to. I came back and said, "Okay, happy April Fool's Day! Listen, people, if we're still alive in 2015, I assure you we'll be planning 2016." [laughs] If we're still here, we'll be planning the next year, we just don't know how to stop. We're the old guys on the block, man. Everybody's feeling good, everybody's singing good. That's why we're doing this live album that's coming out, our first ever live album. It's a boy's night out thing. Duane Allen said last year, "None of us know how long this is going to last. We're all in our sixties and seventies now and we're all singing so good we need to be recording our shows. I don't know what's going to happen with them, but we need to take the equipment out there. We're performing at this level still which is amazing at our age, we should be recording our shows for posterity! But we took the equipment out, started recording live shows and probably got sixty-two songs in the can from about twenty-two shows over the years that we've worked. It just so happened that our manager Jim Halsey was talking to Cleopatra Records at the same time we were doing all this. Cleopatra's probably the largest independent label in the world and they said to Jim, "We would love to do a live album on the Oak Ridge Boys. Let us be the one, we'll release it worldwide--MP3, CD, vinyl--we'll get behind this thing and make a big deal out of it. Their first ever live album? Let us do it!" So all of a sudden, boom, our first fourteen song live album. I don't know if there'll be any more or not. There may be, but for right now, the concentration is on Boys' Night Out. You just hang around long enough and good stuff happens.

MR: And it's like a baby greatest hits package since it touches on so many classics that you guys accumulated. Are there some songs that have deeper meanings that you've discovered after performing them over all these years? Any surprises in how you interpret their meaning these days versus when you first recorded them?

JB: I don't know about surprises, but there are some songs that are really relevant to our career. "Y'all Come Back Saloon" was our first big hit in 1977, which started it all. "You're The One" was our second biggest hit. "Thank God For Kids," to me, was a very pivotal song in 1982 and it's still very meaningful today. Of course, "Elvira" and "Bobbie Sue" were the gigantic crossovers, and "Elvira" especially was just like the biggest record in creation. Everybody in the whole wide world would love to have an "Elvira" every time out, and so would we, but that kind of magic just happens. The whole year of 1981, the whole country was singing, "Oom papa mow mow..." with Richard and now when we sing it, it still goes over so big. But to answer your question a little more specifically, I think over the years, songs do change and morph just a little bit, and to me, the exciting thing about the Boys' Night Out project is we've got all these hit songs there, but it's the way we're doing them right now. If you come to hear the Oak Ridge Boys tonight with our band in a big show situation, you're going to hear "Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight" the way we do it right now. Yes, the songs do change. They get a little bit more edgy than the original records, there's a little more excitement, obviously, to the live version. I think all of those songs change a bit over the years. That's why I think the live album, at this point in our career, is a nice idea, because it shows us right now, how we are today. People want to hear the originals? Hey, man, they're all over the place. How many greatest hits compilations can you put out on a group? They've put out tons of them on us; you can find our songs everywhere. Put "Elvira" in on iTunes and probably ten versions of it come up over the years, but not this live version. Here it is live and kicking with the audience singing with us. It's totally updated and different. I think for our real fans, this is going to be a gigantic treat, because our fans have clamored for a live album for years, and for people who don't know us or don't know us as well, to listen to this makes them go, "Oh wow, these guys are still sounding great, holy cow." I think it's going to be a good project for us all around. Plus the new worldwide publicity that we've been getting from this relationship with Cleopatra has been enormous. I've seen reviews on the album from Spain and Portugal and the British Isles and Scotland and Ireland and Scandinavia. I've done several online interviews with a lot of major worldwide press people. We haven't had that kind of worldwide coverage in like forever. I think this is going to be a great way to introduce a lot of people around the world to the Oak Ridge Boys as well or to those who may have forgotten us. See, the cool thing about Europe especially is they love the legendary, been around a long time kind of acts. It's tradition or something; they just love this tradition. The way people are writing about us over there is pretty cool right now. I have to give Cleopatra credit for that.

MR: And you have had so many international hits and I wish you and the band many more. So what do you think of what's going on in country music right now?

