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More than a country song, it's her life

Carlene Carter has seen pain, drug abuse, loss. Now she's 'Stronger,' in many ways.

March 09, 2008|Holly Gleason | Special to The Times

NASHVILLE — With her once ash blond hair now auburn, progressive country's crown princess Carlene Carter is the spitting image of her mother June Carter Cash. Heads turn when Maybelle Carter's granddaughter walks into the Sunset Grill, a Music City watering hole frequented by the celebrities, who scarcely earn more than a passing flicker from fellow diners. In part because of her beauty, in part because of her notoriety for living outside the lines, in part because of a pedigree that also includes father Carl Smith, stepfather Johnny Cash and a mother who co-wrote "Ring of Fire," people take notice.

Carlene, a wild child of the '70s L.A. country-rock and U.K. punk scenes, has emerged from a life that scanned far wilder than any country song. But in her own prolonged addiction and the 2003 deaths of paramour Howie Epstein, her mother, stepfather and sister Rosie, she found the strength to return to writing and created "Stronger," a song cycle coming out Tuesday that documents the pain, loss and courage it took to regain control of her life.

"In some ways, [writing] was the hardest part 'cause I lived it," says Carter. Her eyes flash with that spark that marked her irrepressibility three decades ago, when she was a country siren living on the fringe of British punk with then-husband Nick Lowe.

"But, you know, everybody's lost somebody, got their heart broken, wanted to take the snot out of someone, been madly in love. . . . It's part of real life if you're living it."

She lived it all right, and at times those around her wondered whether she'd survive the downward spiral of shady characters, drug abuse and personal tragedy.

"Once I started writing, it all flooded out of me," she says. "I've always been one of those people -- once I start something, I have to get it all out, because it gets me."

In spite of her musical laughter, Carter's been through things that would topple most. Rather than crumbling, she's emerged with a project as shiny and ebullient as her punk-era "Musical Shapes" or her 1990 mainstream country hit "I Fell in Love."

Opening "Stronger" with a revved-up train beat, "The Bitter End" serves as the prologue for a song cycle that moves through the harrowing path she'd been on with Epstein, the former bassist with Tom Petty's Heartbreakers whose own addiction troubles ended with his 2003 overdose.

"I was not having fun when the drama started," she confesses with a startling frankness. "I'd gone on the road with Howie, who was pretty messed up. He was doing heroin and coke -- and I'm trying to stay clean, which was hilarious. He got to where he couldn't keep it together and I was a caretaker for him. . . . He needed me.

"I'd been clean for a long time when I relapsed, and then it was something I'd never done: heroin. The Heartbreakers sent us both to treatment . . . and I knew enough to know: 'We can't go back to the house and kick it.' There were just so many shady characters around the house. It was scary."

Living in L.A., New Mexico and Nashville, their lives were scattered. She took the fall for a 2001 drug bust -- Epstein wasn't charged -- and was sentenced to 18 months probation after pleading no contest to heroin possession. ("I had no idea the repercussions," she says, "and we knew the Heartbreakers would fire him.") That created the impetus to get her life together.

"At one point [following their arrests], my mom hired a limo to drive me from Nashville to New Mexico, because there were warrants popping up and she was so afraid for me to get on a plane," she said. "My mom encouraged me to leave everything: him, my house, my things and just start over. But I'd worked so hard for everything, and when I left, I was so scared I'd never see him again."

A woman raised on country songs, Carter was reluctant to not stand by her man. But her parole officer warned her not to go to their New Mexico home: The DEA was watching, and should there be a raid, it would mean a harsh sentence.

"I saw him in September [of 2002]. . . . We met in a little restaurant and he promised me he'd come to Nashville. I told him about this [rehab] place I'd gone to that had horses and stuff. . . . "

Carter pauses, choked up by the memory. She turns away. There are tears, making it clear how painful this is. Voice trailing off, she offers the only explanation she can find, "When you're on drugs, you make a lot of promises you never get to keep. . . ."

In December, Epstein told her, "I'm gonna do drugs until I die. . . ." And it wasn't the new girl in his life that bothered her as much as the fact that she also "shot up." Two months later, Epstein fulfilled his prediction -- and Carter's spiral of loss began.

After the four deaths in nine months and her own backslide into drugs -- "I felt all alone 'cause it's like my family and the people I was close to were all gone" -- her new album grew out of a song about love and hope. But "Bring Love" is the song that opened the floodgates.

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