The unbroken circle: Country royalty Carlene Carter always finds her way back to the light

Carlene Carter
Courtesy of Marc Hauser

Carlene Carter knows full well that the seeds of recovery get planted deep.

The Ties That Bind UsA whole lot of addicts and alcoholics who find their way to treatment and self-help groups and programs may not stay clean and sober the first time, or the second, or the tenth, for that matter. But the spark that is a taste of a better life, one free of the shackles of addiction, is never extinguished.

It may burn down to barely visible coals, buried under layers of bitter ash, but eventually something happens, and they catch fire once again. For Carter, she felt them ignite standing in front of a judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20 years ago. She first got clean and sober in the 1980s, but after coming into her own as a chart-topping country traditionalist, she found both a romantic and a using partner in her producer, Howie Epstein, perhaps most famous as the bass player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The two became a musical powerhouse with Carter’s 1990 album, “I Fell in Love,” but a decade later, they were holed up in New Mexico, burning out on black tar heroin until a state trooper pulled them over on June 26, 2001. It was in the aftermath of that arrest, Carter told The Ties That Bind Us recently, that those smoldering coals began to glow, and the recovery journey upon which she’d embarked 15 years earlier reasserted itself.

“The judge said, ‘What can we, the court system of Albuquerque, New Mexico, do to help you change your life?’” Carter recalled. “And what came out of my mouth wasn’t what I expected to say: ‘I need to go home (to Nashville). I need to go back and get 90 days of treatment. I need to leave Howie.’

“That was the moment I made a good choice, a choice contrary to everything someone in my position thought they were going to make leading up to that moment.”

Carlene Carter: Finding her own path

Courtesy of Russell Baer

There would still be struggles ahead, but Carter has been drug-free since 2005, and she’s been completely sober for more than seven years now. She’s not a “never again” sort of girl — she has too much respect for the disease of addiction to deal in absolutes, but on a recent phone call, her voice has the unmistakable tone of serenity. To those unaccustomed to the highs and lows of substance abuse, hearing her laugh about certain stories from her past may seem like whistling past the graveyard, but it’s a healthy laughter.

Besides, the tears serve no purpose, as she’s been taught in the rooms of the recovery programs that helped save her life.

“I’ve been in and out for many years, and this time, I just don’t have it in me to go back out,” she said. “I’m a grandma, honey! Besides, I don’t want to be Cruella de Vil with a martini glass, looking like death eating a cracker and holding a long, crooked cigarette holder!”

There’s that laugh again — a very joyful sound, and very Southern: For good reason. She was the only daughter of country star Carl Smith, one of the most successful singers in the genre during the 1950s; and June Carter, daughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter of the famous Carter Family, who would marry Johnny Cash after her divorce from Smith. Needless to say, growing up under the shadow of one of the most influential music groups of all time, with a front-row seat to one of country music’s timeless love stories and a stepfather adored by musicians and fans of all genres, made her own forays into music a little complicated.

“I was trying to find a happy medium between what moved me and what was in my blood,” she said. “I wanted to be the rockingest country chick in the universe, but Nashville wasn’t ready. Times were very different in the late ’70s — Crystal Gayle was really big, and she had a huge hit with ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,’ and here I was in miniskirts and ready to rock. I wanted that high-energy music, but I wanted it to be country without it being racing-speed bluegrass. And I found that in England.”

She released her self-titled debut in 1978, after her managers, Martin Smith and Ed Tickner, landed her a deal with Warner Bros. and flew her to London to cut it with Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz. In America, Carter said, there were clear delineations between genres, down to the format of radio stations. In London, a whole new world opened up.

“I remember one morning, laying in bed, Capital Radio would come on, and my record had just come out,” she recalled. “They played Nick (Lowe, a British singer-songwriter, veteran of the band Rockpile and the man she married in 1979), his single; then all the sudden they played The Clash, and I thought, ‘This is really cool!’ And then they played my record, and I thought, ‘This is the craziest shit in the world!’ I loved it, and that’s when I realized that over there, I could really stretch my elbows out, be as country as I wanted but still rock like hell.”

There and back again: Carlene Carter comes home

Carlene Carter

Courtesy of Rachel Framingheddu Murray

In London, she found her sound and then some. Warner Bros. gave her the artistic freedom to stretch her musical wings, but by album No. 5 — 1983’s “C’est C Bon” — she wasn’t sure what her sound even was anymore, she said.

“It was an electronic, kind of synthesizer record, and it was good — but it really wasn’t me,” she said. “I had the good sense to say, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got to stop and do something different,’ so I went and did a musical for a year.”

In London’s famous West End, Carter found a part in “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” a nostalgic look at Americana through the eyes (and songs) of six friends who run a gas station and diner. She was part of the original Piccadilly Theatre cast, and by that point, she jokes, she had been in London long enough that she worked with a dialect coach to get her twang back. By the time “Pump Boys” was preparing to transfer venues, The Carter Family — her mother and her aunts, Helen and Anita, along with her stepfather as a special guest — came through London, and Carlene decided to return to her roots.