JB: First of all, I think our days of big hit records are over. I think recognition and legendary status and stuff like that is where the Oak Ridge Boys are now and that will continue on as long as we keep performing at this level. But it's a younger business now and I may not love everything that's out there, but I think that these kids today have taken country music to a new level. I'll give you an example: for us to fill colosseums in the early eighties we had to have records cross all barriers into other forms of radio besides country. These kids today are filling up arenas and stadiums with country airplay. So what have they done? People like The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line and Keith Urban, there's a ton of them, and they have taken country music and made it the new popular music. They're filling up arenas and colosseums on just country airplay and country popularity and country TV. So what is now country music has become the new pop music as far as I can see, and I've got to give all the credit to these kids who are doing it today. They're younger, they're faster, they're hipper, they're cooler and they're making it happen. I have no bones to pick with any of it. We've had a great career, we've had our share of hits--fifty-some charted hit records over all these years--so I think that's what's happening now is great. A lot of these kids have a lot of love and respect for the Oak Ridge Boys too. I think it's a great time to be in country music. You know the old adage, "If you don't like what's on the radio, that's why God and Steve Jobs gave us an iPod." Today is Emmylou Harris' birthday. [Note: This interview occurred on April 2nd.] Emmylou Harris is one of my favorites of all time. I have a ton of Emmylou Harris on my iPod. If I don't want to be listening to The Band Perry, I can listen to Emmylou. If I want to listen to Merle Haggard today instead of Luke Bryan, I can certainly do that. Everything is out there for everybody to download and listen to, more so than it's ever been before. For those who don't like what they're listening to now, they can listen to what they want to. Heck, they can go listen to Frank Sinatra.

MR: Joe, what advice do you have for new artists?

JB: Well, I don't know what advice I can give to artists these days because there seem to be so many. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and my gosh, you can go downtown right now this afternoon and walk down Second Avenue and listen to one new kid after another singing on the street corner or in the bars and they all sound pretty doggone good. You've got to do something to make yourself stick out from the other guys. A lot of these guys kind of sound the same. I don't know, I guess if you're really, really good and you're moving people with your music then stay at it and don't give up your dream because dreams do come true and a lot of hard work and a lot of great talent will pay off for you eventually. But I still think you've got to work on trying to be something a little bit different than what people are hearing.

MR: Do you feel like the Oak Ridge Boys did that when you guys were starting?

JB: Definitely! When we came out everybody was saying, "Well there is a group..." and they were talking about The Statler Brothers. Well now, the Oak Ridge Boys and The Statlers, aside from being a four-man singing group, had nothing whatsoever in common. We didn't sing alike, our songs were different, we didn't sound the same. But the thing is, yes, when "Y'all Come Back Saloon" hit the airwaves you can talk to people all over the place and they will say, "My gosh, when 'Saloon' hit there was nothing like that on the radio." The Oak Ridge Boys had a whole new niche happening right there. That gospel harmony, that fullness of singing, that quality of sound and a song like that, it revolutionized a whole lot of things and it certainly revolutionized our career because we did manage to come out and sound like everybody else. We had a new thing. Nobody had quite what we had--a bunch of cool young guys, dressing cool, singing cool, being cool--and it worked for us back then and it obviously continued to work for us. I think we put something new on the table, I think we really did.

MR: And speaking of gospel, of course the Oak Ridge Boys have had a significant gospel career with a certain project produced by Leon Russell.

JB: We did! Several years ago--well it was a long time ago now, twelve or thirteen years ago now. But yeah, we worked with Leon and it was fun. Leon's a great talent, obviously. Gospel music has always meant a lot to the Oak Ridge Boys, it's the basis of our sound and attitude and how we do things today. We recorded some gospel over the years... About thirteen or fourteen years ago, we recorded From The Heart for Spring Hill, and we did one just two years ago called Back Home Again produced by Ben Isaacs of The Isaacs. We're always paying a little tribute to our roots. We still do some gospel in our shows. People enjoy hearing the Oak Ridge Boys singing that four-part harmony, Southern-style gospel. It's kind of the basis, I think, of our whole sound and always has been and it still is.

MR: What are your thoughts on gospel these days?

