The Winding Stream - The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music
(l to r) Lorrie and her cousin Danny in the back row. Anita, Maybelle and Helen Carter in the front

The Winding Stream film project is lucky to have Lorrie Carter Bennett as a friend and longtime supporter.

The daughter of Carter Sister, Anita, and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, Lorrie is an amazing vocal talent in her own right. Just a few years back, Lorrie played her mother in a stage play about the Carter Sisters called Wildwood Flowers.  I was lucky enough to catch the opening night at the Acuff Theater in Nashville.  What a treat to hear her sing, made more spine-tingling because she was doing so with her fantastic cousin, Carlene Carter.

I’ve interviewed Lorrie for the film and she had great stories about touring with her mother, aunts, cousins and grandmother.  But recently, I asked Lorrie if she’d agree to answer a few questions for the blog and she obliged.  She also provided some great photos.

Thanks to Lorrie for sharing some of her family history and also thanks to friend of The Winding Stream Vicki Langdon who helped us get around some computer hurdles in preparing this post.

What can you share with us about the Original Carters that you knew?

I never knew Uncle A.P. because he died when I was only a year old, but I knew Aunt Sara very well. She and her second husband, Uncle Coy, had an Airstream camper and divided their time between Angels Camp, California, Hiltons, Virginia, and Nashville. They were usually in Nashville two or three months at a time, “camping” in Grandma and Grandpa’s yard.

Most of the time that I spent with Aunt Sara was playing games, not music! Every night, we played “Don’t Get Mad,” a homemade board game similar to “Aggravation.” The board was the size of Grandma’s kitchen table. Aunt Sara and Grandma were “dead serious” about games, playing Rook or going bowling if the “Don’t Get Mad” board was in use by others! Grandma’s best friend, Min (Mrs. Hank Snow), was usually there with us playing too. Every once in a while, Grandma and Aunt Sara would talk about “making music,” but I only recall two or three times when they actually sang and played music together at home. Aunt Sara, crazy about my grandma, called her “May” and always seemed to be “looking out” for Grandma. I always enjoyed Aunt Sara and Uncle Coy being around.

It seems like being on the road was a seamless thing for your family – at least that’s how it’s depicted in Wildwood Flowers. Tell us some more about the on the road/off the road Carter Sisters.

Our entire family was very close. When they were in off the road, there was never a day that went by when they didn’t speak on the phone several times a day. When they weren’t on the road working, they were on the Opry. In addition to that, Mom was in the studio singing background on other artists’ records. I was always tagging along, and I’d eventually fall asleep on the floor during the sessions. I had to be where Mom could “keep an eye” on me. During those years, two studios were used – Columbia or RCA Studio B.

Back in the ‘60s, the Opry was wonderful. It was like everyone was family. Everyone had their kids with them, and I stood to the side of the stage watching “Grandma and the girls” as they did their spots. So many of the Opry stars babysat me, but I remember it usually being Skeeter Davis, Ralph Emery or, of all people, Faron Young! Everyone on the show watched each others’ children. I suppose that we were always going along with our parents to have more time with them since they were out of town so much. Some of the Opry personnel referred to the kids as “Opry brats.” In between Opry shows, we’d stay in the crowded dressing rooms of which there were only two – women’s and men’s.

From the TV special "Grand Ole Opry at 50" and was in 1975. (l to r) Helen, Maybelle, Johnny Cash, Anita and Lorrie. Photo by Hope Powell.

I’d love to hear more about your days touring with the family.

When the family worked shows apart from the Johnny Cash Show, they traveled in a Cadillac Fleetwood, and from time to time, the grandkids got to go, but we were packed in like luggage! There wasn’t much extra room, so usually only one of us could go. I loved getting to go with them. Mom’s job took her away a lot, so it was a treat getting to spend more time with her.

On a three-day tour, the car had to not only transport Grandma, Helen and Mom, but enough luggage to last a month and every instrument imaginable. They were prepared for anything. If anyone booked on those package shows needed something, it was no problem because Grandma or the girls had it. ’Til the day they died, they were like that. Their purses alone had most anything anyone could possibly need – from laxatives to shoe polish! Everyone knew who to go to for help!

The “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, which Grandma recorded in 1972 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a host of other great musician friends, introduced her to a whole new generation of fans. In 1973, I started singing on the road with the family (Grandma, Mom, Helen and Helen’s son David), still traveling in a darned Cadillac. During the summer of 1973, we worked many bluegrass festivals, one of which had the stage in the middle of thousands of people, mostly “hippie”-looking younger folks. The only way to the stage was through the crowd (great planning!). It was the strangest thing; the crowd just parted. People came to their feet and cheered for Grandma as we walked through, and they remained on their feet until she had made it all the way down that hill and onto the stage. She lovingly waved back to the crowd as if to say, “Thank you; I made it.” She received standing ovations before and during the long walk, with hands reaching out to help her make it down that hillside in her long dress and heels.