“Me and a couple of girlfriends took the trains and went wherever they went, and with the family, if you go with them, they put you on stage!” she said. “The next thing you know, I’m getting hired back into the Carter Family. There were some health issues with Anita, so I would cover her when she wasn’t there, and if she wasn’t able to hit those high notes, I was her stand in. Or if mom was sick, I was June.

“I sang every part because I wanted to learn more about it, and one of the best things I ever did was infiltrate back into that. I had left home so young, at 15 or 16, I hadn’t been with my family enough, so I really needed, at the time, to be back with my aunts and my mom and John and my brother, John Carter, and sister Rosie (Nix Adam).”

Back home in Nashville was when she found recovery for the first time, she added, and her parents were the first people she reached out to. Her stepfather, no stranger to addiction and sobriety himself, was the one who came to pick her up, she remembered.

“I remember sitting in my living room, having been up all night, and I had drank all of what I was drinking. I had no more blow (cocaine) left, and I just remember thinking, ‘I’ve gotta change my life,’” she said. “Now, my biggest motivation was that I had to get away from this old boy who was living with me, and I thought that if I checked into rehab, I could kill two birds with one stone: He would have to move out, and I could get sober!

“So Johnny picked me up and took me to Cumberland Heights, and I remember on the way he said, ‘Do you want to stop and get a six-pack?’ And I told him I didn’t like beer, but he said, ‘Trust me. You need to stop and have your last beer.’”

It wouldn’t be, of course, but here’s the thing about being introduced to sobriety, she said: Those seeds, once planted in the heart and mind and soul, are impossible to uproot.

“I loved being sober,” she said. “From then on, once you have a heart and a head full of recovery, being out (using and drinking) means you’re constantly trying to get back into recovery.”

The highest of highs and the lowest of lows

Courtesy of Marina Chavez

Sobriety, take one, looked good on her. She found the courage to return to her solo career, so she left the Carter Family and began working with Epstein, who produced “I Fell In Love.” Released in 1990, it cracked the Top 20 of the Billboard Country Albums chart, spawned two No. 3 singles in “Come on Back” and the title track, which also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

“I began to get back into going back on tour, playing arenas and big places with George Strait and Clint Black and Merle Haggard and Hank Jr. and the Kentucky Headhunters,” she said. “I was a high-energy female act who could open for those guys, and I was on the road all the time. At the same time, I became an exercise-aholic, and addicted to working, and those were the kind of roads that lead me back into messing up again.

“This time, it was different. I don’t actually think I was in as much trouble in my 20s as I was in my 40s, when I went back out. The disease had been sleeping while I was off exercising and being on tour and being sober, or what I thought was being sober. Really, it was ‘don’t drink and don’t use.’”

When the though occurred to her, however, she wasn’t prepared for the power of those urges, which quickly became obsessions that led to compulsions. The next thing she knew, several years had gone by, and she found herself on the side of a New Mexico highway, being arrested with Epstein and wondering how the hell she had gotten there. The thing about addiction, however, is that the term “rock bottom” is illusory, because as long as there’s a shovel close by, those afflicted often find themselves unable to stop digging.

“Basically, in 2003, Howie died, my mom died, John died and my sister (Rosie) died, all within eight months, and I went off the deep end,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why I was still alive. Another person would have been dead, but I never OD’ed — probably because I never shot drugs and never stuck a needle anywhere, and that’s probably what saved my life.”

When she got clean in 2005, she slowly began to dip her toes into the waters of music once again. Her 1993 album, “Little Love Letters,” had been modestly successful, driven by the hit “Every Little Thing,” but while 1995’s “Little Acts of Treason” was critically lauded, it didn’t do as well commercially. It would be another 13 years before Carter released another album — 2008’s “Stronger,” the title track of which was inspired by Rosie.

“You take it minute by minute, hour by hour, and the next thing you know, you’ve put together a week, and it starts to add up,” she said. “And the little milestones, you celebrate by hanging onto the good. That’s the thing, because I really do believe that by example and by the way you are as a human being, sobriety can shine through. I want people to look at me and think, ‘She’s got something I want’ — not that I want them to be like me, but that I want them to see me as joyful.

“Because I am a joyful person, and that’s carried me through the ups and downs I’ve had. I have a lot of joy in my heart, and I have faith that I’m here for a reason. I could have killed myself, and for a long time I thought I should have, the year I lost my baby sister, but God wasn’t ready to let me go, and I’m still here.”

Carlene Carter and the battle with the bottle

Carlene Carter

Courtesy of Russell Baer

While she left the drugs behind a long time ago, there were hitches along the way that always involved going back to the booze. It wasn’t a failure of recovery so much as it was taking her own will back, she pointed out. And once the plug came out of the jug, it got harder and harder to put it back in as the years went on, she added.