JB: I'm a huge fan of gospel music. I love southern style gospel and I love a lot of the kids that are singing it. My favorite acts right now are probably The Isaacs, The Easters, I love the Booth Brother guys. There's a lot of southern-style gospel that sounds great to me. Bill Gaither has been able to keep that all alive. I think Southern-style gospel is in a good place right now. The contemporary Christian gospel is what's gotten big with the kids. I kind of wish that some of the Southern-style groups were getting a younger audience like the Christian Contemporary kids are. Third Day came out to hear us sing. They were singing at night and we were singing in the afternoon at the Strawberry Festival in Plain City, Florida. They stood on stage and watched us sing and were very complimentary. Great guys, great talents, but a lot of these younger, contemporary Christian artists are getting the young kids these days. I don't know if it's their more rock 'n' roll approach to gospel or what, but for good old Southern-style gospel music like we came up on... I'm pretty happy with a lot of the kids that are playing today, I just wish the audiences were younger. I wish they'd latch on to it.

MR: They may latch on to it. Gospel music takes on some beautiful nuances now and then, and I think that's where you get an interested wave of new listeners. Christian Contemporary almost feeds people into gospel because that's the next, natural step if you're looking for something more than pop, you know what I mean?

JB: Yes, I agree with you totally. I think that is the absolute perfect outlook for it.

MR: Speaking of gospel, the Oak Ridge Boys sang background on Paul Simon's "Slip Sliding Away." Do you remember that session?

JB: Oh my gosh, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of the most meaningful things to us because back in '75 when we recorded that song with Paul, we had just won a Grammy for gospel and we met Paul at the Grammys in '75. It was February and we said to him, "Man, Paul, we need some help here." We were dying on Columbia Records and Paul was with Columbia. This was before we met Jim Halsey and made the move to ABC/Dot, which became MCA and all that. We were on Columbia, we were singing songs about the moon and the stars in the sky and we were just dying. We said, "Paul, you need to write us something." I'll never forget Paul saying, "I'm a selfish songwriter. If I write something and I love it, I've got to sing it. I never share with nobody." We said, "Well, write a new song for you and we'll come sing on it with you!" That's how "Slip Sliding Away" began. Several months later, he called us up and said, "Man, come up here, I've got the song." He flew us up to New York, we spent two days up there with him at the famous A&R studios with Phil Ramone producing. We sat in a circle with Paul in the studio for hours singing "Slip Sliding Away" singing the oohs and the ahs and everything. When that thing came out, we were still starving to death, but I've got to tell you, man, it was a big shot in the arm for us because "Slip Sliding Away" was such a gigantic song in '76; it was huge. Maybe the world didn't know that that was us singing with Paul Simon, but we knew it and it was a big, big deal to us, man. It was a big deal. We learned a lot from working with Paul Simon. We even learned how to not take everything so super-serious. Here he is serious as can be about the song and the music and editing his voice right down to the right words that he liked the way he sang and all of a sudden, it's time to go see the Red Sox play the Yankees and Paul's gone. A limo pulls up outside and Paul says, "Well, see you guys, I'm going to the game." Whoop, he's gone.

MR: [laughs] I was going to ask since he's such a baseball nut if you had any baseball moments with him and you did. That's great. Any others?

JB: We had that, and I'll never forget this... Here I am, what, like twenty seven-years old, twenty-eight, sitting here with Paul Simon, a hero, and I'm talking about growing up in Philly and pitching ball cards and he was talking about growing up in New York how they would flip ball cards. He sent somebody out to buy a bunch of baseball cards and next thing you know, there's a break in recording and Paul and I are flipping and pitching baseball cards like a Philly kid and New York City kid showing how we did it in our different cities and what we did with our baseball cards when we were kids. The whole session stopped while we pitched ball cards. It was incredible. And we sat there, the two of us, opening the packages to see who the cards were before we started messing with them. "Oh wait a minute, that's a Yankee, I'll take it." "Wait a minute! That's a good-looking Philly, I'll take that." We were putting the cards in our pocket, flipping, pitching, we turned into two little New York and Philadelphia city boys sitting on the floor of A&R studios with baseball cards and then all of a sudden, it was, "All right, back to singing." "Let get this song down, I've got another song idea" and all the ball cards were left on the floor and next thing you know we're in the studio again."

