Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Carlene Carter

Carlene CarterIt’s easy to forget just how talented Carlene Carter is.  In the last eighteen years, she’s only given us two albums to remind us.  But with a career that stretches back to her 1978 eponymous debut album, all the way through her excellent new release, Carter Girl, she has been a consistently excellent entertainer and songwriter.

In addition to her latest release, her albums Musical Shapes (1980), I Fell in Love (1990), and Little Love Letters (1993) are all among the best country albums of their time.  Those three sets factor heavily into this list, but there are plenty of great moments on most of her other studio albums, too.  Her first four sets tend to fade in and out of print, but they’re worth snapping up when available.

It’s been more than five years since I’ve done a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists post.  For the uninitiated, my rubric is simple: I just ranked my favorite twenty-five tracks and then counted them down with commentary.  No big stab at objective truth here.  This is just what I like the most from one of ’em that I like the most.   Share your own favorites in the comments, and hopefully discover one or two new ones along the way.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

Little Love Letter #1 and Little Love Letter #2
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Carlene Carter, Howie Epstein, and Benmont Tench

The first Carlene Carter album I ever bought was Little Love Letters.  I was instantly hooked by the clever framing of  “Side 1” and “Side 2” with these quick vignettes.  They’re funny, they’re heartfelt, and I could listen to a whole album full of them.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

Too Bad About Sandy
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Carlene Carter

When I was younger, I just got a kick out of how dark and seedy this track seemed, with its celebration of the sweet low life and cold hard cash.  But now, I keep going back to the wisdom in the advice she gives her love-struck younger sister: “Honey, can’t be love if you’ve gotta ask twice.”

Carlene Carter Two Sides to Every Woman

Swap-Meat Rag
Two Sides to Every Woman (1979)
Written by Carlene Carter

On the surface, it’s a bawdy number about free love.  Underneath the surface, it’s a wicked satire of the artifice that is American suburbia.  Plus she growls a lot, and it sounds cool.

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

Give Me the Roses
Carter Girl (2014)
Written by A.P. Carter

Picking Carter Family classics from her latest album is a bit like picking out the shiniest diamond in a vault full of them.  I gravitate toward songs about the fleeting nature of life and family, so of course, I love this plea to be shower your loved ones with affection and praise today, rather than waiting until they are asleep in a cold, narrow bed.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

Hallelujah in My Heart
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Carlene Carter and Howie Epstein

“It sounds really cool”  is a line that is way too easy to rely on when writing about why I like so many Carlene Carter songs, but that really is the essence of my affection for this gospel number. It’s like being at a hippie tent revival for 2 minutes and 44 seconds.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

Too Drunk (to Remember)
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Anni O’Brien

The template for all of those “girl gone wild” anthems that Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert do so well these days.  I like this one because the humor is so well intertwined with genuine regret.

Carlene Carter Little Acts of Treason

Little Acts of Treason (1995)
Written by Carlene Carter

It only has two entries on this list, but that doesn’t mean that Little Acts of Treason is a bad record.  Far from it.  This aching ballad foreshadows the determination she’d document further on her following album, though we had to wait thirteen years to hear it.

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight
Carter Girl (2014)
Written by A.P. Carter

There’s something very Carlene Carter about smiling through the heartache and hiding your pain to protect the feelings of the one who hurt you in the first place.  I wouldn’t have been shocked if she had written it herself.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

Unbreakable Heart
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Benmont Tench

Jessica Andrews had a slightly bigger hit with it than Carlene did, but for me, the whole conceit is far more touching when it comes from an older woman singing it.

Carlene Carter Stronger

Bring Love
Stronger (2008)
Written by Carlene Carter

Carter recounts her journey home to Tennessee with her true love, leaving L.A. and a host of bad memories behind.  It’s beautiful.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

I’m So Cool
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Carlene Carter

Snarky, self-deprecating, and cocky, this is a song that sounds best with a young woman singing it, which is why I prefer it to the still-good second take from 2008.

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

Lonesome Valley 2003
Carter Girl (2014)
Written by Al Anderson, A.P. Carter, and Carlene Carter

Carlene takes a Carter Family standard and rewrites it to reflect on the death of her mother and stepfather in 2003, only two of the four huge losses she suffered that year.  I’m most moved by her description of the bright colors her and her sister wore, standing out in a sea of strangers dressed in black, because they knew their mother would’ve wanted it that way.  Somewhere along the way, Johnny & June’s love story became public property.  This song is a reminder that they were someone’s mom and stepdad and that’s who their story really belongs to.

