(This article is from the archives of Baby Ride Easy, the Carlene Carter fan site run by Doug Stalnaker 2003-2008.)
"Let 'em stare, I don't care... / They're only jealous 'cause I'm so cool," sings Carlene Carter on Musical Shapes, her third album and one of this year's standouts. Attired in black leather pants and jacket and a James Dean T-shirt, Carter more than lives up to the boast of those lyrics as she bounds into the Manhattan offices of Warner Bros., her record company. If a grueling interview schedule has left her a mite drained, as she claims, it's not apparent as she flops into a cushiony chair, pops open a Heineken and flashes a beguiling smile.
The twenty-five-year-old singer has good reason to be pleased with herself. "I'm So Cool" is just one of a dozen hot country and rockabilly romps on Musical Shapes. After two relatively straight-ahead rock LPs, Carlene--born into country music's most celebrated clan, the Carter Family--has made a bona-fide country record. Ironically, she made most of the LP in England with producer Nick Lowe (her husband of nearly two years) and his three cohorts in Rockpile, who cooked up a credible Sun Records sound behind her. Indeed, Musical Shapes kicks in with more foot-stompin' licks and sly wit than anything that's come out of Carlene's native Nashville in some time.
"We let Dave (Edmunds) and Billy (Bremmer) rock out on acoustic guitars; I think that's what did it," says Carter, wriggling out of her shoes and propping her bare feet on a chair. "We'd just use two acoustics, bass and drums, and we hardly used electric guitar except for solos." "Baby Ride Easy," just released as a single, is typical: a vocal duet between Carter and Edmunds, it merrily trashes every C&W cliche as it tells the story of a trucker courting the sweet thing who's pouring his coffee ("If your lovin' is good/And your cookin' ain't greasy/You chuck the chuck wagon and we'll ride away"). "I hope to make Dave Edmunds the new star of country," says Carlene, laughing. "Rockpile are totally obsessed with country music. I've gotten my ear hole bent from them asking me questions about everybody in Nashville."
Probably no one is better equipped than Carlene to field such questions. She grew up among country-music aristocracy: she's the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, both C&W mainstays since the Fifties. Her mother remarried when Carlene was twelve; her new stepfather was Johnny Cash. Her grandmother was the late Mother Maybelle Carter, a member of the original Carter Family, who came down from the mountains of Virginia during the late Twenties with a repertoire of folk and hill-country ballads that have become indelible American standards.
While the Carter household was filled with country music, Carlene picked up on another sound right from the start: "My mama says that when I was a baby, she used to have to play this really loud Elvis Presley record for me to go to sleep." At age four, she got a jump on her peers by making impromptu walk-ons during June Carter's shows. "The first time, I just walked out, looked up at the microphone and said, 'I wanna talk in that!" After that, her mother let her sing the Coasters' "Charlie Brown" onstage.
A precocious kid, Carlene began playing the piano at age six (she later studied classical music) and picked up the guitar around age ten. She had some formidable tutors to help her along. "My mom taught me the first few chords, and grandma taught me 'Wildwood Flower,'" she remembers. "John [Cash] bought me an electric guitar from Sears for my birthday. It was great; it was really loud. Carl Perkins taught me how to play B-minor. That was a whole new world; you had to bar that chord."
Considering all the C&W greats she met while growing up, Carlene remained somewhat oblivious to country music and her family's place in its vanguard until her late teens. Surprisingly, she says that the first country record she ever bought was a Flying Burrito Brother LP. "And I didn't even know they were country. I just knew they were really cute guys on the cover, and those Nudie suits...I think the reason I didn't pay any attention to country music when I was young was that it was always right there at my fingertips, so I was much more interested in what wasn't there: rock & roll, Elvis Presley.
"I didn't realize how much my grandmother had to do with country music in every sense until I was seventeen or eighteen. On one tour, they decided I should be in the Carter Family. We opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Morgantown, West Virginia, and Mother Maybelle got a standing ovation when she walked onstage. Millions of kids in this huge place, and all of them knew who my grandma was. I just went, 'Goddamn.' I learned a whole lot from her about getting along."
When it came time to make her first record, Carlene bypassed the Nashville studios and went to Britain, where she recruited the Rumour (Graham Parker's band) to back her up. Carlene Carter, released in 1978, was one of the years's most likable debuts--and appealing collection of upbeat, piano-based pop tunes.
Its followup, 1979's Two Sides to Every Woman, had Carlene rocking out on harder material. But with the exception of the near-hit "Do It in a Heartbeat," it was somewhat disappointing. Recorded with studio musicians, the album lacked the warmth and personality of its predecessor. It wasn't, in fact, the record that Carlene had intended to make: "Nick was going to do the second album, but he flaked out. Fucked off back to England and left me. That's how I got stuck in New York with those studio guys. And it was really horrible, 'cause the tunes weren't together and I was just writing the whole thing in the studio."
With Musical Shapes, Carlene finally comes into her own. It represents her rapprochement with the music she grew up with, filtered through her own sassy, barroom sensibility. In her cover of "To Drunk (To Remember)," for example, the standard country tear-jerker becomes an irreverent, kiss-and-tell tale of waking up next to a stranger with no recollection of particulars, like his name: "I had a hell of a time/But it just slipped my mind/At least I got home in one piece." Along with eight self-penned songs, she has included June Carter's "Ring of Fire" (a Number One C&W hit in 1963 for Johnny Cash) and "Foggy Mountain Top" (a Carter Family classic).
Over in England, Carter and Lowe live in London's West End with her daughter from a previous marriage. When not working, they hang out with their musician friends, many of whom live nearby ("our little Chiswick community of people in music"). Though both have longstanding reputations as ravers, Carlene insists that they've become homebodies, each observing a fairly disciplined regimen of songwriting and studio work. Carlene has also been busy assembling a band for her late-fall U.S. tour.
This time out, she may be minding her mouth more closely. It got her into hot water at a New York club date last year, when she introduced "Swap-Meat Rag"--a song from her second LP that bluntly addresses the subject of mate-swapping--with the words, "If this song doesn't put the cunt back in country, nothing will." Unknown to her, June Carter and Johnny Cash were in the audience.
"I've never known such embarrassment," she says. "My sister Cindy told me later that John said, 'Carlene looked right at me and said that.' I don't know, I was singing this song about husband-swapping--it was all just a rude portrait of my set--and it just came out. I got Quote of the Year in Playboy."
Parke Puterbaugh - Rolling Stone (Dec 11, 1980)