Carlene Carter - Songwriter
(Click the highlighted names or titles for YouTube video clips of the songs.)
In her current shows, Carlene Carter recalls her early days as a teenager on the road with the Carter Family, and her mom June telling her: "Now you look pretty cute, and you sound OK when you sing, so I think the folks are gonna like you. But what you really gotta do is buckle down and learn how to write a song. If you could just write one simple little song, kinda like the one I did, you know, like 'Ring of Fire'..." Rather than buckling under such pressure, it wasn't long before the young descendant of the First Family of Country Music had written (with Susanna Clark) what would be her own enduring classic: "Easy From Now On," a hit single for Emmylou Harris in 1978, later recorded by many more of the great women of country including Suzy Bogguss, Terri Clark, Lynn Anderson, and reigning top female vocalist Miranda Lambert, who said: "That's a ridiculously great song."
The song led to a record deal for Carlene with Warner Bros., where she made several albums in England in the late 1970s and early '80s, writing most of her own material, some in collaborations with British rockers like her producer and husband Nick Lowe, and duet partners Paul Carrack and Dave Edmunds. The combination had journalists inventing new terms to describe the sound, such as "new-wave country" or even "cow-punk." John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote of her 1980 album Musical Shapes: "She has blended Carter Family country traditionalism with the energy and intelligence of British new-wave rock. The results are just delightful." At the same time Carlene was co-writing tracks for The Doobie Brothers (their 1980 hit "One Step Closer"), Squeeze, Leo Sayer, and The Go-Go's.
Returning to the U.S. to perform again with The Carter Family in the mid 1980s, Carlene also returned to Warner Bros. for what would be her greatest commercial success on the country charts, with hits she co-wrote (many with members of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) like the title track for her Grammy nominated I Fell In Love album in 1990. Jay Cocks wrote in Time magazine: "Her roots are in The Carter Family, but her songs are singular; she's country's tight connection to the past and future. 'I Fell In Love' was her breakthrough hit--Sylvia Plath at the honky-tonk." Patrick Carr summed it up in Country Music magazine: "She is one of our time's most effective and powerful songwriters."
Carlene followed up that success with her biggest world-wide hit single, "Every Little Thing" (co-written with Al Anderson of NRBQ), from the album Little Love Letters in 1993, which also included collaborations with Radney Foster, John Jorgenson, and legendary Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin. Her diversity as a songwriter was also evident during this time with Grammy nominated blues and soul singer Mighty Sam McClain's powerful cover of her 1980 song "Too Proud" in 1993; and future Time Jumpers singer Dawn Sears' uptempo country "Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)," written by Carlene with Robert Ellis Orrall and Howie Epstein in 1994. Her 1995 album Little Acts of Treason contained more co-writes with Al Anderson, but as People magazine said: "The real stunner here is 'Change,' a ballad she wrote that is an introspective look at Carter's life, demonstrating her maturity as a songwriter and as a singer of deeply felt emotions."
Two best-of Carlene Carter CDs (Hindsight 20/20 and The Platinum Collection) followed during a long hiatus from recording, while two of her earliest compositions resurfaced on box-sets of her recently departed parents: "Another Broken Hearted Girl," written with her mother in 1975, appeared on June Carter Cash, Keep On the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music; and "It Takes One To Know Me," written as a birthday present for her stepfather when she was still a teen, closed Johnny Cash: The Legend, both in 2005. Of his influence on her and stepsister Rosanne Cash as songwriters, Carlene remembers: "He would sit for hours with us on a tour bus, teaching us chords. He taught me to be authentic and follow my own thing. He told me not to be afraid to be unique, which was a good thing because Nashville never knew what to do with me! If someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, or didn't think was right, I wouldn't do it. Sometimes, it's good to stick to your guns."
Returning to the studio in 2008, Carlene wrote all of the songs herself (except one co-write) for Stronger, her most personal album to date. Elvis Costello referred to it as "astounding" while Bernie Taupin called it "a staggering achievement." Legendary country music journalist Chet Flippo wrote: "This is why you should care about Carlene Carter: She puts her whole life into her music in a way few artists dare or accomplish. Not just snippets of a diary. I mean her life experience, her guts and her whole psyche. It goes in there. It's not always a pretty recipe. But the results are often gems of music."
Her most recent release, Carter Girl, is a tribute to her family, with songs spanning three generations, back to the original trio in the 1920s and '30s, through her mom and aunts Helen and Anita in the '40s and '50s, and two of Carlene's own songs honoring them: a new co-write with family patriarch A.P. Carter on "Lonesome Valley 2003," Carlene's emotional update of the Carter Family standard; and a reprise of her 1990 look back at her own childhood in "Me and the Wildwood Rose." NPR's Ken Tucker said: "What Carlene Carter does on Carter Girl is significant. She doesn't approach these old songs as sacred relics to be enshrined with pious respect. Rather, she treats them like living, vital pieces of art that can withstand being taken apart, thought about and re-imagined. In the process, she comes up with her own excellent piece of work."
From 2015 through 2017, Carlene toured as solo opening act and duet partner with rock legend John Mellencamp, and was prominently featured both as a writer and singer on his album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. When journalist Elysa Gardner asked if he had discussed narrative songwriting with Carlene, Mr. Mellencamp replied: "I really couldn't say anything to Carlene about songwriting because she's a better songwriter than I am, so what am I gonna tell her that she doesn't already know?"
In 2018, Carlene celebrated her recent move back home to Nashville with a series of shows at songwriter mecca The Bluebird Cafe. One of her guests was long-time friend Pam Tillis, who wrote: "It's so good to have Carlene Carter back in town!! One of the more charming people I've worked with and a helluva songwriter, this is gonna be fun!" Titled "Carlene Carter's Wonderful World of Women Who Write," the residency also included both up-and-comers and songwriting legends like Gretchen Peters, who wrote: "Well, THAT was epic. One of my favorite Bluebird Cafe nights of all time. Thank you, dear Carlene Carter for bringing me and Matraca Berg into the fold tonight." Carlene said at the time: "I really wanted to say, 'Hey, I'm back home and ready to embrace the sisterhood of songwriting.' I had really missed the collaborative aspect that Nashville offers -- it's a secret sisterhood with us girls rooting for each other."