When Carlene Carter finally found a niche on the country music charts in 1990, it was billed as the prodigal daughter's return.
But as Carter sees it, it was less a case of her repenting the profligate ways of a rowdy rocker than of the country establishment's realizing that country and rock can form a circle that need not be broken.
Carter's heritage is as country as you can get: the Carter Family, from which she sprang, started recording in 1927, making it literally the first family of country music. Carlene's mother, June Carter Cash, is a lifelong country trouper. Her father, Carl Smith, was a honky-tonk singer who had dozens of hits in the 1950s and '60s. Johnny Cash is her stepfather.
But when Carter got her chance to make records in the late '70s, she heard London calling, not Nashville. She moved to England and fell in with some of Britain's best rock musicians, including guitarist Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker's band the Rumour, and her then-husband Nick Lowe.
By 1984, Carter had built a cult following and a reputation as a lively, brash performer.
But she was having deep doubts whether her blend of rock, pop and country influences could fit anywhere in the music industry's marketing spectrum. She considered giving up her recording career and retreating to a Tennessee farm where she would raise horses and concentrate on writing songs for other singers.
"I definitely wasn't country enough for the country market then," Carter said in her friendly twang during a recent lunch interview at a Beverly Hills burger house. "If you listened to country radio then, nothing I did fit in." By the late '80s, though, "I started listening to it and familiarizing myself with what was going on. I felt, 'It's not that different from what I do. Maybe there's a place for me now. I don't have to compromise myself to fit in.' "
Her career revival began in 1988, when she hooked up with bassist Howie Epstein of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. They began working on songs at Epstein's home studio in Beverly Hills. The result was Carter's 1990 comeback album, "I Fell in Love." The zestful title song celebrated the romance that blossomed from the couple's working partnership, and it proved to be the single that established Carter as a country music contender.
Carter and Epstein worked slowly and painstakingly on her current album, "Little Love Letters." They came up with as richly varied and formula-resistant an album as mainstream country music can accommodate, but the resulting three-year lapse between releases was far more than Carter's label, Giant Records, would have liked.
"The record company was saying, 'It's done,' and Howie and I were both saying, 'It's not done,' " Carter recalled. "We stuck to our guns, and it caused a lot of friction, business-wise. (In terms of) planning my career, it wasn't the best thing to do, but I would have had a much inferior record to this one. It's better to have something that people are going to remember."
The album, like "I Fell in Love," has been a moderate success. Its first single, "Every Little Thing," hit No. 3 on the Billboard country singles chart last year, but the follow-up, the ballad "Unbreakable Heart," failed to crack the Top 50. The new single, "I Love You 'Cause I Want To," finds the 38-year-old mother of two at her sassiest, augmented by an R&B-style horn section.
Carter is determined not to allow three years to lapse between albums again. With Epstein committed to producing an album for John Prine and touring with Petty, she will look toward Nashville for the first time, working with James Stroud, a hot producer whose credits include Clint Black, Tracy Lawrence, John Anderson and Merle Haggard.
"I'm kind of excited to see what kind of record I'll make with someone who's in the wheel in Nashville," Carter said.
Carter isn't bashful about voicing ambitions that run toward gold albums (something she hasn't yet achieved) and awards nominations. At the same time, she maintains the sense of perspective of a performer who six years ago had thought her career as a recording artist was finished.
Her primary motivation, she said, is "to be an entertainer, not somebody who topped the charts or won female vocalist of the year. I would just like to be able to pay my bills, get my kids through college."