For a woman who’s endured monumental personal turmoil, Carlene Carter’s conversation is remarkably breezy and lighthearted, regularly punctuated with ironic and self-deprecating chuckles. She was enjoying a working vacation in Jamaica recently when she came to the phone to chat with CMT.com about her latest album, Stronger.
Produced by John McFee, of the Doobie Brothers and Southern Pacific fame, Stronger is Carter’s first album made up entirely of her own songs.
“My whole life has changed for the better in so many ways,” she reports. “I’m happily married and so happy in my life. We live in a great place, have our animals, and I get to make music for a living. I just feel so blessed and so fortunate. I’m in Jamaica right now getting paid to talk to people about my family.”
In 2006, Carter married her fourth husband, actor Joseph Breen. Their home is in Northern California. She explains that she was in Jamaica — where her mother and stepfather, June Carter and Johnny Cash, once owned a retreat — to speak to a meeting of Hewlett-Packard executives. While there, she and Breen have been relaxing on the beach and revisiting the site where they made their wedding vows.
Carter wrote most of the songs on Stronger after the catastrophic string of tragedies that assailed her in 2003. That one year saw the deaths of her longtime companion, rock musician Howie Epstein, along with her mother, stepfather and younger sister, Rosey Nix Adams.
Generally, Carter says, she has to put some distance between herself and her heartbreaks before she can transform them into songs.
“I’ve found from experience that if I just keep it in me for a while it comes out better instead of blurting it all out before I can’t really process it,” she says. “It took me a while to write some of these songs, particularly the one about Rosey [the title cut]. But I knew it was in there. I knew it was brewing.”
In spite of its darker shades, Stronger is by no means a grim album. It is leavened by such uptempo and/or upbeat fare as “The Bitter End,” “Why Be Blue,” “Bring Love,” “On to You” and “Break My Little Heart in Two.” Carter also resurrected one of her fan favorites, “I’m So Cool,” which first surfaced on her 1980 breakthrough album, Musical Shapes.
Carter was born in 1955 to June Carter, of the pioneering Carter Family, and country star Carl Smith.
“When I was little,” she says, “I wasn’t that aware of [the famous connections]. We just had such a normal kind of life — what we thought was normal. We went to school. We lived on a farm, me and Rosey. We grew up in the back seat of a car. We thought that was great. Of course, when my mom married John [Johnny Cash], things changed drastically because he was at the height of his success. There was a lot of stuff going on. We moved out to this big house in Hendersonville, Tenn. Things were really different. We suddenly didn’t mow our own yard.”
She showed an early affinity for music — and an early zeal for going her own way, marrying twice while she was still in her teens. She also began writing songs — some really good ones — during this period. One of these, “It Takes One to Know Me,” she wrote for Cash as a birthday present.
“He said, ‘I’m going to record it for my next single.’ That was, like, 1976,” she says with a laugh. “I was hanging out a lot with Waylon and Jessi [Colter] back then. I was viewed as a budding songwriter, so we would always sit around and sing. Waylon said, ‘I want to do that song’ and even called me up again and said, ‘I’m going to record it.’ This was right after [he had] ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I said, ‘You’re going to have to ask Big John because he wants it.’ And John said, ‘No, it’s going to be my next single.’”
But, as many a songwriter has learned, a promise is not a cut and certainly not a single. After June and Johnny Cash died, their son, John Carter Cash, found a tape the two had made of the song and sent it to Carlene for her to add her voice to the recording. The version appears on the Johnny Cash boxed set, The Legend.
“So I got to sing with Mom and John, even after they were gone,” she marvels. On Stronger, she sings it with her husband.
At the advice of her managers, who had the idea of promoting her in Europe, as “blueblood country,” Carter moved to England in the winter of 1977. She remained there for the next nine or 10 years, during which time she recorded five rock-infused albums, the most acclaimed of which was her third effort, Musical Shapes. While in England, she married her third husband — rock singer, songwriter and producer Nick Lowe.
“I moved back to Tennessee in ’86 or ’87,” Carter says. “That’s when I worked with the Carter Family because I really wanted to understand my roots. So I came back and worked with Helen, Anita and Mama and went on the road with them for two years. And I did a record with them.
“One of the hardest things I ever did was decide it was time for me to go back and do my own music. I was writing songs and I really didn’t have the stage time [with the other Carters] to do my own music. But I really cherish those days. They instilled in me a lot of different things I needed … to go on to be more of myself and not what people thought I should be — just because I wore miniskirts.”
Carter signed with Giant Records and had her greatest chart success in 1993 with “Every Little Thing,” a single that went to No. 3, powered in part by an irresistibly frenetic music video. Subsequent singles fared far less well, but Carter maintained her visibility through touring and television appearances.
By the early 2000s, Carter’s world was in shambles. In 2001, she and Epstein — who had played bass for years with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — were arrested in New Mexico for possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. The following year, she was charged with identity theft to obtain prescription drugs. Finally, she sought to save herself by moving in with her mother and Cash, even though she had her own homes in California and New Mexico at the time.
“When I left my home and moved back in with Mama,” Carter recalls, “she just said, ‘You’ll always be OK. You’ll always have your songs, and you can always make a living as a songwriter. Just leave all this stuff and go.’ So I left my house with a suitcase with two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts. I never went back. … It was an awkward situation. I just had to set some boundaries in my relationship. I said, ‘I can’t be here any more unless things change.’ Well, unfortunately, they did change. He [Epstein] died.”
No one knows better than Carter how close she came to catastrophe.
“I had to make a lot of life changes to still be here, honestly,” she says. “I had all the troubles with drugs and stuff. I’m really happy to say I don’t do drugs anymore. That’s why I’m still here. … My families were wonderful. My Smiths, my Carters, the Cashes — everybody embraced me and held my arms up when I couldn’t do it myself.”
Devotion to the art of songwriting continues to be Carter’s safe harbor. “I’m kind of a perfectionist about my songwriting,” she says. “If I don’t mean it, I don’t think it’s any good. I can write fluff all day long. I can make up ditties, as we know from my past. [She laughs uproariously.] I’ve had a few ditty hits. But this album really matters to me because there is so much of my actual life in it — and my heart.”
Next up on Carter’s to-do list is a tribute album to her father, Carl Smith, a project she aims to undertake with McFee. “I figure it’s about time somebody does a tribute record to somebody who’s still living,” she says. (Smith, who’s now 81, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003.)
Buoying Carter emotionally is her new husband, her two children — Jackson (an executive with the Dollar General Corp.) and Tiffany (a makeup artist in Los Angeles) — and four grandchildren.
“There’s no more see-through miniskirts, no more cartwheels,” Carter asserts. “I’m a grandmother. I’ve got to keep it together. I looked at myself in the mirror the other day in my bikini, and I went, ‘Shoot! I look like my grandma. But I’m a happy grandma.’”