MR: [laughs] God, I remember as a kid being as excited to play with the cards as it was just opening the pack and seeing who you got.

JB: Oh yeah! And you know what, my friend? I have never, ever, ever told that baseball card story.

MR: Wow. I appreciate it.

JB: I always think about him going off to the ball game. The funny thing was, it was the Red Sox against the Yankees, which is a big, big deal, and me and Richard got on the subway, went to the game, scalped tickets outside and sat up in the outfield thinking "That doggone Paul Simon's sitting down there right behind home plate."

MR: [laughs] What an awesome story, man. Dude, my only worthy baseball story is although I grew up in New York, I sang the national anthem at a Red Sox game. I felt all guilty afterwards. I felt like I needed to put on a hat, fake moustache and glasses the next time I was in NYC.

JB: [laughs] Years later in the early eighties, when we were the biggest thing in the business, we got to be friends with George Steinbrenner and we would go to Yankee games up there and meet the Yankees in the dugout with Steinbrenner and I'm thinking, "A-ha, take that, Paul Simon!"

MR: [laughs] Oh my God. [laughs more] Joe, I've got to let you go, but you're awesome. It was really great to catch up with you after all these years.

JB: Well thank you, my brother. It's great to talk to you, too, and I appreciate you writing about it.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne


A Conversation with Carlene Carter

Mike Ragogna: Carlene Carter, your Musical Shapes is one of my favorite albums ever. Just clearing the air here.

Carlene Carter: [laughs] It's one of my favorites, too.

MR: You have a new album, Carter Girl, that takes you back to your roots. What does being a Carter Girl mean to you?

CC: Basically, I grew up watching Carter girls on stage watching my grandmother, my mom and my aunts perform. They used to say, "Okay, Carter girls, you're on!" I kind of just thought that that's what it was, because we show up, suit up, get out there and do our thing and it's all about the music and carrying it around all over the country and playing it for people. That's being a Carter girl.

MR: Did you always want to do a project like this, but felt like now was the exact right moment?

CC: Yes, exactly. For the longest time, I always tried to put something Carteresque or a Carter family song on every album that I've done. It was a matter of respect for me to wait until I felt like it was the right time for me to be carrying it on, while mom and Helen and Anita were still living. I love being a part of the Carter family but it never felt like I should do a tribute record until a certain amount of time had gone by. Also I think it's the right time for me emotionally, creatively and everything. It was a challenge for me because, having written everything I've done so far--ninety-five percent or so was my own composition--to be covering those songs is quite intimidating because I wanted to own them and I wished that I had written them. Having to pick from almost five hundred songs at my fingertips, that took some time for me to go through. I think when I whittled it down to fifty, I thought I was on to something.

MR: So all these songs clearly mean something to you. I'm sure you have stories that are connected with a couple of these songs. Are there a couple that you can go into?

CC: Part of my task is that I was charged as a young child to always carry on the Carter music and to keep it alive. I was told that would be my job someday, to never let it go lost. I also wanted to include some songs that people had not heard, that weren't the usual suspects. I didn't want to do "Wildwood Flower," not that I wouldn't want to do it, but it's one of the most famous ones, with "Circle Be Unbroken." But then there were ones like "Gold Watch And Chain" and "I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow" that I performed with them and just remembered them playing those songs all my life. I discovered "Little Black Train," I picked it out mainly due to the lyrics. The same with "Blackie's Gunman," I used the box set In The Shadow Of Clinch Mountain and I kind of made it my little bible, my little discography of Carter family stuff. It's all right there in the box. It was inspiring to look at my grandmother's picture and Aunt Sara and Uncle A.P. and also my house is filled with photos of mama and Helen and Anita. I wanted to try and cover a bit of the three generations as far as the three different Carter families that came along. Maybelle was constant in the first two and of course the girls, Helen, Anita and mama, they became the second generation of that. Then of course myself and my cousin Lorrie, she sings on the record, too. Being a Carter girl means you get thrown on stage. In picking the songs, a lot of the times I just picked them because I liked the lyrics and I liked the story. That was one thing about the songs that I found completely to be true, they're timeless. They stand the test of time. They're not hokey 1920s and 30s sounding things. With my spirit and my voice and the way that I perform them it's a different kind of thing. I try to stay true to the songs, though. I love the fact that when we recorded the album Don was amazing. We tracked live with me singing live and me playing live, so all of my vocals and my guitar playing are all live from the beginning, I didn't go back and overdub.