“When I was drinking, I could drink everybody under the table, and I didn’t have a hangover until the last year before I got sober,” she said. “Everybody else would be, ‘I feel horrible!,’ but not me — I felt great. But this last time when I stopped drinking, it just wasn’t working. I could drink 24 hours a day, and nothing was fazing me other than I was getting really fat and feeling like shit. And then when I went to quit, I suddenly had withdrawals from alcohol, so I had to wean myself off for a week.

“I’ve been to many nice treatment centers — thank you for insurance and MusiCares! — but this time, I just went to meetings. I had a desire, and I was just done. Today, I know I could go have a drink, because I have free will, but I do everything I can to not to want to. And I’m having a great time! I have the best time, and I’m happiest, when I’m sober.”

And recovery has brought her back to her roots. She never ran from the country music royalty that courses through her veins, but through the grace of wisdom, the hindsight of age and the clarity of sobriety, she’s found a peaceful sweet spot between her legacy and her own artistry. In 2014, she released the album “Carter Girl,” in which she co-wrote every song with a member of her famous family, and two years ago, she organized the recording of “Across Generations,” credited to The Carter Family and featuring a who’s who of her people — including Maybelle, she said.

“My brother, John Carter, and I really rallied the troops. He produced it, I played grandma’s style guitar, and we found an old tape of grandma playing her first electric autoharp through an amp,” she said. “The only person we couldn’t get on there was A.P. (Carlene’s great-uncle and the brother of Ezra Carter, Maybelle’s husband). Other than him, we managed to find some things that had mom, Helen and Anita, where they had all recorded certain things that hadn’t made it onto a record, so we spread it out.

“My grandson’s playing drums on one; John Carter’s kids are on it; my daughter is on it; and Rita (Forrester) and Dale (Jett), our first cousins. That was quite a trick, getting all of that. And then before COVID, I had been touring and doing shows where I basically told stories of life as a Carter girl. We were playing songs and in performing arts centers, and that was going really well until last year, when we played on March 8, and that was it.”

COVID may have shut down the stages, but it didn’t silence Carlene’s voice. She’s been working on a couple of virtual concert series that tap into both sides of her artistic heart: “Rocking Carlene, which is my roots and where I play all of the hits and my early days kind of stuff,” she said, and then “a Carter Family-oriented one, in which we sit on the porch at the Cash cabin and talk about the Carters and Maybelle and Helen and Anita and June. The War and Treaty are doing it, and Elizabeth Cook is doing it, and Emmylou (Harris) just agreed to do it. I’ve been producing and putting that together, so that’s occupying a lot of my time.”

In sobriety, Carlene Carter keeps on 'The Sunny Side'

Carlene Carter

Courtesy of Vicki Langdon

A lot of the pandemic year, she added, has been about sitting still: something she learned to do in sobriety, but a talent a great many recovering addicts and alcoholics have trouble doing. Maybe she’ll write a book, she muses — but whatever she chooses to do, one thing seems to be certain this time around: She’ll keep going to meetings, and she’ll keep working on her sobriety. Thirty years after trying it on for the first time, she can’t say she’s got it down pat, but it fits a whole lot more comfortably these days.

And she’ll keep writing songs. After “Carter Girl,” she and folk rocker John Mellencamp released “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies” in 2017, a collaboration that grew out of their work on the Stephen King musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” and the tour they did together in 2015.

“Every night I worked with him, I would close it out with a song and tell the audience, ‘I woke up one morning after staying up all night, and I knew I needed to change my life,’” she said.

The song is “Change,” from the “Little Acts of Treason” record, one of many songs about recovery that have made its way into her catalog over the years — “I think that’s one of the greatest gifts you get in sobriety, is that you can dig a little deeper,” she added. And if fans didn’t know about her journey before hearing it, that particular number clued them in quick.

“Every night, I would go out into the lobby and fans would come up, and I would give people hugs,” she said. “You can buy whatever you want, and I’ll sign whatever, but what I really want is to give people a hug — and I had so many people whisper to me, ‘You’re in recovery, aren’t you?’ And that made me feel so good, because I was carrying the message without saying anything. They want what you have, and I’m shiny and happy when I’m sober.

“When I’m not, I’m preoccupied. I’m not as present. And when people say, ‘Come on and have a drink,’ I tell them, ‘You don’t want me to have a drink, trust me!’ And besides, what’s the point? I would much rather have a Key Lime flavored LaCroix in a can with a Koozie around it, at the lake. That’s what I enjoy, and whenever I’m hanging out with people who enjoy wine or drinking, it doesn’t’ bother me, not a single bit, because I look at my life, and I stay in gratitude.

“The life I have now is way better than anything I could have ever dreamed of,” she added. “I keep falling up in sobriety. When something changes, instead of falling down, I’m falling up, and it’s wonderful.”