Carlene Carter I Fell in Love

The Sweetest Thing
I Fell in Love (1990)
Written by Carlene Carter and Robert Ellis Orrall

For whatever reason, country radio seemed to only embrace Carlene when she was in hillbilly cheerleader mode.  This gorgeous ballad managed to hit #23, but deserved better.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

Baby Ride Easy (with Dave Edmunds)
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Richard Dobson

A funny, conversational duet that was a classic as soon as Dave sang, “And if we arm-wrestled…”, and Carlene replied, “I’d say that you won.”

Carlene Carter Little Acts of Treason

He Will Be Mine
Little Acts of Treason (1995)
Written by Al Anderson and Carlene Carter

Supercharged joy from start to finish.  I’m still surprised this wasn’t the lead single from the album.

Maverick Soundtrack

Something Already Gone
Maverick (1994)
Written by Al Anderson and Carlene Carter

Maybe it was overlooked because of its soundtrack single status, but this mid-tempo number is well-written and perfectly structured, with the title becoming more poignant with each chorus she ends with it.

Carlene Carter Carlene Carter

Never Together but Close Sometimes
Carlene Carter (1978)
Written by Rodney Crowell

Her debut album shows a talent still in its formative stage, and it’s the only one she’s released where the best song was written by somebody else.   No shame in that, when it’s Rodney Crowell who wrote that song.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

Every Little Thing
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Al Anderson and Carlene Carter

Her biggest hit, “Every Little Thing” makes a great case for the female point of view.   The lyrics here would be downright menacing if sung by a man, but it’s far more endearing to hear this lady growl, “Like a wild horse, I want to break you. I love you so much I hate you!”

Carlene Carter I Fell in Love

You are the One
I Fell in Love (1990)
Written by Leon Payne

Her father, Carl Smith, had a big hit with this song in 1956.  She launches his mild-mannered number into the stratosphere.  It’s so overwhelmingly joyous that it’s hard to put into words, but I’ll try: Rock-a-Hillbilly Nirvana.

Carlene Carter Stronger

Judgement Day
Stronger (2008)
Written by Carlene Carter

So intensely personal that to summarize it would be to trivialize it.  So I’ll just quote the axis around which the whole song turns: “True love never dies.  It just walks away.”

Carlene Carter I Fell in Love

I Fell in Love
I Fell in Love (1990)
Written by Carlene Carter, Howie Epstein, Perry Lamek, and Benmont Tench

Country fans unfamiliar with Carter’s earlier work must have been baffled when such a fully formed talent arrived out of nowhere.  Her breakthrough hit still sounds different from everything else out there, while still maintaining a solid connection to the genre’s heritage.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

Sweet Meant to Be
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Carlene Carter and Howie Epstein

Sometimes country artists who like to lay the production on thick do so to camouflage their vocal limitations.  This is a huge, rocking number that does just the opposite, featuring Carter’s most stunning vocal performance atop a blistering arrangement.  She can make the mountains ring from way down in the valley.

Carlene Carter I Fell in Love

Come on Back
I Fell in Love (1990)
Written by Carlene Carter

I never get tired of listening to this song.  It’s not as deep or as ambitious as many of the songs on this list.  Just a heartfelt plea for a guy to come back to the one girl who really loves him.  That’s enough.

Carlene Carter Stronger

Stronger (2008)
Written by Carlene Carter

Again, it’s so intensely personal that I can only recommend that you listen to it with an open heart.  Hope in the face of life’s most devastating blows.  The chorus isn’t so much a declaration of strength as it is a prayer for it.

Carlene Carter I Fell in LoveCarlene Carter Carter Girl

Me and the Wildwood Rose
I Fell in Love (1990) / Carter Girl (2014)
Written by Carlene Carter

Two bookend versions of the best song she’s ever written.   Listened in sequence, you can hear time transform the song from one of gratitude with an undercurrent of grief, into one of grief with an undercurrent of gratitude.

It’s a showcase for the best of her talent that also pays tribute to the legacy that informs her talent.   But that’s not what resonates the most with me about “Me and the Wildwood Rose.”   It’s the line that lingers in my mind and my heart every time that I hear it.   As Carlene remembers those long road trips as child, she sings, “In a world all my own, I saw what I saw. In the rearview mirror, I’d get a wink from my grandma.”

I think that restless souls know from a young age that the road they will travel will lead them far away from home.  I think that the traveling begins in spirit first, those inward voyages that can create so much more distance from those around you than the miles on the highway.   In my mind, that knowing wink brings her back from that introverted place for just a moment, and her grandma gives her a cherished memory that lasts for long after she’s gone.

Grandmas are cool like that.

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13 Comments on Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Carlene Carter

  1. I’m so excited to have this feature back I’m excited to have this feature back! I honestly don’t know a lot of these songs, though I do have all of her albums that are digitally available. I love Carter Girl and I love the songs “Come On Back”, “I Fell in Love, and “Me and the Wildwood Rose” from her earlier albums. This has inspired to go back and listen to the albums I have and check out some other songs from this list.