MR: Which was reminiscent of how you performed with The Carter Family.

CC: Right! They would redo it rather than go back and fix something. If you were in the studio with them they would just say, "Oh no, I need to do that." I remember my grandma telling a story about when they went to Bristol to record those first recordings in 1927, she said, "I didn't get that right, I need to do that again," and they were sort of like, "We can't do that again, we only have this many pieces of wax." She's always been such a perfectionist, particularly about her playing, I just loved the stories about that and now I'm loving the stories that I have when I play live, I can tell people about where I heard that song first or why I like it. I think it draws people into it more when they really understand that it's not just me doing a bunch of covers of Carter family songs, there's a lot more to it. It's a heartfelt record. There's also the balancing act of how so many of the songs are gospel oriented. At one point one my lists was pretty much all gospel songs and I thought, "Well that's all good and everything," but so many of their songs are about unrequited love or heartbreak but fiesty stuff, too, like "Blackie's Gunman." I always liked that Sara and Maybelle would sing those songs in the male point of view. I always said, "I want a little girl named Nellie."

MR: You did a nod to their approach with Elizabeth Cook.

CC: Yeah, she just had the perfect voice to fill out the Carteresque harmony. I wanted it to sound like that. Between her and my cousin Lorrie I felt like we achieved that. She came in to sing on a couple songs and ended up singing on six of them. Elizabeth is a total honorary Carter girl and she's also one of my dearest friends in the world. She's just a joy to work with. She gets it, and that meant something. The same with the gals that are all on the record. When we first started this project, I started working with Randy Hoffman, who's my manager. That came from Bob Merlis, I said, "I've got this idea, I've got this record," so I came up with Merlis and I said, "I think I'm going to need a manager to get the right people in here." I didn't want to just throw it together, I wanted it to have a chance that people would actually hear it instead of me just by myself in the house. So all of the ducks got in a row, but my list of people I thought ought to be on the record was quite extensive, but the first six people that I had on my list were on the record. So at that point I said, "That's great." My husband Joe [Breen], my cousin Lorrie, Vince Gill, and Willie [Nelson] and Kris [Kristofferson] because they were so much like family to me and they knew my grandmother. They've known the family forever, so they're kind of like Uncle-Brothers.

MR: From the way it was crafted and planned and sounds, this package may possibly be the most important of your career, really brining out the most "Carter" in this Carter Girl.

CC: That was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to work with Don Was. I had always thought that he brings the artist across, their personality and their talent. He actually captures that on records when in this day and age a lot of that gets lost in the mix. When we recorded, except for working with the Carter family I had never really recorded that way. I did this with Musical Shapes, too, where we just went in and put it down and that was it. That's kind of what we did, but obviously to get all the right people in the right place at the same time it didn't work quite that way. I had to send tracks to Vinnie for him to put his voice on but like two hours later I'd get back and it's done. It was awesome. But Don was great about saying, "We're playing with you," because I kept trying to fire myself from playing the guitar and he said, "No, no, we're playing with you. You're playing really good." I was trying my best to represent granma's guitar style as best I could. I kept saying, "I'm sure there's somebody else who could play this better than me," but every guy in the room was going, "No, we're playing with you!" That was because of Don's approach to it. That's why I wanted him. That's why he's the guy. Plus he's awesome to work with. He's a great person, and he got it. He understood what I was aiming at.

MR: By the time you'd finished working on the record, did you feel that Don really "got" The Carter Family?

