Shawn Colvin, Carlene Carter’s AmericanaFest Panel: 5 Things We Learned

The 20th installment of AmericanaFest is in full swing in Nashville. While evening showcases and parties get most of the attention, the conference portion of the festival is just as rich a resource for incredible music, as well as insight into how it’s made.

On Thursday afternoon, NPR Music hosted a special “Turning the Tables” event at the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the festival’s official programming. NPR Music’s Ann Powers moderated a panel featuring Carlene Carter, Shawn Colvin, Amythyst Kiah, and Maria Muldaur, with each artist sharing stories and songs by musical “founding mothers” who inspired them in the early stages of their careers. Here are five things we learned when the artists shared the stage.

The Carter Family will release a new album in the near future.
While sharing stories about her legendary musical family, Carter revealed that the Carter Family plans to release a new album, currently titled Across Generations, in the near future. The album will celebrate the family’s deep, multi-generational musical legacy and will also feature never-before-heard songs and recorded ephemera from matriarch Maybelle Carter and Carlene’s mother, June Carter. Carlene Carter shared that her half-brother John Carter Cash produced the album and helped her rally the family to complete the project. “There’s five generations we managed to appear on here, including my grandmother,” Carter said. “We found a lost tape of her with her first electric autoharp making up a song. It’s called ‘Maybelle’s New Tune’ and it’s probably right around the time she did the Newport Folk Festival and all that in the Sixties.”

Carlene Carter performs using her mother June Carter’s fingerpicks.
For her first song at the event, Carter played the Carter Family’s “Foggy Mountain Top,” accompanying the song with a deft performance on her autoharp. Afterward, she said that her fingerpicks belonged to her mother: “I carry my mommy with me. I never really could play the autoharp with such zeal as I did when I put my mother’s picks on. She just comes right through there.” She also showed off the autoharp itself, which was made using wood from the cabin that Carter’s grandfather Ezra Carter and great uncle A.P. Carter were born in. “It reminds me of who I am and who I need to be, and to always respect my legacy and carry it on the best I can.”

Maria Muldaur was inspired by Bessie Smith and became close friends with Victoria Spivey.
Maria Muldaur first began pursuing a musical career after encountering the complete work of Bessie Smith on 78 RPM records as a teenager while working as a “mother’s helper” for a family in Greenwich Village in New York City. “Right in that moment I said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. Exploring the vibrant music scene in her neighborhood, she encountered Spivey, who is beloved as both a blues musician and for her music business chops. “There was a whole scene going on… the folk revival of the early Sixties,” Muldaur said. “Victoria Spivey was a contemporary of Bessie Smith’s and a lot of the early classic blues queens. But she had survived the ensuing decades after the heyday of that music and moved up to New York City.”

Spivey was talent scouting in New York and saw Muldaur singing, and took the young artist under her wing. “[Spivey] would take me up to her apartment and play me old 78s of all these early blues singers,” Muldaur added. “Now when I think about it, what a blessing it was to get to know somebody like that, who saw something in me and wanted to encourage me to carry on.”

Amythyst Kiah majored in Old Time music in college.
Kiah attended East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, which offers a number of music-centric degrees, including Old Time. “I stumbled upon the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program, which now has a major,” she said. “I really got interested in the fact [of] the West African influence. If you can imagine, when I went to this program… A lot of people saw me and they’re like, ‘Huh. That’s interesting.’ Because there were a lot of people that played bluegrass. But what was being further developed was Old Time, and Old Time is where a lot of the more obvious groundwork was laid for genres like bluegrass and rock & roll and all of those things that we know of today.” She also cited her love of Tori Amos and her training as a classical guitarist as integral to how she writes and performs music.

Joni Mitchell once gave Shawn Colvin confusing relationship advice.
Colvin recorded her second album Fat City with producer Larry Klein, who was married to Mitchell at the time. Colvin shared that Mitchell, whom she had idolized as a songwriter since discovering Mitchell’s album Clouds at 14 years old, was present at a number of the sessions. (Mitchell ended up contributing percussion to the album.) While recording, Colvin had a troubling incident with a romantic partner and turned to Mitchell for advice. “I figured she’s been in a few relationships and we’ve all heard about it,” Colvin recalled. “I said, ‘I’m really upset.’ And she said, ‘Let’s [read] the I Ching.’ So that’s what we did. I don’t remember what it said — it was way over my hairdo.”

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