Live Last Night: Carlene Carter

Most folks at Carlene Carter's Barns at Wolf Trap show on Saturday surely left feeling lucky they didn't grow up in a show biz family. Well, her family, anyway.

The gifted granddaughter of Maybelle Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash told the audience that "a lot of stuff to write about" has happened to her. She spent much of her pained and fascinating 75-minute set relating those tales with tears in her eyes.

Introducing "The Bitter End," Carter said it was a song she wrote for Johnny Cash about a "15-year old girl who left home because she was dumb and pregnant." After a pause and with a big guffaw, Carter added: "That would be me."

"To Change Your Heart" -- a song whose melody and structure recall "Long Black Veil," a traditional folk gem her stepfather used to sing -- was "about my third divorce." That would be her divorce from Nick Lowe, the U.K. pop genius who steered Carter into a New Wave direction in the late-1970s and for a time backed her with his peerless combo, Rockpile. (For those keeping score, Carter's second divorce was from Jack Routh, a Johnny Cash sideman who then married Carlene's sister, Cindy Cash, who left Routh to marry Marty Stuart, another Johnny Cash sideman. And so on...)

There is also an upside, of course, to fitting into Carter's genes. This country has produced few musical clans as talented as the Carter-Cashes, and the tools of the family trade have clearly been passed down to Carlene. Carter's voice, much like the singer/songwriter herself, seems simultaneously fragile and robust. At 53, despite all her years of wild living, Carter can still go from a growl to a breathtaking alto in mid-lyric. And the melodies she crafts can make even songs with the saddest subject matter sound uplifting.

"Judgement Day" was Carter's sweet ode to her troubled longtime companion, the former Tom Petty bassist Howie Epstein. In 2001, she was arrested for writing bad checks, car theft, and possession of black tar heroin while on a crazy crime cruise with Epstein through the American Southwest. He died a drug-related death a year and a half later.

Though backed for much of the night by an electric guitarist and keyboardist, Carter showed her soft and hard sides once again by ending the night sitting alone at the piano and belting out "Stronger," the title song from her latest record. It's a tribute to her sister, Rosey Nix, who in 2003, months after the deaths of June Carter and Johnny Cash, was found dead lying on the floor of a bus she was living in, surrounded by drug paraphernalia.

Like so much of her material: Horrible story, lovely song. That's show biz for you.

-- DAVE MCKENNA

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 18, 2009; 8:01 PM ET Live Last Night
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