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Carlene Carter

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Rebecca Carlene Smith was born on September 26, 1955 (later, when she signed on to Warner Brothers Records, she changed her name to Carlene Carter). She's related to many great country artists: her grandmother is Maybelle Carter, her father Carl Smith, her mother June Carter [Cash], her step-father Johnny Cash, her step-mother Goldie Smith, her step-sister Roseanne Cash, and her ex-in-law Rodney Crowell, just to name a few. Carlene started playing piano at age six, later studied classical music, and began playing guitar at ten. She also sang with her family as a child. She was a cheerleader in high school, but dropped out when fifteen because she got pregnant. Carlene married twice before she was twenty; both marriages quickly ended in divorce. In 1977 she released her self-titled debut album, recorded with the Rumour [Graham Parker's former band] in England. Various critics and journalists have given it descriptions ranging from a good rock album, a fusion of country and new age music, and an Englishman's view of country music. It consisted of appealing, piano-based pop tunes. Then she married British rocker Nick Lowe, who later worked with her on Musical Shapes and Blue Nun. Her next album, Two Sides to Every Woman, rocked harder but was not as good as her first. Though some of the music on Two Sides is weak, Carlene's introduction for her 1979 New York performance of the album's song "Swap Meat Rag" earned her a quote of the year award from Playboy (see the last two paragraphs of the article Carlene Carter: hot country singer with lots of cool for details). Then came her major breakthrough, Musical Shapes, in 1980. Critics raved over it; it's been described as "innovative", a "masterpiece", and "perhaps the greatest fusion of rock and country since the days of rockabilly" among other things. Also, the lyrics are exceptional and tend to be delightfully sassy. It didn't sell very well, though, because country DJ's and listeners thought it was too rock for them, and rock DJ's thought it was too country. However it was very much a country album, especially in comparison to her first two. Next came disappointing followups, Blue Nun ('81) and C'est C Bon ('83), the first of which is a fairly good pop album containing a number of good songs mixed with a number of not-so-good ones (in which she over-extends herself musically and/or uses lyrics of little meaning but interesting sound) and the latter of which is an ill-fated attempt at synthesizer pop. This, plus increasing dependence on alcohol and cocaine, an ectopic pregnancy that nearly killed her, and separation from Lowe (they would remain friends, but their marriage simply couldn't work out) temporarily ended her singing career and had her heavily involved in a party lifestyle in which she wasn't really going anywhere in life while many of her friends living the same way were dying from it. Then came a pivotal moment: she began to realize she could either continue living like this or stop it and have a chance to do what she really longed to do. Carlene chose to take back control of her life, and this would eventually lead to a successful comeback. "Guardian Angel" and "Change" deal directly with that critical period in her life, and a number of her other post-comeback songs were inspired by it. In 1985 she played a role in the UK production of Pump Boys and Dinettes, extending her vocal range with the help of British pop singer Kiki Dee. Later that year, the Carter Family came to England on tour, and she was asked to substitute for her Aunt Anita, who had become ill. In 1987 and 1988 Carlene toured regularly with the Carter Family. She found something in their traditional country that had been missing from her music until that time, especially in the last couple albums. In '88 she ran into Howie Epstein [a member of Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers], who has been her boyfriend ever since and was the producer for her next two albums. I Fell in Love (Reprise, '90) was the pivotal album in her career, and maybe her best. It gained a great deal of attention from critics and the media and yielded two top-5 country hits as well as two others. Definitely her most country album to date, it delightfully blends extremely traditional country with a fast-paced, uplifting beat. Her long-awaited follow-up, Little Love Letters (Giant, '93), was less restrained to traditional country, and included the hit "Every Little Thing." With beautiful melodies, a good mix of ballads and country-rockers covering various styles, and infectious energy and catchiness, it's an outstanding country-pop album. Little Acts of Treason (Giant, '95) is an extraordinary album, wildly creative and striking in many parts, composed of songs with powerfully emotive lyrics and sound, and lots of fun on several tunes. Though not as consistently energetic and catchy as its predecesser, the lyrics are more original and the songs are more sophisticatedly structured. Also, the sequencing and interaction of the various tracks is wonderful. Taken as a whole rather than considering tracks individually, Little Acts may well surpass its two delightful predecessors. During May through September 1996, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, and Carlene Carter went on a tour sponsored by Kraft; many considered it the first major all-female country tour. In September 1996 came the release of Hindsight 20/20, composed of eighteen of her best songs from six albums and two B-sides previously not available on any album.

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