NATICK — “If you’re expecting to see cartwheels tonight, y’all have come to the wrong place,” Carlene Carter joked Saturday night, referring to her ’90s country music heyday, when she was prone to such antics. “I’m a grandma now!”
Those days are long behind her, and in fact, for over a decade, she seemed to be gone too. But with 2008’s “Stronger,” and this year’s marvelous “Carter Girl,” a revitalized Carlene Carter who still has things to say has reappeared.
A lot of what Carter is currently saying has to do with where she came from. As a descendant of the iconic Carter Family and daughter of June Carter, she qualifies as country music royalty. She has nodded to that lineage throughout her career — she recorded one of the Carter Family songs she did Saturday, “Foggy Mountain Top,” over 30 years ago — but with “Carter Girl,” it has become a larger, more abiding concern.
As she said Saturday during a mostly solo appearance (abetted by occasional vocals from husband Joe Breen), “I finally got to the point where I could record a tribute to my heritage.”
Her performance was shot through with that theme. She reprised Carter Family songs from “Carter Girl,” and she played favorite others that she has yet to record.
She added her own memories with “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” which looks back to the time she spent as a little girl traveling with the Carter Sisters, and her marvelous, moving update of A.P. Carter’s “Lonesome Valley,” which memorializes the death of her mother (“get your tissues out, friends,” she remarked as preface to that one).
She talked as well as sang about her past, reminiscing about her grandmother Mother Maybelle Carter teaching her how to crochet, fish, plant a garden, and play poker, and recalling her first glimpse of Kris Kristofferson, watching as he famously landed his helicopter in her stepfather Johnny Cash’s front yard. She was 12, he was good-looking, and he was wearing leather pants.
Whether she was picking guitar, sitting at the piano, or strumming the autoharp, Carter sounded better than ever when she played, and as strong as ever when she sang (and, more than ever, like her mother, June). And her own irrepressibly feisty style was ever-present, even as she played and sang those old songs. “All right, let’s rock like hell, now,” she said when she sat down with her autoharp — words that Mother Maybelle probably never uttered on a stage when she picked hers up.
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.