(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
This is why you should care about Carlene Carter: She puts her whole life into her music in a way few artists dare or accomplish. Not just snippets of a diary. I mean her life experience, her guts and her whole psyche. It goes in there. It’s not always a pretty recipe. But the results are often gems of music.
Her work continues to illuminate the peculiar strength — and the weakness — of the whole Cash-Carter legacy, which is a musical edifice that is going to endure for a long, long time. And Carter’s latest album, Stronger, coming some 13 years since her last studio effort, amply demonstrates that. It reflects the toll taken on her by wrong roads taken and unavoidable tragedies. In Carlene’s case, she’s had career triumphs and backslides, three marriages and numerous personal losses.
As her stepfather Johnny Cash once famously said, “Drugs run through this family like crap through a goose.” And Carlene was no exception. She experienced a harrowing heroin bust when she took the fall for her late amour, Howie Epstein of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and she’s had her own years of heroin addiction and alcohol abuse. Fortunately for her, she came out of it all with tales to tell of falling and getting back up again.
Me-centered music lives and dies by the strength of its compositions. Strong songs celebrate the worth of their creator. Lesser works invite attack, ridicule or — worse — no attention at all. From the Carter Family on to Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter and others, they have risen and fallen on the strengths and frailties of their own labors.
And if there is one consistent thread running through the lives and careers of the many writing and performing Carters and Cashes, it is one of stubborn independence. That’s probably the only reason Johnny lasted as long as he did, and it certainly seems to have been Carlene’s key to survival — both in a mortal sense, as well as artistically.
Her few albums over the years sometimes only hinted at the talents lying underneath. They trace, though, her route as a musical pioneer, from her California country-rock days through her Brit-pop era with her then-husband Nick Lowe back to a country amalgam she forges herself. After her strong 1978 self-titled debut album, the all-but-hidden UK album Blue Nun remains a rarity — perhaps rightfully so. C’est Si Bon and Two Sides to Every Woman were very uneven. But her musical triumphs have been glorious. 1980’s Musical Shapes, 1990’s I Fell in Love and 1993’s Little Love Letters remain joys to hear. She’s singing with total confidence, and the songs fit her like those little mini-skirts she used to wear so well. Her last studio album, 1995’s Little Acts of Treason, was not completely on a par with those works.
Stronger is very much Carter’s own creation. She wrote all but one of the 12 cuts and called on old friend John McFee of the Doobie Brothers to produce. The result may be her strongest work to date. Strong, as in mature.
Especially moving is her rendition of her composition “It Takes One to Know Me,” which her stepfather Johnny Cash recorded before his death and which appears on both his Johnny Cash: The Legend album and on his CD of duets with June.
In “Judgement Day,” about losing Epstein to an OD, she laments the loss of her “bittersweet wasted youth” and sings: “I’ll hold on for dear life till it comes judgement day/True love never dies/It just walks away.”
The title song, “Stronger” (as in “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”), which was spurred by the tragic, early death of her sister Rosie, is both a heartrending lamentation and a celebration of and return to life itself. “Now there’s rest for the weary,” she sings, “and there’s peace in the night/There’s grace in forgiveness for angels in flight.”
From the Musical Shapes album, Carlene reprises her song “I’m So Cool.” Whereas the original recording of “I’m So Cool” sounded jaunty and cocky and looking forward to life’s experiences, her 2008 “Cool” is mature and even a little world-weary as she reflects on those experiences. “Hangin’ out with the boys is where it’s at,” she sings, “’Cause they got the balls and I got the bat/Yeah, I got the bat.”
Carter has obviously come back from a perilous and disastrous odyssey to find her rightful place at her musical home. Stronger is a triumphant album, a buoyant if bittersweet reclamation of her own personal spot in the Cash-Carter enduring legacy of musical creativity. Carlene has not been regarded in the past as a role model for young women artists, but now she has something to say to them.