  2. Motown MikeNo Gravatar // May 29, 2014 at 9:02 pm //

    I’m really surprised to see that “Easy From Now On” did not make the list. That is my favorite Carlene Carter track.

  3. SusanK.No Gravatar // May 29, 2014 at 10:06 pm //

    “Easy From Now On” is hands-down my favorite song of all time. It should have made the list, though Emmylou’s version far outshines Carlene’s. I really love Carlene and think she’s a very clever songwriter and a great feminist voice in country radio (or just “country” these days, since she’s no longer played). I am a tad disappointed in her new album though. It just lacks some of the spunk of her earlier albums. Still better than most of what’s out there, though.

  4. Hmmm…I love her new album.

  5. So thrilled that you did this, Kevin. I absolutely adore Carlene Carter, and believe it or not, I actually have you to thank for it since it was her appearances in various CU features (Greatest Singles of the Nineties, Greatest Contemporary Country Albums/Singles, and 100 Greatest Woman) that inspired me to check her music out.

    Overall my list would likely read quite similar to yours, though mine would include “My Dixie Darlin'” and probably another cut or two from Little Love Letters. My number one pick would be the same, with “Come On Back” and “Every Little Thing” likewise figuring into the Top 10 (especially love the melody and guitar hook on the former).

    Thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable read on a truly outstanding artist. Your comments on each selection were insightful and fun to read as always.

  6. I forgot to mention “Every Little Thing” among my favorite songs of hers too.

  7. Carlene Carter actually wrote my favorite Johnny and June duet, “It Takes One to Know Me.”

  8. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar // June 1, 2014 at 8:01 am //

    Nice overview “You Are The One” would be my #2 behind “Me And The WIldwood Rose”. It was also one of my favorite Carl Smith recordings – I dimly remember first hearing it on the radio when I was quite small

  9. Jonathan KeefeNo Gravatar // June 1, 2014 at 12:53 pm //

    Love seeing this feature return and that Carter’s getting some richly deserved attention. Her output has never been prolific, but there are few artists who’ve incorporated such progressive pop elements into country music. Compared to modern pop-country, which so often draws from the most banal, bland pop styles, an album like Musical Shapes still sounds slightly ahead-of-the-curve.

    Her big radio hits all showcase her gift for a well-constructed hook and a terrific melody, and this list showcases the grit and depth beyond those “hillbilly cheerleader” (to which: perfect!) singles.

    I’ll co-sign Susan’s comment above, too: “Easy From Now On” isn’t just one of Carter’s very best, it’s one of my favorite country songs period. It’s complex enough in its writing that it has held up to some stellar re-interpretations by Emmylou Harris, Terri Clark, and Miranda Lambert, but the worldliness of Carter’s version makes it my favorite rendition.

  10. Any song she sings is fine with me.

  11. This is fantastic, and I agree that “Baby Ride Easy,” “Too Bad About Sandy” and “Never Together but Close Sometimes” deserve to be singled out.

    One other song — from the often-forgotten “C’est C’Bon” — that I think needs special recognition is “Third Time Charm,” one of the moodiest pop songs of all time.

  12. Dan PoundsNo Gravatar // June 5, 2014 at 8:16 am //

    Okay, as a Carlene aficionado, here are my recommendations:

    “Troublesome Waters” – Duet with Willie Nelson, from “Carter Girl”
    “300 Pounds of Hongry” – from Blue Nun
    “Think Dirty” – from Blue Nun
    “The Winding Stream” – with background vocals by The Carter Sisters and Johnny Cash
    “Love Like This” from “Little Acts of Treason”
    “Little Acts of Treason” from the album of the same name
    “Easy From Now On” – the song that got her noticed by Emmylou Harris – from “I Fell in Love” (also, been covered many times – Terri Clark, Miranda Lambert)
    “I’m the Kind A Sugar Daddy Likes” from C’est C Bon (I love the trombone)
    “Nowhere Train” from Little Love Letters
    “The Rain” from Little Love Letters
    “I’m So Cool” from Musical Shapes and from Stronger (although, the pre-release version of the song is so much more rockin’!)
    “Judgement Day” from Stronger
    “Why Be Blue” from Stronger
    “Blackie’s Gunman” duet with Elizabeth Cook from “Carter Girl”
    “Poor Old Heartsick Me” from “Carter Girl”

    So this is my list, and understand that I’m just adding to the other suggestions. The woman can’t write or sing a song that I don’t fall in love with!

  13. This is a great list that you wrote here, Kevin. And at the same time, it’s a shame that someone with as much talent as her can now no longer get arrested on radio (much, anyway) because she’s not “hip” enough.

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