“I’ve been doing all this business stuff,” Deana Carter groans. “You have no idea how wonderful it is to sit and talk about the music.”
Carter has much to talk about. After a six-year hiatus from recording, the “Strawberry Wine” singer is back with a plucky new album, Southern Way of Life, for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs.
Among the “business stuff” Carter refers to is producing the album, setting up her own label and arranging for the album to be distributed and promoted. It was a lot of bases to cover, but now she’s done it.
So back to the music.
“Honestly, these songs come out of just getting back into writing seriously,” she says, chatting with CMT.com by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I signed with Warner Chappell [Music Publishing], and I just started writing a whole lot and going back to Nashville a lot.
“I ended up with all these songs and going through a bunch of life changes, like losing my dad, a marriage separation, a major move and a car accident. All this stuff happened over the course of a couple of years. So I was writing my way through it.”
Carter’s father, the legendary guitarist Fred Carter Jr., died in 2010. She named her record label Little Nugget in honor of Nugget Records, the independent Nashville imprint of which her father was once an owner.
Carter’s co-writers on Southern Way of Life include such luminaries as Kacey Musgraves, who conspired with her on the plainspoken “I Don’t Want To” and “That’s Just Me,” and The Band Perry‘s Kimberly Perry, who pitched in on the resolute “You Can’t Stay.”
Pop and R&B producer Damon Elliott assisted her in crafting the tongue-in-cheek, honey-dripping, cliché-tripping title track.
Writing her way out of personal stresses isn’t always her first line of defense, Carter explains, but it comes close.
“My natural response to stress is probably the gym or a glass of wine,” she muses. “That would be No. 1. No. 2 would definitely be taking the time to sit and write.”
Sometimes she turns to writing when her passions are still strong and bubbling, she says.
“I think the bubbling [stage] is important. I wrote a song right in the middle of being so frustrated that I called ‘You Bring Out the Redneck in Me.’ It didn’t get on this record, but I can’t wait to put it on another one. I was so mad!
“But songs like ‘Waiting for You to Come Home’ [on the new album] was written two weeks after my dad died. It was the first song I tried. I didn’t know if I’d ever write again. It seemed like such a mountain. But in demoing the song over the course of a couple of years, it really morphed into kind of a healing feel — as opposed to the original piano-vocal demo [which made] you want to cry your eyes out, it was so sad.”
In her six years absence from recording, Carter focused on raising her son, who’s now 9, while nourishing her music on the side.
“It was heavy duty,” she recalls. “I was writing out here some with people I met in L.A. I did some shows here and there, keeping things going — but not like a hardcore tour. I did songwriter nights and was able to pull a band together and go do things.
“But it was kind of all spread out. It wasn’t like we got on a bus and went on tour like we used to — then ‘You and Tequila’ happened, and I signed with Warner Chappell and started going to Nashville a lot.”
Both Carter and her co-writer, Matraca Berg, had recorded “You and Tequila” on their own separate albums. But the song didn’t take off until BNA Records released Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter‘s version of the song in 2011. That’s when the world got rosier.
“You and Tequila” went Top 5 on the country charts, sold 1 million digital copies, put Carter back in the media spotlight and, not least important, made her a bunch of money.
Carter has been based on Los Angeles for 14 years now. She says it was a natural drift from Nashville, where she got her start as a recording artist in 1996 with the chart-topping “Strawberry Wine.” The coming-of-age song stayed No. 1 for two weeks and was later named the Country Music Association’s single of the year.
She continued to score big with “We Danced Anyway,” “Count Me In,” “How Do I Get There” and the novelty tune, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”
“It’s funny,” she observes. “I had just finished building with my husband at the time this amazing, beautiful, gorgeous home on 30 acres, right in West Meade [in Nashville]. It was in ’98, and I started doing film and TV stuff. I was away all the time.
“So I thought it was time to get a little apartment out here. I ended up divorcing in 2001, and we sold the [Nashville] house. So I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to go,’ because of the work that’s happening out here. I still had my deal with Arista [Records] and still went on tour.”
With the new album on its way, Carter says her booking agency has resumed scheduling show dates for her. She played the Grand Ole Opry — oddly enough, for the first time — in September. Earlier this month, she joined fellow songwriters Bob DiPiero, James Slater and Rory Feek at Joe’s Pub in New York City for the CMA Songwriters Series.
Carter let her online fans vote to pick the album’s first single. They chose “Do or Die,” the only song on Southern Way of Life that Carter wrote entirely by herself. It deals with a young mother and her son who have to confront the world with little more than love and hope.