‘Southern Comfort’: Regina Carter’s musical career mirrors personal journey

Regina Carter says part of her musical journey is to make connections with her audiences.
Regina Carter says part of her musical journey is to make connections with her audiences. Photo provided

If people look deeper — or listen closer — they may discover shared roots tangled among the soulful songs of the American South.

That’s one of the messages behind Regina Carter’s recent albums — and one she hopes audiences at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State hear when she brings her sound to State College.

Carter, a jazz violinist known for her ability to weave stories and a mix of backgrounds — jazz, Motown, swing, funk and world music — into her songs, opens the center’s season with a show Sept. 25 at Schwab Auditorium. Audiences can expect to hear jazz standards mixed in among her newest pieces from her Sony Music Masterworks debut album “Southern Comfort” the result of an exploration into the folk tunes and tales her paternal grandfather might have heard as he labored in Alabama coal mines. Carter said she changes the lineup for each show, sometimes even mid-show, depending on the vibe she feels from the audience.

“I am presenting some music I know a lot of people have never heard,” she said. “But there are people who do know some songs. I play a song called ‘Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy.’ I’ve had so many people stop me and say my mother or my grandmother sang that to me but she didn’t use those words. She had other words. I found another rendition at the Library of Congress. This is the one I remember that my grandmother would sing.”

Finding those commonalities has been central to Carter’s musical journey and part of what she works to communicate to audiences.

“It’s interesting when they can make that connection and say ‘I’ve heard that before,’ ” she said. “Even if not, they’ll say it sounds like something I’ve heard or it reminded me of my family. A lot of people say it brings back their memories. I say we’re all from the south of somewhere.”

Carter, a Detroit native, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to delve into her families’ stories, reflected in her recent albums: “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey” (2006), which features her mother’s favorite early jazz standards, and “Reverse Thread” (2010), which incorporates traditional African music re-imagined for violin, accordion, bass, drums and kora.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was always really curious about my background,” she said. “I was brought up in the ’60s and didn’t see a lot of African Americans at the time on television. If I did, maybe it was something like National Geographic or something on people in Africa or India. They all had these rights of passages and beautiful costumes and jewelry and face painting. I was always envious.”

That urge to belong led her to dig, process through music and then dig more, eventually with help of the fellowship.

“What I was finding, not just in some of the music out there — and maybe not even directly connected to me — but there were so many amazing interviews and photographs and articles that we just won’t hear or see unless we go to a place like the Library of Congress or really spend time digging. I just really wanted to share that with people and just starting to research my family and find music that would have been relevant.”

After her mother died in 2005, she said creating “I’ll Be Seeing You” helped her heal.

While she was working on “Reverse Thread,” she took a genealogy test, which showed she is 13 percent Finnish.

One of the takeaways from her music, and especially her recent albums, is that we all should look for more connections.

“You hear it so much in the music,” she said. “We all have these preconceived ideas. When you start listening to the music, you start to really hear the mixing and moving around of all these different cultures. It’s really beautiful.”

“I think if more of us dug, we wouldn’t be fighting as much.”

Carter has been touring worldwide, playing her take on American folk in places like Croatia. When the latest record was about to debut at a convention in New York, Carter said some European presenters were concerned that the record was too Americana.

“It’s such a neat thing because a lot of the music that I researched from the Appalachian area is a mixture of music from the Scotch-Irish, Europeans, Native Americans,” Carter said. “It’s their music as well. It’s what creates this really beautiful and unique sound. When we played the music, they really loved it.”

Even music in general — and jazz and folk in particular — don’t belong in a set category, she said.

“You have different facets of people,” she said. “Some people consider one jazz to be only the kind that happened before a certain period. But when you look at people like a Coltrane or Miles Davis, they were stretching those boundaries. That’s what we’re supposed to do. Otherwise, the music dies.”