by Craig Shelburne
Like a lot of people who live in the Nashville area, Carlene Carter rarely misses a chance to take out-of-town friends to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But this time she’s visiting the rotunda for another reason — to take part in the museum’s fundraising event, BIG NIGHT (At the Museum), where she is reunited with her grandmother Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar.
Welcomed into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, the Carter Family become the first band to join, while Maybelle and her cousin Sara Carter (who comprised the lineup with Sara’s husband A.P. Carter) were the first women to be inducted. Carlene’s father and stepfather — Carl Smith and Johnny Cash — are also among its inductees.
Carlene Carter, of course, has her own impressive career in country music, writing and recording catchy ‘90s hits like “I Fell in Love,” “Come on Back,” and “Every Little Thing.” One of her earliest songwriting credits, “Easy From Now On” (composed with Susanna Clark) is something of a modern classic, recorded by Emmylou Harris, Terri Clark, Miranda Lambert, and others. Over the phone she’s an agreeable conversationalist and quick with a laugh, as you’d expect from the daughter of June Carter Cash. She’s also eager to praise the work of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“They’re hands on with the care that goes into preserving our history of this music, and our town,” Carter says. “Basically, this is a big deal for Nashville. It’s the pumping heart of it, I believe. I know some people would say the Ryman or the Opry — I think all three of those go hand in hand, but the museum is solid, and it adds to [the collection] all the time, while never taking away from anything. I love taking people there that have never been there, and then I see things that I have never seen before.”
The all-star BIG NIGHT (At the Museum), hosted by Marty Stuart, premieres at 8 p.m. CDT on Wednesday, October 28. Supporting the institution’s ongoing work of education and interpretation, the program is free to view on the museum’s YouTube channel. The pandemic created a unique set of circumstances that allowed staff to safely remove historic instruments from exhibit cases and be played. The instruments, artists and songs were carefully matched to highlight personal and artistic connections.
Now living near Madison, Tennessee, less than a mile from where she was born in 1955, Carlene Carter shares a number of her memories about Mother Maybelle Carter with CMT.com.
CMT: What was going through your mind as you were holding that guitar again?
Carter: Oh God! It was emotionally charged — between nostalgia and grief and absolute and total bliss and joy! (laughs) Every emotion went through me. Marty and I were standing apart, and as we walked in, we held hands and walked toward the instruments. Grandma’s guitar was on my side and Bill Monroe’s mandolin was on the other. When we got up to the guitar, I just went, “Oh my God!” I felt like bursting into tears. I couldn’t believe we were there!
But when I picked the guitar up, it felt so comfortable and so familiar. At the same time, whenever I used to think about the guitar, I always it was hard to play and big, you know? I suddenly realized that night, that was because when I first started learning to play, and Grandma would show me stuff, I was just a little kid. And that guitar was hard to play for a little person, and it felt big!
So, to wear it as an adult, and as somebody that can play OK now, it felt so normal. Marty said that that guitar could play itself, and I said, “I wish it could play itself a little bit better!” (laughs) So I was on the verge of laughing hysterically and bursting into tears. The whole thing!
You mentioned learning to play from her grandmother on that guitar. How did she teach you? Did she take your hands and show you the chords? What was that like?
Well, my mom had given me a ukulele to start out, so I had gotten to where I knew what I was doing, a little bit. Mom basically gave me a ukulele and a chord book! (laughs) And then mama said, “You’re gonna have to learn the Carter scratch,” and Grandma said, “I’ll show ya.” The thing about it was, [Maybelle] played with fingerpicks and I was too small for fingerpicks. It’s really hard to start out playing with a fingerpick. It’s just different. So she taught me enough to be able to play the Carter scratch without picks on.
Then, later on, when I was 13 or 14, I had already gone through having an electric guitar and playing acoustic pretty good, and I could do the Carter scratch, but mostly I was into playing Eric Clapton stuff! (laughs) I was into Paul Revere & the Raiders, and I was into the Monkees. I liked playing the piano a lot. So it was understood that I wasn’t quite ready for the fingerpicks yet, so she taught me how to flatpick with the Carter scratch. And that is how I pretty much play now.
Not many people can say their grandmother is a guitar hero, and I don’t know that she gets the credit she deserves. What do you think?
Well, people who are musicians will acknowledge her always. People out in the world that don’t know — they don’t even know about the Carter scratch, or they think the Carter scratch is some special secret. (laughs) You know, Jerry Garcia was a big Maybelle fan. Chet Atkins was a Maybelle fan — she taught him stuff, he taught her stuff. There was a lot of give and take with Grandma and other musicians. And when the Dirt Band worked with her [on the seminal 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken], there was a lot of mutual respect going on there. …
I dedicated my first album to Grandma in 1978. She didn’t mind that I went off and did this rock album with these New Wave-y rock people, the Rumour, and she was always open to other kinds of music. One of my favorite stories is back when my cousins Lorrie and David and myself, and sometimes my sister Rosie, would go out with Grandma and [her daughters] Helen and Anita. Grandma always heard something on the radio she wanted to try. So she heard “One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus)” and she thought it was a pretty good little gospel song. (laughs) She thought it was “One Toe Over the Line.” All of us grandkids were cracking up, going, “Grandma, do you even know what that song’s about?!” She said, “No, it’s just a good little gospel song and I thought we could do it.”
That was the sweet thing about her — she was always trying to stay current with the times, while maintaining her own style and integrity. She brought that to the girls and encouraged them all to write and to be performers. You couldn’t stop my mom from being a performer. She was brought into this world to be front and center.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” when you’re reminiscing about the days of “Grandma and her girls.” What are some characteristics of Maybelle that you remember even now?
One thing about Grandma was that she didn’t always have a guitar in her hand at home. She loved games! She loved playing cards – canasta and rook, and Don’t Get Mad was a game they made up. There were a lot of card parties with her and her cronies, and there was always a lot of cigarette smoke and coffee. Grandma would fix me up some coffee, which was basically warm milk and sugar with a little dash of coffee in it. I would sit there and I would pretend that I was playing with them — I had cards and everything. I did learn how to play poker pretty quick! (laughs)
Grandma always worked around the house, worked around the garden, and always had something cooking on the stove. There was a lot of food involved in our lives, and it was about family, you know? Being with my grandma was the total safe harbor of my life, where I felt like I was always completely safe. Not saying that I didn’t feel like that at home, but being at Grandma’s was fun. She took me everywhere with her. I went to the bowling league. I went to the bingo hall. Being with her was my favorite thing.