CC: Oh, absolutely. We knew each other on a casual basis and always really liked each other. There's always a big smile when we'd see each other, and I had my first meeting with him and Randy and we talked about my idea I said, "I'd really like you to be a part of this and do this record with me," and he just said, "Yeah, yeah." I was like "Whoa!" I had this little wish list of things that I wanted to happen, and one of the other things I wanted to happen was I wanted to be on Rounder. I thought that they were the right label for me. That came to pass, and I wanted to work with Bob Clearmountain my entire career and Don brought him along. Every bit of the way in the two years from when we started tracking up until right now, no matter if it took a few months to get to a certain point, it wasn't like a long period of time that we spent making the record. We had gaps in there because, obviously, he's super busy. He really got me to trust my instincts a lot more than I've had other producers allow me to do. He said, "You go off and do the overdub." Some of the time I was there, but for the most part I kind of went off and did the harmonies. He said, "You know what you want it to sound like. If I don't like it or we don't agree on it then we'll talk about it and fix it." Well everything just kind of clicked along. Everybody brought something special to the record. The musicians were the exact right bunch of guys, I went down to Nashville and my friend Sam Bush was playing and I was like, "Oh, I've got to get Sam on here." A couple of days later, I go into the studio with him and we put that down. I got my cousin Lorrie in and then I had Elizabeth come a few days later and Don come. Part two of really reiterating to myself why Don was the right guy had to do with Elizabeth's album Welder, I thought he captured her personality and her talent on the record. You could just hear her pprerence there instead of just somebody singing the notes. I like the fact that I feel like I got to be myself. It would have been a complete disaster if I'd just tried to recreate these songs exactly the way they were recorded when they were written. To go back and sound like A.P. and Sara and Maybelle I think that would've been kind of sacrilegious in a way, because it's about the progression of The Carter Family music as it goes on and keeping those songs alive.

MR: Right. I think my favorite song on here is "Tall Lover Man," it reminds of one my favorite songs of yours, "Sandy."

CC: I love that, too. You know, "Sandy" was about my sister marrying my second husband; they weren't married very long. I tried to tell her, "You don't really know him." I was the first person she called when it was all over. When they were breaking up, she kept playing that song relentlessly. [laughs] But "Tall Love Man," I've always loved that song. The thing that I love about it is that my little red-headed, blue-eyed mama wrote that song about killing a guy. There's some great things in it phonically, "Loving me for sport, your life shall be short, she said to him." Do you know how hard that is to do?

MR: Phonic gymnastics.

CC: Phonic gymnastics. But she just had such an imagination, one of the things that I did learn from her regarding songwriting is that there are no rules about it, every verse doesn't have to be the same amount of measures, you can stick in an extra few syllables here and there, it doesn't have to be all measured out exactly right. If you're telling a story, you just go for it. She's notorious for doing that. I always really, really loved that song. I actually had "Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room" set to be on the record when I realized I'd have two songs off of mama's album and I thought that might be pushing it. But everything worked out just like it was supposed to. I got to do one of my Aunt Helen's song's, "Poor Old Heartstick Me," which is just a great, solid country song. She had a lot of influence on me as a writer too because she would call me early in the morning and say, "Come over here, let's write a song!" She'd just spend hours with me. She was the one who wanted to practice and show me stuff. She had time for that, and she always was ready to go. And my Aunt Anita was just such a wonderful singer and the sweetest woman in the world, I really wanted to pay tribute to her by doing "I'll Be All Smiles," but at the same time, I was a little bit scared because I'd heard her do it all my life and I thought, "There's no way I can sing it like her." Then I realized, "Wait a minute, I've just got to sing it like me." It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off if you just go, "Oh, it's all about me now."

MR: [laughs] Exactly. Where there any a-ha moments as you sang their songs?

CC: Yeah! I would say "Tall Lover Man," because I'd always liked it but I'd really, honestly never gotten the whole story of it. I never really listened that closely to it, I just thought it was a neat song, I never paid that much attention to it, but it's crafted so well, I just took that drive in there that I love, I call it "military movement." She was great. There were some other a-ha's... "Give Me The Roses" was a gem that I had never heard them sing but my cousin Lorrie said, "Hey, why don't you listen to 'Give Me The Roses?'" I love it now and I want to live my life that way. "Give me the roses while I live."

MR: And speaking of roses, you re-recorded "Me And The Wildwood Rose," an original.

