Carlene Carter speaks in a soft, honey-coated Southern accent, But she dresses rough 'n' ready: black leather pants, black leather jacket, James Dean t-shirt. At 25, she has recorded three albums and married three times. She's penned modest hits for Emmylou Harris ("Easy From Now On") and the Doobie Brothers ("One Step Closer") and is equally at home among the musical elites of Nashville and London. Yet she is still best-known as June Carters daughter, Johnny Cash's stepdaughter, Nick Lowe's wife.
Things happened fast, perhaps too fast, when Carlene Carter signed with Warner Brothers in 1978. "It was about six weeks from the time I got signed until I went into the studio. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just having a nice day." Martyn Smith, her manager at the time, took Carlene to England to record with some old pub-rock friends of his, the Rumour. Singer and band hung out in the studio, going over song after song. "I just experimented a lot," she recalls, "trying all different ways of singing a song, all kinds of music." Despite the album's tentative, demo-like quality, the Rumours warm, relaxed backing on Carlene Carter shows the singer off to good advantage, especially on songs like "Smoke Dreams" and "Slow Dance." Both concern the breakup of her marriage to Jack Routh.
"The day I left him for good, I was mowing the yard and I was writing that song,"she says of "Slow Dance." "I was going, 'This is it.' And I just split."
Routh was married again soon after — to Carlene's sister. "Too Bad About Sandy," a tough-minded minor-key number from the recent Musical Shapes is addressed to her. "I don't mean it to be mean towards her — I hope it works out. But mainly what I'm saying is that he's just absolutely nuts!"
Carter met her current husband while in London, working on that first album. She and Nick Lowe share a strong sense of humor and a love of parties.
"When I met Nick, it was like we'd known each other forever. We're so much alike that I'm strong when he's not and he's strong where I'm not. We lean on each other a lot.
"I'm much more hot-tempered than he... Sometimes he'll tend to get a bit big-headed and I'll just pop his bubble real quick: 'Look, asshole, you're not nearly as groovy as you think you are'. And he'll do the same thing to me — do it even worse. You have to have somebody who knows you better than you know yourself. It reminds you that you re not actually the most wonderful thing on earth."
Lowe was to have produced Carlene's second album but Warners, looking hard for a hit, brought in New Yorkers Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn instead. The result was Two Sides To Every Woman, with Carter togged in Spandex on the cover and accompanied by a band of New York sessioneers. The LP has a strained, starlet quality more suited to the likes of Pat Benatar.
"I liked them Quinn and Bongiovi, but they just weren't right for me. And they said I couldn't sing country music, that I sang flat all the time. But that's just the way I sing. I wrote [the album] in the studio. I just went along with what the producers said because I was told I had to do that album. I had two producers before I went into the studio and one of them was Nick. If I can't work with my old man, then who can I work with?"
Two Sides includes a version of "Radio Sweetheart," recorded as an act of personal vengeance against its author, Elvis Costello.
"He did this song that I wanted to do, which he never released because he totally blew it. It's called 'So Young,' a JoJo Zep song. Nick played it to me; he said, 'I think you should do this.' Elvis heard it too, and decided it should be his because he's Elvis Costello and he could make it a hit and I couldn't. It was right up my street, not up Elvis's street at all but he wanted to do it so much that we were like fighting over it. One night Nick even threw the record out the window, he was so sick of me and Elvis just picking at each other.
"So while I was in New York doing the album, Nick and Elvis made the record. So I did 'Radio Sweetheart' because he did So Young' — and Elvis hates for girls to do his songs."
Two Sides stiffed, and Carlene Carter went back to the family to record Musical Shapes, with Nick Lowe producing and Rockpile backing.
"This one was a lot of fun. It was really easy. And it was the first time I had all the material together before I went into the studio. I didn't worry whether it was gonna come out pop or country or whatever. And Rockpile were really good. They took the songs and made them into balls and stuff." (Eh? Like snowballs? Masked balls? Basketballs?---ED.)
Among the highlights are the previously mentioned "Too Bad About Sandy," which sounds like a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra collaboration and features a stinging Billy Bremner guitar solo; "Madness," a piledrIving tale of mutual betrayal; and the salacious "Cry," which opens the album with a sexy, tongue-in-cheek come-on ("I'll lend you an ear / Or an arm and a leg / It's strictly platonic / Forever atomic.").
"'Cry' was the first song I wrote that wasn't about a situation or anybody I knew. I really wanted Dave Edmunds to sing it, and it was written from a man's point of view. So I pitched it to him the night after I wrote it — this was six months before we even decided Rockpile was gonna do my album. I went down to the studio and said, 'Dave, you gotta hear this! I wrote this song just for you!'
He was definitely unimpressed But later. when we did the album and he played on it, he went, 'God, this is fucking great! I never heard this before!'"
While Musical Shapes may sound like Rockple with a new lead singer and songwriter, that is not the case. In December, Carlene Carter set out on tour with a new band of her own.
"One day some guy asked me if I had joined Rockpile, and I said, 'No, I'm not in Rockpile. It's more like Rockpile is in Carlene Carter.' Then I realized I was coming out with this really rude statement, but I just meant they played with me on this album. They might never play with me again "
Which would be most unfortunate. Carlene Caner and Rockpile make a match which should not just be chalked up to experience.