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TOGETHER AGAIN : Carlene Carter and Country Music Find Each Other

February 17, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Carlene Carter plunks herself down for a lunch appointment and cheerfully announces that she has just left the scene of a "domestic crisis," the domicile in question being her own.

The crisis has to do with diet supplements, boxing trunks and credit cards.

The body-slimming supplements--for which this slender, fine-boned, Dove bar-loving country singer would make a very good advertisement--have been ordered in quantity. The credit-card limit has been reached. And, therefore, the Everlast trunks (the ones most prizefighters wear) cannot be ordered.

Seated at a Beverly Hills hamburger joint, Carter says this does not sit well with Howie Epstein, her record producer and sweetheart of five years. He wanted the world-class boxing trunks, but it's impossible to charge them, and now he'll have to wait.

While this inside tidbit may not put Carter's money-management skills in the best light, it does illustrate what a good country performer does in reaching out to the public. It's a funny little tale of everydayness that shows Carter as just-folks, willing to open up about the small intimacies of ordinary living. At the same time, she is enough of a show woman to invest it with a bit of drama by casting it as a domestic crisis.

Take those elements--openness, humor, the folksy touch, a sense of drama rising from the every day--and you have some prime ingredients for the creation and winning presentation of country songs.

It doesn't hurt that this story and many others spill from Carter in the most natural way, flowing in a friendly Tennessee twang that can be a little smokey and rough but also delightfully musical. It may be the Platonic ideal of a Southern accent, and you can't help being charmed, just as you can't help being taken by her singing, which is founded on a comparable duality.

Carter, 38, possesses one of the sassiest female voices in pop, one that fits well with her longstanding stage image as a robust fun lover with a wild streak as long as her skirts are short.

She is also a ballad singer of great tenderness. Listening to "Unbreakable Heart," from her current album, "Little Love Letters," one hears some of the sweetness, vocal purity and vulnerability of a Karen Carpenter.

Carter, who plays Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, benefits from a special confluence of nature and nurture.

She is a third-generation member of what was literally the first family of country music. The original Carter Family featured Carlene's grandmother, Maybelle Carter, her great-uncle, A. P. Carter, and his wife, Sara. Emerging from Poor Valley, Va., in 1927, the trio served as a bridge between the old Appalachian folk tradition and modern country music. Its repertoire included such standards as "Wabash Cannonball," "Wildwood Flower" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

Carlene's father, Carl Smith, was a honky-tonk singer who scored dozens of country hits in the 1950s and '60s. (She was raised Smith but took the Carter name when she started recording.) Her mother, June Carter, continued the Carter Family tradition with her two sisters. June Carter also co-wrote, with Merle Kilgore, one of country music's greatest songs, "Ring of Fire," and since 1968 has been Johnny Cash's wife.

While Carlene grew up singing with the family group, and toured for a time with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, by her early 20s she had struck out on her own, both in pursuit of a musical style and in taking her own hard-knocks route through life.

Her arrival as a strong presence on the country scene came belatedly, in 1990. She had spent most of her previous recording years based in London, working with some of Britain's best rock musicians, including guitarist Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker's band, the Rumour, and then-husband Nick Lowe.

From 1978 to 1983, Carter made five albums, which for the most part fully revealed her country roots yet were marketed as rock releases. Unable to get past cult-artist status and confused about her musical direction, she dropped out of the recording scene for several years.

Her career revival began in 1988, when she hooked up with Epstein, best known as the bassist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They began working on songs at Epstein's house in Beverly Hills. The result was her 1990 comeback album, "I Fell in Love."

The record was a critical success that yielded two country radio hits, "I Fell in Love" and "Come on Back," and established Carter as a mainstream country contender. She was nominated for a Grammy as best female country singer and for an Academy of Country Music award as best new female vocalist.

The story line at the time was that the prodigal daughter had returned to her family roots after years carousing with those British rock 'n' rollers (and Carter had established a reputation as a willing carouser). But Carter says it was less a case of her music changing than of the Nashville Establishment broadening its own definition of what country music could be.

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