40th Anniversary of Carlene's Debut Album!
40 years ago today (on March 14, 1978) the self-titled debut album by Carlene Carter was released on Warner Bros. Records. At the time, her previous recording credits included singing the song "Friendly Gates" on her stepfather Johnny Cash's 1974 album The Junkie and the Juicehead (Minus Me), and co-writing "Another Broken Hearted Girl" with her mother June Carter Cash on June's 1975 Appalachian Pride album. But her biggest break came when Emmylou Harris recorded "Easy From Now On," a song Carlene wrote with Susanna Clark. A line from the song provided the title for Emmylou's album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, released in January 1978, and the single reached #12 on the Billboard country chart. Emmylou's manager signed Carlene and got her on Emmylou's label too.
When music writer Leslie Michele Derrough asked Carlene in 2015: "Do you still recognize the girl who wrote that first album in 1978?" Carlene replied: "Oh my God, I guess I'm still partly her. I was just so wide-eyed and even though I had seen a lot of life and been exposed to a lot of life, I was on my own basically and thrown into this whole whirlwind of being the 'It Girl' of Warner Brothers that they just believed in so much. The funny thing is, they were going to sign me but they had never heard me sing. The head of Warners said, 'Maybe I ought to hear you sing.'"
"My manager had heard me, Eddie Tickner, who managed Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. I was friends with Emmy and Rodney and they were on Warners and they had said I was cool and good. Management went to Warner and said, We got this blue-blood country girl from the Carter Family who writes her own songs and is beautiful and blah, blah, blah. So they take me to this big party and he says, 'Now, we're going to walk in and nobody's going to know who you are.' It was this whole calculated thing to see if people reacted to me just walking in. And I was thinking, this is so weird [laughs]."
"So I go into this party and when we were leaving the party, Ed Tickner and Martyn Smith, my managers, turned to me and said, 'Okay, you're a hit. They're going to sign you.' I'm like, 'What? How does that even work?' But yeah, that girl, I thought I knew a lot and I knew nothing. But I had fun."
In the first major magazine article on the album's release, Jim Jerome wrote in People: "Carlene, 22, is indeed third-generation Nashville nobility--granddaughter of country matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter, eldest daughter of June Carter, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. Her father, June’s first husband, Carl Smith, is also a C & W mainstay. So are Carlene’s aunts and uncles. It all figures--except for one detail. As Johnny puts it, 'Carlene’s been playin’ rock’n’roll at home since she was 12.' The tradition-breaking result is her debut LP, Carlene Carter, a finely crafted synthesis of pop and rock without a lick of dobro, banjo or pedal steel picking. Aside from some familiar Carter dynasty phrasing, the family’s rock renegade is steering toward the Top 40 fast lane with a jaunty pop-rock single, Never Together but Close Sometimes. The LP was recorded not in Nashville but, Lord forbid, in London, with side-men from rocker Graham Parker’s band."
Carlene continued to Leslie Michele Derrough: "Telling me I was going to London to record, my first reaction was, Dave Edmunds, I love that song 'I Hear You Knocking.' And then the whole Nick (Lowe) thing and everything just happened. I made a life for myself in London. The best thing about it for me was that I basically ran away to the old world to find something new. Because if I had stayed in Nashville, I would have been cookie-cuttered into something that I really didn't want to be. I didn't really realize that or think about that so much. I was too country for rock and too rock for country. So going to England freed me up to just make a record and to do whatever I wanted to."
"And the thing about the radio over there was that they actually played my first single on the radio all the time. Then right after me would be The Clash. I toured with The Clash and Bow Wow Wow, all these different acts. It was the perfect opportunity for me to have my own freedom to experiment and I will say that Warners were awesome in having the patience to try and build an artist out of me. That was the best part about that stroke of genius they had to take me over there."
"I may have possibly turned out to be more successful had I stayed in Nashville and been on the Nashville train, so-to-speak, but I would have always been regarded as somebody's daughter a little bit more. I wasn't worried about that stuff, but that was the number one question I got asked, and still get asked: Is it intimidating to be the daughter of? I've always looked at it like, Hey, I've been born into the coolest damn family in the world."
Cool family members and friends came out to show their support as Carlene played rock clubs on both coasts and was photographed with her mom and Emmylou at The Bottom Line in New York, and at album release parties where a tuxedoed Johnny Cash planted a kiss on Carlene's cheek, and Dolly Parton whispered in her ear: "Just keep on smiling, honey, no matter what."
Reviews for the album inevitably mentioned Carlene's family tree, but invariably made it clear that she was branching off in her own direction:
"Instead of following the family route, Carlene has enlisted some of the best young English rockers (Brinsley Schwarz, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe) to play and sing harmony behind her, buttressing her music with high-octane spirit. The result is an album so congenial and accomplished, it hardly sounds like a debut."
