CARLENE CARTER - "STRONGER"
Born Rebecca Carlene Smith (on September 26, 1955), this prodigal child of country music royalty (granddaughter of Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family, daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash) has been making a name for herself since her debut album, "Carlene Carter," on Warner Bros. in 1978. Launched by Emmylou Harris's hit recording of her song "Easy From Now On," the young mother of two left Nashville at 22 to make an album in England with rocker Graham Parker's band, The Rumour. Newsweek called her "a stunning newcomer," and TIME magazine named the album "Tops in Pops" for the summer, along with records by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. And when Maybelle died that fall, Rolling Stone magazine wrote that she "lived to see her granddaughter Carlene merge Nashville with contemporary rock & roll."
Her second album, "Two Sides To Every Woman" in 1979, featured guest musicians like Paul Schafer, Clarence Clemons, and John McFee of The Doobie Brothers (Carlene co-wrote their hit, "One Step Closer"); and also began a writing collaboration with her soon-to-be husband, esteemed British singer-writer-producer Nick Lowe, on Carlene's first charting country single, "Do It In A Heartbeat" (#42 Billboard). Clips of their wedding were seen in his "Cruel To Be Kind" video, and Lowe produced his wife's next two albums: 1980's "Musical Shapes," with Dave Edmunds dueting on the single "Baby Ride Easy" (the album was later called "one of the finest country-rock albums of the post-rockabilly age" by Entertainment Weekly); and "Blue Nun," an R & B-influenced European release highlighted by two duets with Paul Carrack (who left Squeeze to join her band) in 1981. While Carlene's model looks were being seen in the high-fashion pages of Harper's Bazaar, her risque onstage patter got her quoted and cartooned in Playboy magazine's year-end issue as well.
Carlene made the American Top-40 pop chart (at #32) with Robert Ellis Orrall on their duet "I Couldn't Say No," and followed it with her techno-tinged "C'est C Bon" album on Epic, both in 1983. But after five albums with no major hits of her own, Carlene took a break from her recording career, and spent a year on the London stage in the hit American musical "Pump Boys and Dinettes"; then filled in for her ailing aunt Anita when The Carter Family came to Wembley with the Johnny Cash show, and ended up going on the road with them for the next two years, until she decided it was time to work on her own music again. Dwight Yoakam told her: "Carlene, there is a place for you in country music"--afterall, what was now getting airplay was the same mix of country and rock that she had been playing all along. She started off the new decade with a hit duet on the country charts, "Time's Up," with old pal John McFee's new group Southern Pacific--which opened the door for Carlene's own "I Fell In Love" (back on Warner Bros. again) in the fall of 1990, produced by bassist Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
With one of the hippest, rockinest country songs ever put on tape, the TNN and CMT #1 video helped propel the single to #3 on the Billboard country chart, and #4 for the entire year on The Gavin Report for country radio play; while the "I Fell In Love" album was named one of the year's 10 best in any genre by TIME, People, and Stereo Review magazines. Award nominations followed for the Academy of Country Music's "Top New Female Vocalist"; and "Best Country Vocal Performance, Female," at the 1991 Grammy Awards. Hit singles continued with "Come On Back" (also #3) and "The Sweetest Thing"; and Carlene's sparkling video presence made her a natural to bring country music to the hip VH-1 audience as their first country video hostess with her own daily hour, "The Carlene Carter Show."
Her new country star status kept Carlene on the road for most of the next 18 months, until she did the unthinkable by Nashville standards, taking a year off to write her next album. The delay cost Carlene her deal at Warner Bros. Reprise, but she was quickly signed to their newer Giant Records division for 1993's "Little Love Letters" (again produced by Epstein), which repeated her previous success with another smash hit video and single, "Every Little Thing" (#3); and reviews like Country Music magazine's praise for the album and its second single: "'Unbreakable Heart' boasts the same kind of jazzy chords that Willie Nelson wrote into 'Crazy' and Patsy Cline picked up on, and Carter sings it just that classily." In 1994, Carlene had a cameo in the movie "Maverick," with a single and video ("Something Already Gone") from the film's soundtrack.
