At the moment, there’s no shortage of young female artists releasing their debut albums. Deana Carter has some advice for them if lightning happens to strike and their multi-platinum dreams come true.
“Just hang on, and ride it like there’s no tomorrow,” she says. “Appreciate it and soak it in. It’s going to be grueling and hard, and you’ll feel like you can’t handle it. Just go for it.”
Carter speaks from personal experience. It happened to her in 1996 after she released the mega-hit single, “Strawberry Wine.” Her debut album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, sold more than 5 million copies to make her one of the hottest artists in country music.
As Carter will attest, though, you can’t predict what’s going to be a hit and you sure can’t foretell the future. Having moved from the major labels to a prestigious independent imprint, Vanguard Records, the key is to do your best work — and that’s what Carter says she’s done with her just-released album, The Story of My Life.
Nobody, least of all Carter, anticipated the massive success of “Strawberry Wine.”
“It was just bizarre because it happened in six weeks,” she tells CMT.com. “It was so quick. It took so long for the radio airplay to catch up to what the buzz was. Radio really broke that record, and the buzz started within that. But there were a lot of people [radio programmers] who were reluctant to play it. So you had this wave that was happening. When the other people got on it, it just impacted it even more.
“Nobody knew. Nobody saw it coming. I think it was a very different sounding song for the time. It was a progressive song for the time — a 4:57 waltz about first love. It was really a phenomenon at the time.”
In planning her second Capitol Nashville album, executives in charge at the time were eager to repeat Carter’s success and, if necessary, her previous musical themes.
“You’d be amazed at how many songs they would want me to listen to that were, like, ’At 18,'” she says. “It was ridiculous … I mean, they didn’t find ’Strawberry Wine’ in the first place. The elements of that first record that made it a cool, unique, artistic album were things that we fought for to bring to the table. Even down to the bridge of ’Strawberry Wine,’ that was an argument, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns.”
Carter has lost track of how many label heads she dealt with at Capitol before leaving the company after her second album. Her next stop was Arista Nashville, another major label. Her arrival at Arista was introduced by the single, “There’s No Limit,” but she found herself dropped from the label just five months after the album, I’m Just a Girl, was released in March 2003.
“I literally walked in my door from my Kenny Chesney/Keith Urban tour,” she recalls. “The car had just dropped me off. My phone’s ringing. I run in, trip over my bags, answer the phone — and I’m dropped. I could not believe it. I really couldn’t because I just felt like it was a great record. I’m so proud of that album. So many songs that didn’t even get to see the light of day.”
Carter points out that the album released date coincided with U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“To Arista’s credit, I will say that on the album release date, we go to war,” she notes. “We’re at war on my album release date. You’re gonna get zero TV, zero radio coverage. That wasn’t their fault. And we had a hard time recovering from it. … I think the staff worked their butts off. I just feel like it wasn’t enough immediate gratification for them to feel like they could move forward and financially make it make sense.”
Carter, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2001, has a special appreciation for Kevin Welk and Steve Buckingham. The two Vanguard label executives didn’t hear a note of Carter’s new album until she turned it in.
“We had some other offers from major labels that wanted to put strings on my hands and feet and puppet me around,” she says. “I just wasn’t going to do that again. I’ve earned the right to not have to do that.”
Working closely with James Michael, an L.A.-based engineer, songwriter and musician, Carter produced The Story of My Life at his home studio. This time around, her songs and vocal inflections seem to possess an even stronger Southern influence.
“All those things you might take for granted while you’re in the South, being away from it made me be so grateful of where I came from and who I am,” she says. “I think it helped me focus. It’s hard to meet people in L.A., so you’re going to sit with your guitar and write. Most of my friends who live there are from Alabama, Arkansas … some Texans. … There are a lot of Southern people there that I hang out with. It’s nice to have that family feeling.”
The album also finds her experimenting with tempos and exploring more complex chord progressions in her songs. Those, too, were elements the major labels tended to discourage.
“It was like, ’Oh, let’s don’t go too out there, now. Let’s straighten it up a little bit. We don’t want to get too creative and artsy on anybody.’ … Melody is everything to me. Melodies can evoke so much emotion, you don’t have to have any words.”
Noting that her love of melody descended from her father, session guitarist Fred Carter Jr., she adds, “As a young child growing up in the studio and my dad being so melodic as a player, I won’t settle for less than that. I can’t be bored when I hear a song. I have to have little things that keep pulling me through it, taking me to a different avenue each time I hear it.”
Carter has filmed a music video for the first single, “One Day at a Time.” She’s optimistic that mainstream country radio will embrace the song.
“Any album that I ever put out — even if it’s spoken word — I’m going to send it to country radio first,” she says. “We’ll just see where it lands. I never excluded any genre on my first record. I was just making a record I wanted to make. It’s the same thing on this one. I was just making music. I wasn’t really trying to do anything cognitively to take a path.”
Asked whether she differentiates between artistic success and commercial success, Carter responds, “Hopefully, they’ll be the same. That’s the goal. You want for the most people to hear the music that can. With that would mean commercial success. I’ve sold almost 6 million records, and there are people [outside the country music industry] who don’t consider you a ’real’ recording artist. That’s ridiculous. Country artists work so hard. They work twice as hard as rock artists. I’m sorry, that’s just the truth.
“But as long as I can make records — and make real records that mean something to me — I’m successful.”