CC: Doing it again is perfect, because it means so much more to me now. I really wrote it from the place of missing my grandmother so much at the time she passed away in 1978, right around the time my first album came out. She meant a lot to me. I spent a large amount of my childhood with my grandma and my aunts. Mom traveled a lot with John and they were home a little bit more before they became The Johnny Cash Show with The Carter Family and everything. So I spent a large portion of my life with my grandma and my aunts taking care of me. But those memories of that and being in the car and the bass fiddle being down the middle of the car and us making a little bed on the floorboard and we'd get to the show and I have a very vivid memory of making a bed in the bass fiddle case and crawling in there and taking a nap. When mama moved to New York to study acting in the fifties when she and daddy broke up, my first bed in her apartment was a drawer. She had a big chest of drawers and the bottom drawer was my bed. I was a little bitty kid, but I can remember a lot of that stuff.

MR: How does it feel to have grown up as part of the Carter/Cash legacy that's essentially become an American folk story?

CC: It has! I never really realized how big my grandmother was. She was just grandma. We went fishing, we went bowling, we played poker, we worked in the garden. We canned together. She was my grandma, but people were in awe of her and it wasn't until--I've told this story to several people now--there was a period right after The NItty Gritty Dirt Band did "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" where we went out and played some shows with them and Helen and Anita and grandma asked Lorrie and my cousin David and me and Rosie to sing with the band, so we went out as The Carter Family and I played piano on some of it and the rest of it just sang, but we did "Country Roads" in C sharp on the piano, and I don't know if you know anything about that, but that's a mother f**ker. It was one particular show, after the great success of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," we were playing in Morgantown, West Virginia, and they introduced us. We're all out on stage and then they introduced Grandma and she walks out on the stage and there's five thousand...I guess you'd call them hippies then, there was pot smoke wafting everywhere and they were all sitting cross-legged on the floor of the place and they all stood up and gave her this standing ovation for what seemed like five minutes; it seemed like forever. "Wow! They dig grandma!" I so wanted to remember that stuff because then I suddenly realized that she was kind of a big deal even though, to me, it was just like business as usual. I was more intrigued by my friends who had daddies that came home at five o'clock and dinner was ready, that kind of stuff. I was like, "Wow, that's interesting." But now I really, really have great respect. I am in awe of the fact that music is still alive and breathing and people are still liking it. I just went out and played a couple of warm-up shows because I'm going out solo. I don't think I've ever done that, when I really think about it. I've always gone out with at least one other person and played. I decided I'm just going to go do it alone and tell my stories and play my autoharp and play the piano and the guitar and do the best I can. Anyway, I did a couple of warm-up shows and people just loved the stories. They love what really happened or what this was about. If I fill them in a little bit on the history--A.P was madly in love with Sara, and even going back to Musical Shapes, that song "Appalachian Eyes" is about the story of her going off with Coy Bayes and Uncle A.P. being so heartbroken over that. I called it "Appalachian Eyes," but she had brown eyes! [laughs]

MR: And again, going back to Musical Shapes, I personally feel that was an important album of sorts when it was released though I'm still not quite able to put my finger on why.

CC: I think it's very simple. I wanted to play rocking country music and when I started out in the late seventies it took me a couple of albums to figure out how to do that. But working with Dave [Edmunds] and Nick [Lowe], they totally got the country part of it, but they had the rocking thing that went with it. So that was a wonderful album to make. Nick wouldn't produce me for the second record, so I ended up in New York at The Power Station which was just alien to me.

MR: Ah, Tony Bongiovi.

CC: Yeah. They were great guys and everything, I think Springsteen was in there when I was doing the album and Clarence Clemons played on it but the boss had to come over and check out the song. Finally, Nick comes around and it really had to do with the Rockpile guys coming over and saying, "Hey, just because she's your wife doesn't mean you shouldn't play music with her or you shouldn't do this record. You've got to do this, dude. So I had originally gone over to record with Edmunds, but he was so in awe of me being a country girl from Nashville, he just wanted me to cut George Jones songs. But I had to go to England to really discover George Jones and get into what an amazing artist he was. He was just a guy that sat on the couch next to Tammy Wynette at our house. And I don't mean that with any disrespect, I love him to death, but I was kind of sheltered. Growing up, I listened to rock music and so many different kinds of music but you can't take the country out of the girl and for years I wrestled with labels over "Am I country, am I rock?" They couldn't figure out what to do with me. So when I came back to Warner Brothers in the late eighties and fell in love, all I really did was say, "I'm country now." I didn't really change what I did. I just said, "I'm country." It was just that statement. Then they said, "You can't wear over the knee socks, they're too much like stockings," and all this stuff. I think I was always just a little bit ahead of where country was going. That's okay.