By 1995, her musical evolution had brought Carlene to the next logical step of producing her second album for Giant, "Little Acts of Treason," on which she finally got her dad Carl Smith out of retirement for a duet of his hit "Loose Talk" (#1 for seven weeks the year Carlene was born). The CD's first single and video were an upbeat cover of Kennedy Rose's "Love Like This"; "But," said People magazine, "the real stunner here is 'Change,' a ballad she wrote that is an introspective look at Carter's life, demonstrating her maturity as a songwriter and as a singer of deeply felt emotions." Though the CD yielded no real hits, Carlene Carter continued to be one of the most critically-acclaimed artists of her time, New Country magazine stating that: "a holding pattern in her book is a career-high achievement in virtually anyone else's," and Carlene has named this disc as her favorite.
More TV appearances included a series of specials for TNN, "Carlene Carter: Circle of Song," which TV Guide called "an entertaining and informal musical roundup," with many of her musical friends and family members joining her; and Carlene hit 33 cities in 1996 with two other famous Nashville daughters, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis, for what USA Today believed to be "the first all-female major country tour."
But just as doors had opened in the early '90s for Carlene and many of her peers, by mid-decade the industry was changing again, with more emphasis placed on the youth market and creating overnight "superstars," while many country hit-makers were suddenly without a record deal. Giant released Carlene's first "best of" collection, "Hindsight 20/20" (1996), with 20 songs spanning 20 years of recording. Country Weekly wrote: "For most of the last two decades, Carlene Carter has roared and rocked Nashville's socks off and sometimes we've taken her for granted. 'Hindsight 20/20' reminds us just how much we'd miss her if she wasn't around to brighten our lives." Unfortunately, this was the last that most of her fans would see or hear of Carlene for the next several years.
Though she continued to occasionally perform on successful tours of Europe, Carlene mostly laid low in the U.S.--or tried to, as legal problems put her back in the spotlight, and the tabloids, at times. She reunited with Dave Edmunds on a song for a Nike commercial in 2002; and made guest appearances in 2003 on albums by The Chieftains, and a Waylon Jennings tribute (with critics noting the similarity in his and Carlene's rebellious personalities)--but her life was devastated by a series of personal losses as many of her loved ones, including several family members, died within the span of about a year.
Her performance of "Jackson" with Brooks & Dunn at the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute concert in the fall of 2003 (which The Tennessean called "the show's emotional highlight"), inspired the producers of a new stage musical to approach Carlene about starring in "Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story," which focused on her mom's early years with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Living in L.A. at the time and still concentrating on her recovery (with the help of MusiCares), Carlene eventually accepted the role, returned to Nashville, and along with cousin Lorrie Davis Bennett as her own mom, Anita Carter, found comfort and healing in playing June in July 2005--though as No Depression magazine wrote: "'Play' is not quite the right word. Onstage, Carlene kicked into a dance like her mother, carried her body like her, very much seemed to become her." Each show ended with Carlene's emotional tribute to her grandma and sister Rosey on "Me And The Wildwood Rose," segueing into "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."
Carlene continues to honor Rosey on the title track to her new CD "Stronger," with its powerful refrain, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger"; she chronicles the journey taken with her new husband from L.A. back home to Nashville in "Bring Love"; and reprises her tongue-in-cheek anthem "I'm So Cool" from 1980. Another new highlight on the CD is Carlene's own version of her long-lost song "It Takes One To Know Me," written as a birthday present for her stepfather when she was just 19, and first heard on the Johnny Cash box-set "The Legend" in 2005; then in 2006 on his "Personal File" CD and "16 Biggest Hits" by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
In 2006, Carlene recorded a pre-release version of "Stronger" with her brother, John Carter Cash (who also produced their mom's last two Grammy-winning CDs), which was sold at Carlene's concerts and through her Fan Club online. For the official label release, her old friend John McFee (of The Doobie Brothers and Southern Pacific) served as producer and multi-instrumentalist, and the CD came out in March 2008 on the respected independent label Yep Roc Records, with many critics and fans around the world naming "Stronger" as among the best work from Carlene Carter's 30-year career. Elvis Costello contacted McFee: "I couldn't let a day go by without writing a note about C.C.'s record. It is astounding." And legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin told the Fan Club that "Stronger" was: "A staggering achievement by one of the great voices and fearless hearts of country rock." USA Today said simply: "It's great to hear her again."
Carrying on both sides of her historic family legacies, Carlene is currently working on a CD and DVD with many artists paying tribute to her father Carl Smith, the legendary 2003 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee who passed away in January 2010; and her own next CD will feature Carlene singing songs of the Carter Family. Nearly a century after their first recordings changed the course of American music, the circle remains unbroken by Carlene Carter, stronger than ever.
Brad DeMeulenaere / C.C. Fan Club / Nashville, TN