Thursday, August 3, 2017

Carlene Carter 1978-2017

Carlene Carter has had a long career, and a somewhat odd one. She is a talented singer and songwriter, blessed with a country twang of a voice that she comes by honestly as the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter and daughter of June Carter Cash.

But she rebelled against her traditional country roots, and followed a pop-rock muse on her first five records in the late seventies and eighties to wildly variable results.

Her eponymous debut got things started in fine form. It is a lost treasure from 1978 that should have been a huge success. Backed by Graham Parker and the Rumour, and produced by Rumour
 members Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz, it has a country-
rock sound with a pop edge that fits Carlene perfectly. Great songs abound, with Parker's Between You And Me, Rodney Crowell's Never Together But Close Sometimes, Tracey Nelson's I've Been There Before, and Bacon and Cain's Alabama Morning. And Carlene's contributions are also fine. Her Slow Dance, Smoke Dreams, and Who Needs Words all show a strong songwriter developing. It's not a country record by 1978 standards, but there's more of her roots showing than not. The Rumour provides ideal backing, and the organic sound of the recording adds to the perfection.

The next one, 1979's Two Sides To Every Woman, is a disastrous attempt to make her into Pat Benatar. Even the country songs are performed as pop-rock, and the slick sound produced by Lance Quinn and Tony Bongiovi is a poor fit for Carlene. Carter writes or co-writes most of the material, and some it might have fared better with more complementary production. Old Photographs is one of Carlene's fine ballads, and she does a pretty good job with Elvis Costello's Radio Sweetheart. Do It In A Heartbeat, that leads off the record, is a solid song. But there's way too many keyboards, and the slick sound is a mess.

Nick Lowe married Carlene in 1979 and produced 1980's Musical Shapes. Backed by the stellar Rockpile (Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams), Musical Shapes has Edmunds' country/rockabilly stamp all over it. There's a nice duet with Edmunds on Baby Ride Easy, a swell version of her mother's Ring Of Fire, a cover of her uncle A. P. Carter's Foggy Mountain Top, and a handful of excellent songs from Carlene's pen, including Cry, Too Bad About Sandy, I'm So Cool, and Appalachian Eyes. Along with her debut, perhaps her finest hour.

Blue Nun 1981 is another Lowe production, but this time the rocking moves the rockabilly to the side mostly. Two duets with Paul Carrack, Oh How Happy and Do Me Lover are both good. Great songs from Carter abound, and feature Carlene's bad girl image more than any other record she's made. Her Love Is A 4-Letter Verb, That Boy, Tougher Stuff, Me And My .38, and Think Dirty are all strong songs delivered with Joan Jett subtlety and Carlene's charming twang.

1983 brought another terrible try at making Carlene into standard pop-rock fare. Even worse than Two Sides To Every Woman, C'est C Bon, produced by Roger Bechirian, takes pretty good material and swamps it in slick eighties production and glossy keyboards. The single Meant It For A Minute isn't too bad, but the record seems all wrong for Carlene, and is as hard to listen to today as the day it came out.


Seven years passed before Carlene made another record, and by then, divorced from Nick Lowe, she decided to give mainstream country music a try for a change. This lead to her period of greatest commercial success, working in Nashville with a string of talented co-writers including Al Anderson, producer Howie Epstein, James Eller, and Radney Foster. Three records were released between 1990 and 1995, I Fell In Love, Little Love Letters, and Little Acts Of Treason. All three are solid examples of modern country music in the 1990s, with big rock guitars and drums mixed with more traditional country sounds. Carlene wrote lots of great songs, and I Fell In Love, a #3 country single, Come On Back, The Sweetest Thing, and Me And The Wildwood Rose from I Fell In Love were great. Little Love Letters featured another #3 hit with Every Little Thing, and Sweet Meant To Be, I Love You 'Cause I Want To, and First Kiss were all first rate. Excellent production from Howie Epstein and top-notch professional musicians made these records into very strong modern country music. Little Acts Of Treason should have equaled the first two, but even with four fine Al Anderson co-writes, it was somehow less successful. Hurricane, Love Like This, The Lucky Ones, and a duet with her father Carl Smith on Loose Talk are all winners.

 A 1996 best-of entitled Hindsight 20/20 collected much of the best from these three records and a few of the more country tunes from her work in the 70s and 80s. It is a good way to enjoy the highlights of these three Carlene Carter records, arguably her best work, even if I still hold a soft spot for her early gems.

After disappearing from recording for an extended while, Carlene returned in 2008 with Stronger. The title is a reference to Carlene's rough times on several levels, and her survival. The record is filled with good songs from Carter's pen, and her voice is as strong and rich as ever. If there's any downside, it is one of those records produced, performed and recorded by one person, the talented John McFee, formerly of Clover and Doobie Brothers, and a skilled multi-instrumentalist. Recordings made this way often lack for input from studio pros on each instrument, and there's some of that here. But McFee does about as good a job as possible, and Carlene more than upholds her end as singer and songwriter.

 Coming full circle in 2014, and with producer extraordinaire Don Was at the helm, Carlene made Carter Girl.  A tribute to her famous family, most of the songs are by A. P. or Maybelle Carter, Carlene's uncle and grandmother. Carlene reprises her Me And The Wildwood Rose, and she and Al Anderson update an early Carter Family gem in Lonesome Valley 2003. There's a crack ace band that modernizes the sound of these classics with love and restraint. Jim Keltner drums, Greg Leisz guitar and steel guitar, Rami Jaffee keyboards, Blake Mills guitar, Val McCallum guitar, all are seasoned pros, and Don Was plays bass and directs it all with panache. Carlene still sounds great, and gets help from a few stars making cameo appearances: Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Bush.

And finally in 2017 she shows up featured on a John Mellencamp record, his recent Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. Carlene's contributions are generally the best thing about the record.
I had plenty to say about it just a short while ago here. 

Born into roots country's most famous family, Carlene Carter spurned the traditional as a young artist, and made some fine records in Carlene Carter 1978 and Musical Shapes 1980. Then her modern country records in the 1990s proved her commercial country appeal. The last ten years have shown us that she never lost her voice or her pen, and that as a mature artist, still has much to offer her fans old and newer.

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