Born in 1955 in Nashville, TN; daughter of June Carter (a country singer) and Carl Smith (a country singer); stepdaughter of Johnny Cash (a country singer); married third husband, Nick Lowe (a musician), 1980 (divorced); children: Tiffany, Jackson. Addresses: Manager-- William N. Carter, William N. Carter Career Management, 1114, 17th Ave. S., Ste. 204, Nashville, TN 37212. Record company-- Reprise, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Few entertainers have come to Nashville with a richer musical heritage than Carlene Carter. A third generation singer-songwriter, Carter counts among her kin some of the best-loved country musicians, including the renowned Mother Maybelle Carter and June Carter Cash. With her infectious enthusiasm and wide-ranging mix of backwoods strains and contemporary rockabilly, Carlene Carter has brought her hillbilly roots into a new age. Her 1990 album, I Fell in Love, reached the country Top 20 and yielded a Number One hit, and her energetic live performances led a Newsweek correspondent to describe her as "every spunky inch the heir apparent to country music's most venerable dynasty."
Decades before Carlene was born, her grandmother Maybelle and her great aunt and uncle, Sara and A. P. Carter, formed a group called the Carter Family. By the mid-1930s the Carter Family was one of the nation's most famous acoustic country acts, releasing best-selling Victor recordings and becoming a staple on the radio. The original Carter Family achieved fame on the strength of traditional Appalachian mountain music with its reedy harmonies and fluent guitar-picking. When the group disbanded in 1943, Maybelle recruited her children and continued to perform as the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. This Carter family incarnation was equally successful, appearing often on the Grand Ole Opry and touring together at a hectic pace.
Carlene's mother, June, eventually became famous in her own right as a singer and songwriter. During the 1950s June Carter married another Nashville performer, Carl Smith. They were the parents of Carlene, who was born in the mid-1950s and was more or less raised on the road. Growing up in an extended family of musicians, Carter almost subconsciously absorbed the style her grandmother and mother had popularized. She pointed out in Newsweek, however, that she was profoundly influenced by rock and roll music as well. While she admired her family's accomplishments, she said, "they were just my family. And then here came [the pop music group] the Monkees, and uh-oh."
In the mid-1960s June Carter married country star Johnny Cash. Carlene retains fond memories of her famous stepfather, recalling that he was especially generous with his money, doling out huge allowances to his children and stepchildren alike. The young performer offers few anecdotes on her teen years, however, which were particularly difficult. She ran away from home at age 15, and was married and divorced twice; each marriage yielded a child. Asked about that period of her life by a People reporter, Carlene merely responded, "Lots of girls marry at 16 in Tennessee. Everyone makes mistakes."
Carlene Carter was 22 when she stepped into the family line of work and signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. All of Nashville had high hopes for the young descendent of country royalty, but somehow Carlene Carter albums failed time after time to yield any hits. People contributor Jim Jerome wrote that Carter's quest for a niche "drove her into country pop, [rhythm and blues] and ballads. Seemingly ready to sizzle, Carter remained a hitless wonder. She eventually left Warner Brothers Records after four LPs, but she kept her string of flops alive at five with one more at Epic."
Carter's best-known early work was the album Musical Shapes, produced by her third husband, British rocker Nick Lowe. The work was well received by critics, but it never found space on the airwaves. "Country radio wouldn't play it," Carter commented in Newsweek. "They said it was too rock." Rock stations would not play it either, citing its country influence. The failure of Musical Shapes, which sold only several thousand copies, was a blow to the fledgling artist. She moved to England, where she was more successful writing for other performers than recording.
An Epic album released in the mid-1980s "didn't do nothin'," Carter admitted in People. "It was totally not me. Synthesizer pop, everything I hated. So I got discouraged and quit. I decided to take a rest, a long, very long rest." By that time Carter was in her late twenties and was well-battered by her fast-lane lifestyle--which included drug and alcohol abuse--and her lackluster record sales. She may have remained forever in obscurity but for a chance occurrence in 1986. That year her mother and aunts came to London on tour, and Carlene stepped in as a substitute when one of her aunts became ill. It was nothing less than a revelation for Carter, who had always taken her roots for granted. "I guess I had a sense of my own mortality," she noted in People. "It was time to learn about my heritage."
Carlene Carter toured with her mother and aunts for two years, absorbing the old Carter Family songs. June Carter explained in People that her daughter "began to feel whatever it is that you're born with that makes you a singing Carter and makes you love and sing that Appalachian mountain harmony. She'd found her way back to traditional country." Carlene's move toward her musical roots coincided with a general swing back to a more traditional sound common among her younger Nashville peers. She began to realize that she might have a more receptive audience for both her sassy and her sentimental tunes.
Carter returned to Nashville and settled into her grandmother's house to write new material. In 1990 she released I Fell in Love, an album that ranges from progressive country-rock to traditional Appalachian folk. The album was an immediate hit with critics, including Stereo Review correspondent Alanna Nash, who declared that the work "alternately delights, surprises, reaffirms [Carter's] independent musical stance, and reworks her family's musical legacy with songs of integrity, heart, and style." The title cut became Carter's first Number One country hit, but it was more notable for its giddy music video, described in Newsweek as "what would happen if [comedic actor] Pee-wee Herman took over Sun Records."
At age 35, with two grown children, Carter had finally achieved country stardom. "I always thought that it would work out," she told a People correspondent. "But I didn't think it would work out so late in life. I'm just a little behind schedule." The attractive blonde entertainer is not rushing to catch up, however--she has sworn off alcohol and drugs and is taking her success in stride. "My excess now is feeling good and being chemically free," she said, according to People. "Playin' totally straight is a million times more fun than getting smashed on champagne."
In late 1991 Carter told a Country Music correspondent that she was at work on a follow-up to I Fell in Love. Pointing out that the album is similar to her successful 1990 release, the acclaimed singer-songwriter described it as "having a little more melancholy to it. I think this is a bit more of a grownup record. There was a certain high-spirited kind of frenzy to I Fell in Love, but now I'm more interested in opening up the direct channel from my heart to the tape recorder."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Carlene Carter's Career
Country singer and songwriter, 1978--. Signed with Warner Bros., c. 1978; moved to Reprise Records; had first Number One country hit, "I Fell in Love," 1990; has toured extensively as a solo act and as a member of the Carter Sisters; has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry; host of Carlene Carter's Nashville, VH1. Appeared in Pump Boys and Dinettes, Picadilly Theater, West End, London, England.
- Selective Works
- Musical Shapes Warner Bros., 1979.
- I Fell in Love (includes "I Fell in Love," "Come on Back," "The Sweetest Thing," "My Dixie Darlin'," "Goodnight, Dallas," "One Love," "The Leavin' Side," "Guardian Angel," "Me and the Wildwood Rose," "You Are the One," and "Easy From Now On"), Reprise, 1990.
- Also recorded albums C'est Si Bon and Blue Nun and the single "Time's Up," a duet with Southern Pacific.
- Country Music, November/December 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 31, 1990.
- Houston Post, September 16-23, 1990.
- Newsweek, August 27, 1990.
- People, November 12, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, November 1, 1990.
- Stereo Review, November, 1990.
- Time, December 3, 1990.
- USA Today, November 12, 1990.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Reprise Records press material, 1990.