Jay Cocks, Time (July 17, 1978)
"Both production and playing on 'Carlene Carter' are near perfection. Carlene is a remarkable singer with a strong, vibrant alto. She's definitely a Carter in tradition and emotional range, but she can also rock with the best. Her originals are exceptional; 'Slow Dance' sparkles with both verbal and melodic hooks, and 'Who Needs Words,' a ballad accompanied only by piano and bass, is sung with depth and immediacy."
Jeff Walker, Crawdaddy (July 1978)
"Carlene Carter is heir to as venerable a tradition as exists in the world of American popular music, and she has begun to live up to her legacy by taking herself to England and recording a first-class rock & roll album with The Rumour, Graham Parker's backing band... she steps out with a personal authority so sure it belies her twenty-two years just as Elvis Costello's belies his twenty-three."
Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone (July 27, 1978)
"Her voice has that high, lonesome beauty, a rough but appealing timbre, and her words are cured with the same sweet drawl. But Carlene Carter doesn't sing country music, either newfangled or old-fashioned. Her debut album is, in fact, a rock & roll record... When she attacks the opening song, 'Love Is Gone,' she reminds you how long it's been since a lady dared to come out with guns blazing."
Sam Sutherland, High Fidelity (August 1978)
"The latest member of the Carter family of country music fame to record, Carlene's debut marks her as one of the best of the women country rock performers."
John Swenson, The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979)
As those of you who have read this far probably already know, a lot has happened in the last 40 years since then, both in the life and the career of Carlene Carter. She made three more albums for Warner Bros., including the critic and fan favorite Musical Shapes in 1980, then one for Epic, then one with The Carter Family, then the one that finally made her a country star with radio hits in her own country, I Fell in Love, in 1990.
"Easy From Now On" has become an enduring classic, with Emmylou's original recording followed through the years by Suzy Bogguss, Carlene herself, Terri Clark, Lynn Anderson, and reigning country queen Miranda Lambert.
Carlene performed for a year in the London production of the hit Broadway musical Pump Boys and Dinettes; hosted her own television shows on VH1 and TNN; made history on the first all-female major country tour with Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis; played her mom in Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story in Nashville; released the acclaimed Carter Girl album paying tribute to her family; toured the United States in the Stephen King-John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, followed by two major tours and an album (Sad Clowns and Hillbillies) with Mr. Mellencamp. Some of those last dates also included Emmylou Harris, who told her long-time friend: "Look at us, Carlene, a couple of old gals and we're still out here doing it!"
Carlene will be doing it again this summer, as she returns to Europe for the Sorvags Country and Blues Festival in the Faroe Islands on June 16; Islington Assembly Hall in London on June 19; Pavilion Theatre in Dublin on June 20; and once again headlining the Trucker and Country Festival in Interlaken, on what would have been her mom's 89th birthday, June 23.
Looking back on those early years again, Carlene recalled: "They called me Cowpunk. They called me the rebel because I left Nashville, because I was very open about anything I was doing and I was pretty wild. But there was people that did lots of worse things than I did. I was just having a big time. It was just a different world back then. You know, I listen to country radio every now and then and it sounds a whole lot like my records from the early '90s. I like to say I take responsibility for Taylor Swift's wardrobe [laughs]. I paved the way for her to wear her little dresses."
Congratulations, Carlene, on the 40th anniversary of the Carlene Carter album, and for 40 years of doing it your way. As you sing in the last line of the album, "there's no one like you." But you have paved the way for anyone to come from wherever they are, and go anywhere, and do what is in their hearts, as you have always done.
Carlene Carter album credits:
1. Love Is Gone (Alex Call)
2. Smoke Dreams (Carlene Carter / Rosey Nix)
3. Between You And Me (Graham Parker)
4. I Once Knew Love (Carlene Carter)
5. I've Been There Before (Tracy Nelson)
6. Never Together But Close Sometimes (Rodney Crowell)
7. Mr. Moon (Alex Call)
8. Alabama Morning (Michael Bacon / Thomas Cain)
9. Slow Dance (Carlene Carter)
10. Who Needs Words (Carlene Carter)
Carlene Carter - vocals, piano, backing vocals.
Andrew Bodnar - bass.
Steve Goulding - drums.
Brinsley Schwarz - electric, acoustic, and slide guitars, percussion, backing vocals.
Bob Andrews - piano, backing vocals, Oberheim synthesizer, percussion, organ, electric piano, bass.
Nick Lowe - bass, backing vocals.
Graham Parker - acoustic guitar, backing vocal.
Terry Williams - drums.
Ray Bearis - tenor sax.
Chris Gower - bass trombone.
Dick Hanson - flugelhorn.
John "Irish" Earle - baritone sax.
Produced by Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz.
Co-produced by Martyn Smith.
Special thanks to Dave Robinson for all his help and encouragement, Ian Mannering-Smith and everyone at W.B. London, Dave Edmunds for being cute, Rosey-Rosanne-Rodney, Michael Bacon, all my friends in Nashville, everyone at Eden Studios; extra special thanks to my buddies The Rumour, Hugo (aka Roger Bechirian) and "The Godfather," Eddie Tickner.
This album is dedicated to my grandmother, Maybelle Carter.