Friday, May 21, 2010

Music Box: Carlene Carter

Long before the country music's current Blond Invasion of Carrie Underwood, Julianne Hough and Taylor Swift, there was Carlene Carter, the bombshell daughter of music legends Carl Smith and Carter Family matriarch June Carter, who married Johnny Cash when Carlene was 12. Carlene had everything it took to be a star -- the pedigree, the looks and the talent -- but made it clear from the get-go that she was not going to play by Nashville's rules, recording her first album in England (a New Wave-country fusion) and then staying there after marrying Brit rocker Nick Lowe (home movies of their actual wedding were used in the classic Lowe video "Cruel to Be Kind").

Although I was keenly aware of Carlene back in the day -- her beauty and family name turned her into an a bit of an "it" girl for a few years, posing for fashion spreads in magazines like Harper's Bazaar and INTERVIEW, and being picked as the Creem Dream -- it was stepsister Rosanne Cash who captured my ear first, and whose music I obsessively collect to this day.

But after reading about some personal problems Carlene had encountered a couple years ago, I finally got around to checking out her music, and found myself instantly hooked on her "Hindsight 20/20" best-of collection. Pop-country hits like "I Fell in Love," "Come on Back" and "Every Little Thing" from the early '90s earned her the success she was long overdue, but it's the songs from her quirkier early albums -- made with The Rumour (Graham Parker's backing band), the Doobie Brothers and Lowe himself -- that intrigue me most. Her version of former brother-in-law Rodney Crowell's "Never Together (But Close Sometimes)" gives me chills, and songs like "Cry," "I'm So Cool," "Baby Ride Easy" and "Do It in a Heartbeat" (which she wrote with Lowe) have me fixin' to go on another CD buying spree. There was a 13-year gap between her album "Little Acts of Treason" and 2008's critcally acclaimed comeback, "Stronger." Just got her chart hit duets "Time's Up" (with Southern Pacific) and "I Couldn't Say No" (with Robert Ellis Orrall) and love 'em both. Would love to hear from hardcore fans with advice on where to dig in first on the rest of her catalogue. The best-of disc has me thinking I'm in for a real treat. Visit Carlene on the Web HERE.


I did follow through on my plans to investigate Carlene's early music further and I can't begin to say how thankful I am I did. Wounded Bird reissued her first four albums -- albeit clumsily with the first and third on one disc, and second and fourth on another -- but the end result if pure delight. Everything hinted at with the handful of songs included on her "20/20 Hindsight" best-of collection is completely fleshed out on these albums. Smart covers -- Graham Parker's "Between You and Me," Elvis Costello's "Radio Sweetheart" (the definitive version), a duet of Richard Dobson's "Baby Ride Easy" with Dave Edmunds -- and memorable originals -- "Slow Dance," "Do It in a Heartbeat" (written with then-hubby Lowe), "Madness," "Appalachian Eyes," the sassy "That Boy" "Billy" (with Paul Carrack) and the ebullient "When You Comin' Back."

Even 1983's critically dismissed "Cest C Bon" -- her fifth release, and the last before her 1990 reinvention -- has plenty of memorable moments ("Third Time Charm" is an instant classic!). After going through some horrible times -- the death of her mother, stepfather, longtime lover and little sister, a return to drugs and alcohol and various run-ins with the law -- Carlene made another remarkable comeback with "Stronger," her critically acclaimed 2008 return to form. She's returned to the stage in support of the album over the last couple years, and I'm looking forward to seeing her in New York City in January 2011. Consider me your No. 1 "Kenny Come Lately" fan, Carlene!

1 comment:

Dave in Texas said...

Oh Carlene... There is a song on an early album called 'Swap Meat Rag"- I remember reading that she introduced it in concert saying "if this doesn't put the cunt back in country, I don't know what will..." Of course that caused a stir in Nashville. Like you, I am a big Rosanne fan, but I think I actually got a Carlene album before Rosanne's 'Right or Wrong came out. I never got into Carlene's music as much as Rosanne's. Carlene did write "Easy From Now On', that was a hit for Emmylou Harris. When Carlene had mainstream country success in the 90's it seemed she couldn't maintain it, and apparently had some big struggles, like the Howie Epstein years. Sad...