"When I lost all four of those people who were so dear to me, it hurt so bad I honestly thought I might not want to do this anymore," she told me, speaking by phone from her new home in Covelo, a small town in Mendocino County. "I didn't know if I could boot back up again."
But those thoughts didn't last long. Rather than quit music, the country rocker with the blue ribbon pedigree poured her broken heart into writing songs for a new album, "Stronger," her first collection of new material in 11 years.
"I can't help it, this is who I am and who I always will be," she said with a throaty laugh. "A lot of healing went into making this record."
At 51, Carlene is the last of the famed Carter Family of country music pioneers, a lineage that goes back to the early 1900s and her legendary grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters.
"The women I had sung with in my family are all gone," she sighed. "But I feel like their angels are around me. I feel protected, and I know I'll see them again."
For now, though, the former blonde hell raiser who used to do cartwheels on stage has four grandchildren to dote on and the responsibility of carrying on the family tradition, this time like the grown up she's become with this new record and an upcoming tour of Europe, where she has legions of fans.
She'll be warming up for the tour on Tuesday night at Rancho Nicasio. This is the first time she's played the West Marin roadhouse, although she has deep connections in Marin. In the late '70s, the Marin country rock group Clover, featuring Huey Lewis and John McFee, was her backup band.
Produced by her stepbrother, John Carter Cash, "Stronger" was recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tenn., where Johnny Cash recorded his last albums after his wife's death.
Carlene's biological father is Country Music Hall of Famer Carl Smith, with whom she maintains a loving relationship, just as she did with her superstar stepfather.
"We were really tight," she said. "He called me by my nickname, Calhoun, and to me he was Big John. I'm surprised Mama left before he did. He'd been ill for a long time, in and out of the hospital, and she was his reason to hang on. When she left, all he wanted to do was work. It took him out of his grief. He was awesome. I miss him deeply."
Carlene was very much her mother's daughter, playing her in the musical "Wildwood Flowers," about June's pre-Johnny Cash singing career with the Carter Family.
"Playing my mother got me back into my roots," she said. "I got real inspired and wrote my album."
One of the songs on it, "Judgment Day," deals with her harrowing decision to leave her longtime partner and musical collaborator, Howie Epstein, the former longtime bass player in Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers.
Epstein produced Carter's 1990 hit album, "I Fell in Love," earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Three years later, he followed up with her CD, "Little Love Letters."
They lived together in New Mexico for many years, but their long relationship was marred by hard drugs. After their addiction made headlines in 2001 when they were arrested for possession of black tar heroin, Carlene knew she had to get out or die.
"'Judgment Day' is about the day I had to move on and change my life," she explained.
"I walked away with nothing. I left with a suitcase after 16 years and three houses' full of stuff. But when it comes to life and death, nothing else matters. I got to the point where everyone was passing away from drugs, and I definitely should have been one of them. But I couldn't do it. I'm Maybelle's granddaughter and I couldn't go out that way."
Carlene saved her own life, but Epstein wasn't so lucky. He died of a drug overdose in 2003 at the age of 47.
Neither was Carlene's younger sister, Rosey, who was also struggling with drug problems when she and her musician boyfriend died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a kerosene heater in their RV. Carlene was on her way to take her sister to rehab when the accident occurred.
During those painful times, determined to get clean and sober, Carlene found solace in the welcoming arms of her mother.
"I'm so thankful I got to spend the last year of her life with her," she said.
"She even put me back in my old bedroom. She said, 'You left home early, now you can come back.' She really instilled in me that you must press on in life. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Carlene used that last line as a refrain in the title song on "Stronger," an album that's the first chapter in this new life she's made for herself.
"There's a lot of stuff on it about my demons, recovering from them," she said. "It's nice to not be on dope."
A year and a half ago, she married Joe Breen, a singer and actor she met through mutual friends when she was in recovery in Los Angeles.
They recently moved to Covelo, a dot on the map in central Mendocino's Rounty Valley, where they live in a "great old farmhouse" on 165 acres.
"We love it up here," she said. "We sit down and have dinner together every night. It's fantastic. I've had a great life, a lot of partying and fun. These days I'm still going through a lot of grieving, but life is good. I don't want to miss anything. Plus, I'm pretty happy."
IF YOU GO
What: Carlene Carter and her band
Where: Rancho Nicasio
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.