A woman born into country music royalty who struggled with her legacy before finally embracing it and finding commercial and critical success. That’s a line that refers to more than one second-generation female country star, but none more than Carlene Carter.
Born the daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter, Carlene was either second or third generation country, depending on which side of her family you were looking at. She was twelve years old when her mother married Johnny Cash, but she had already grown up on the road, watching the matriarchs of her family perform on the road. She learned at a young age about the rapturous adoration that country music held for the Carter Family. By the time she was ready to pursue music herself, she chose her mother’s surname in a conscious effort to connect with the strong female history connected to it.
But the road to success was not easy. While her stepfather Johnny Cash believed Carlene was one of the most talented people he’d ever known, she pursued her music career in Los Angeles instead. She signed a deal with Warner Bros. and recorded her 1978 self-titled debut in London, working with The Rumour. The undeniable highlight of that set was penned by her brother-in-law Rodney Crowell, “Never Together But Close Sometimes.”
In turn, Carter wrote “Easy From Now On” for Crowell’s bandleader Emmylou Harris, who borrowed a line from the song to title her album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. Carter’s song has since become a standard, covered in recent years by Terri Clark and Miranda Lambert.
In 1979, she was backed by the Doobie Brothers in the studio for her sophomore set Two Sides to Every Woman. Like her first album, it featured country mixed with rock. She shocked an industry audience that included Johnny and June when she introduced the swingers number “Swap-Meat Rag” as the song that would put the “c— back in country.” She posed for a publicity shot with her middle finger up. But at the same time, the album featured the lush and vulnerable “It’s No Wonder (Why I Love Him).”
She hit her stride with the stunning 1980 release Musical Shapes, a decade-before-its-time classic that established her still vibrant England fan base. A synth-driven cover of her mother’s composition “Ring of Fire” raised eyebrows, and she referenced her own partying ways with the wry “Too Drunk (To Remember.)” The album made a dent in the pop charts, and she scored a moderate hit with “Baby Ride Easy”, a duet with Dave Edmunds.
As her personal troubles began to overwhelm her in the early eighties, she released albums with diminishing quality. Blue Nun from 1981 has some good moments, but C’est C Bon from 1983 is surprisingly devoid of wit and personality, the two cornerstones of her best work.
Carter regrouped by going back to her roots, and spent the latter half of the eighties touring with The Carter Family. When she signed with Warner Bros. in Nashville at the end of the decade, the timing was perfect. The market had caught up with Carter’s sound.
I Fell in Love hit in 1990, and was an instant hit. The catchy title track and equally infectious follow-up “Come on Back” each went top five. Best of all, the album embraced her roots, with a sweet cover of her grandmother’s “My Dixie Darlin'”, and a powerful self-penned tapestry of her childhood memories with grandma, “Me and the Wildwood Rose.” The album earned her a Grammy nomination and a nod for Top New Female Vocalist at the ACM awards.
Three years later, she had another big hit with “Every Little Thing”, the lead single off of Little Love Letters, her most ambitious and fully realized album to date. Her quirky videos caught the attention of VH1, which signed her as the host of their country video hour. She also made a cameo appearance in the film Maverick, and contributed the single “Something Already Gone” to that film’s soundtrack.
Her 1995 album Little Acts of Treason didn’t produce a hit single, but she supported the album with the first major all-female country tour, criss-crossing the nation with fellow second-generation stars Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis. In 1996, she finished her contract with Warner Bros. by releasing Hindsight 20/20, which featured tracks from both the rock and country eras of her career.
Personal demons kept Carter out of the limelight for the rest of the nineties and the early part of this decade, but she resurfaced in the stage show Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story, in which she played her mother with both precision and deep affection. She released her first studio album in thirteen years in early 2008. Appropriately titled Stronger, it showcases her songwriting skills as she deals with the challenges she’s faced down while being away. She is currently tending to her other legacy as she plans a tribute album to her father, Cal Smith.
- “Never Together But Close Sometimes”, 1978
- “Baby Ride Easy” (with Dave Edmunds), 1980
- “I Fell in Love”, 1990
- “Come on Back”, 1991
- “Every Little Thing”, 1993
- Musical Shapes (1980)
- I Fell in Love (1990)
- Little Love Letters (1993)
- Stronger (2008)