Everything she said, they cheered. Every song she sang, she received another standing ovation. Being quiet and a bit shy, Grandma seemed embarrassed over all of the attention. She never seemed to feel she was worthy of such a fuss. At this point, I realized she wasn’t only my grandma. Instead, she and her music belonged to every person in that crowd. They treated her like royalty. They treated us all like royalty. It was an eye-opening experience for me. From that moment on, I understood.

Grandma was an absolute perfectionist when it came to her music. Her guitar was not going to be out of tune even if it meant tuning it in the middle of a performance. And, if one of us was on the wrong part, she would give the “offender” a tragic look. She never actually said a word, but her eyes did the talking!

As we continued working and re-joined the Johnny Cash Show tours, I saw how the Cash Show crowds reacted to her; everyone loved and respected her. In fact, they loved and respected the whole family and their music. Working with Uncle John’s show, which  included Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers and Gordon Terry, was really cool too. More of the kids (besides David and me) joined the show – Rosanne (Uncle John’s daughter) and Rosie (Aunt June’s daughter). Later, in 1974, Carlene (Aunt June’s daughter) and Danny (Helen’s son) joined us.

The travel (air transportation instead of crowded cars) was much easier now! The old Cadillac was back home, and there was no more driving all night to get to our next date. And, there were no more economy motel rooms! We slept in fancy hotels with room service and were picked up by cars at the airport. Now, I had experienced two very different ways of traveling on the road. Both were fun!

You have a beautiful voice but I’ve seen mention on your Facebook page recently that you’ve been slow to accept your talents. How come?

Because my mother was such a great singer, it’s always been a task for me to sing because I felt everyone expected my mother’s voice to come out when I opened my mouth! I do sound a lot like Mom, but I have just recently accepted myself as me! I can’t hold a candle to my mama’s voice, but what I’ve just recently realized is that no one but me has expected me to sound like Mom. We have similar tones and phrasing, but I’ve just never had that “punch” that Mom had. But, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with myself, and it has made such a difference.

Mom was the greatest mother…ever. Even though she had an unusual job that required her being away from home a lot, I came to realize that was just her life. She had sung professionally since age 4, and that was the only life she knew. I missed her a lot when she was gone, but I never resented her profession. As a child, I often found it comforting to keep Mom’s robe with me when she was on the road, just so I’d feel she was close. After I had a child, I chose to not pursue a career in music because I remembered being little and missing my mom. Therefore, I made the decision that it was better for me to just sing occasionally.

My mom and I had an excellent relationship. She balanced career and being a mother as well as if she’d worked a 9-5 job in town. My brother, Jay, has autism, and even with that being a bit more challenging for a mother, she still managed it all very well. We’ve all considered Jay a godsend, and he is such an inspiration. Mom even found the time to be very involved with fundraising for Jay’s school, as did my dad, who was always there too and very supportive of my mom’s career.

Mom never wanted stardom. She was content singing with her family. After all, that’s what it’s all about…family.

Tell me about how you and Carlene came to be involved in the Wildwood Flowers show. What was it like to play your mother? Did you gain new insights into her life?

Angela Holley Bennett approached Carlene and me in 2005 with a script of the play, “Wildwood Flowers – The June Carter Story.” It sounded great to me, but the final decision had to come from Carlene who ultimately gave her stamp of approval. With Carlene playing her mom and me playing my mom, we did a three-week run at the Acuff Theater next to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. The play was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and very emotional, but very healing at the same time. I’m hoping that Angela is successful in her current quest of trying to open the play (with a different cast) in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The script is great, and I would highly recommend the show to anyone.

Sounds like you’re up to some new things. Did I see you mention The Fabulous Superlatives in one of your Facebook posts?

Until recently, I hadn’t been singing much except at the annual family festival held in August at the Carter Family Fold. However, in November 2010, our good friend and adopted Carter cousin Marty Stuart asked me to meet him and his band – The Fabulous Superlatives – at the studio to rehearse a few songs. That uplifting experience resulted in Marty inviting me to join them to tape three of his TV shows that air weekly on RFD-TV. He’s asked me to join him on the Opry in the next few weeks and hopefully more when he begins taping next season’s TV shows.

I have really enjoyed harmonizing with Marty and his band, all of whom are fantastic singers and musicians. It’s like being back singing with my family, and I’ve also been blessed to re-connect with Connie Smith (Marty’s wife and legendary singer in her own right). I’ve always said that my mom was the greatest woman who ever lived, but in my books, Connie is right up there with her.