MR: Carlene, I literally asked Linda Ronstadt this about a half hour ago and now it's your turn! What advice do you have for new artists?

CC: Oh, be unique. Be yourself. And every person is unique. Don't try to be like somebody else. You'll be miserable. You need to be yourself and don't ever get a big head. Remain true to yourself and write songs. Try to write good ones, but write songs. And Linda Ronstadt was always a big influence on me! When I was twelve or thirteen, we went to see Kris Kristofferson open for her at The Troubadour, and mom and John and myself and Rosie went and they let me and Rosie in because we were with John and June. We got all dressed up and when Linda Ronstadt came on, she had a blue jean miniskirt on and a tambourine in her hand and she sang her ass off. I was like, "I wanna do that. When I grow up I want to do that!"

MR: Wow, what a great connection, I'm glad I obnoxiously phrased the question the way I did, thank you. So there's that wild mélange at the end of the album, "The Winding Stream." How did that come together and how special was that for you?

CC: That's from a record that we had done. I worked with them for two years, around '86 and '87, and I was up in arms about the fact that The Carter Family didn't have a record deal and they hadn't done a record together--Helen, Anita and mom. I was just like, "Come on! We've got to go in the studio! We've got to get this going." Cowboy Jack said--he called me The Dixie Darling--"Let's strike up The Dixie Darling and get in there!" So we recorded like forty-four songs in the space of four or five days. If you go back into one of my old albums, I think it's Little Acts Of Treason, "The Winding Stream" is on there and I ended up with some of the masters of those recordings to do with as I wanted. I just wanted their voices, so we took Cowboy's acoustic guitar and we played along to all of us singing, that's why John's on there and mom and Helen and Anita. It was always one of my favorite songs that I played live when I worked with them and through the years any time I didn't know what to do musically, didn't know where I was going on the next record or had questions about it I would go back and infiltrate The Carter Family and get a dose of where I come from. It worked for me very well, maybe not in chart success so much, but it definitely was inspiring. I needed to be with my family at that point in time, and it was awesome. That's where it came from, an album that I think only came out on vinyl and cassette. I think it was just called The Carter Family The Wildflower. But how many albums have been called The Wildflower? It was really cute though because on the cassette, it would say, "Helen, June and Anita and Carlene, playing their own instruments!" Like, "Wow, they're girls that can actually play!"

MR: [laughs] You said "cute," which reminds me, one of the "cutest" moments I've heard on record is when you got that telephone call from Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack and you accept the operator's connection on "How I Wish That You Were Mine."

CC: Oh that's right! [laughs]

MR: Carlene, what do you think the legacy of The Carter Family will be like as the years go by?

CC: Well right now, I've got a couple of granddaughters. One of them, in particular that really plays the guitar. She's just eleven but she's crazy about it. She probably knows more historically than I do about The Carter Family. She wore my grandmother's dress to this thing at school and won the best presentation for "Famous Women You'd Like To Be," she put "Maybelle Carter" and showed them how to play "The Wildwood Flower" on the guitar, which I thought was really cute. My daughter's always played music, but she's raising kids and not ready to do it as much, she's a mommy, but I'm thinking my grandkids are probably going to be the one to carry it on. Same with John Carter's kids, too. His son Joseph has got quite a good voice and I think he will do well. Hopefully we'll just keep passing it down. Janette Carter, she really kept the fold alive up in Virginia, and now Rita, her daughter, and Dale are trying to keep the museum going up there. Go up to Carter Fold and get a good dose of what it was like up there.

MR: Nice. So it looks like in thirty or forty years, we could have a Carter or Cash in every group in America.

CC: [laughs] Let's hope so. That's why I'm asking for more grandchildren.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne