Carlene Carter at the Mint
(Originally published on ABBAMAIL, Non ABBA Related and MySpace May 2008)

About, oh 25 years ago, I was working in a record store, which I loved, because I could listen to everything. That was a great time both for music and for me, there was so much happening. I've always had a curiosity about cover versions. How people interpret other hits, and other non hits. Many of my favorite songs are cover versions. ("Ticket to Ride" by the Carpenters, "Shop Around" by Captain & Tennille, "River" by Sarah McLachlan, etc).

So one day there was this record that came in the shipment. "Musical Shapes" by Carlene Carter. Hmm, never heard of her. Punky cowgirl on he cover with oversize notes. It looked kind of like an Elvis Costello LP. On the record was a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," and when I looked closer, the band on the album included Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, both of whom I loved, and their sometimes band, Rockpile. It turns out Carlene Carter is the daughter of Johnny Cash's wife, June Carter Cash. AND she was married to Nick Lowe!

It was all too trippy. I excitedly put it on in the store and was completely intrigued by this "new wave" version of a dusty old country hit (now considered an all-time classic). I loved it.

Carlene put out several more albums, mostly in the early 90's, and had a couple top ten hits, like "I Fell In Love" and "Every Little Thing." I was a huge fan. About 1994, backstage at a Rosanne Cash concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, Carlene (who is Rosanne's step sister) was hanging out on the patio and I talked to her a bit, I'm sure acting like a fool.

Then she kind of fell off the map. Apparently she was with Howie Epstein, who was one of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, and there were some well publicized drug instances. She was on hard times, and it seemed like she wasn't coming back.

So imagine my delight when flipping through the LA Weekly a couple weeks ago, that Carlene not only had a new album coming out, but was playing a show at the Mint, fairly close to where I live! So I went online and bought myself a ticket, even though I hadn't heard the new cd (and couldn't find it anywhere), so I had no idea what to expect.

The night of the show, there was a small but enthusiastic crowd, mostly male, mostly well over forty, in the tiny club. Bernie Taupin (lyricist for Elton John and a HUGE hero of mine) was sitting in a booth about three feet from me. I tried to think of something clever to say to him, that he hadn't heard a thousand times before, but nothing intelligent came to mind. So I kept my mouth shut. (But he looked amazing.)

Carlene came on stage, and started right in with "Every Little Thing," which set the pace for the show. She was very talkative between songs, and said they were going to play the whole new album plus "both of my hits!"

It was an amazing show. She's gained a bit of weight, and I would never have recognized her if I passed her on the street. But she looks healthy and happy, and her voice is better than ever.

She did play the entire new album, introducing each song with an interesting anecdote, and talked about being on tour with the Carter Family when she was a teenager. It was all highly entertaining and the crowd lapped it up.

One of the highlights of the show was the new song, 'Judgement Day'; her voice cracked as she explained it was about Howie, who died of drug related issues. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house (including hers) as she sang about "lying on the floor, in my black funeral dress."

She sang "It Takes One to Know Me" with her husband, who came up on stage just for the song, and she explained that she had written it for him. As he left the stage she sent him a huge wink.

Another highlight was a smoking hot rendition of the very same "Ring of Fire" that has introduced me to this talent all those decades ago. The live version was slowed down and far more intense, it's an amazing song to begin with, but her connections and experience make it all the more surreal.

All in all, it was an amazing show, every song from the new album plus several of the great older ones, and all the "hits." I bought the cd after the show, and her husband was so kind as to take me backstage to meet her, where she signed an LP of 'Musical Shapes' (the one with the original 'Ring of Fire' on it) and several cd covers that I had brought with me. We talked a bit about a couple of the songs, and her step sister Rosanne Cash (who I also love). She was so friendly and warm, it was like greeting an old friend.

I popped the cd in the player in the truck on the way home, and have played it probably a hundred times since then. I'll admit I did have to take it out because the new Madonna cd came out the other day, so of course I had to listen to that immediately. But Carlene's cd, "Stronger" is back in there now. Every time I get to "Judgement Day" I have to play it at least three times before I can move on, but nearly every song on the album is a stunner, a combination of her old alternative country punk song, with a rockabilly twist, amazing, honest lyrics and a warm, full voice.

You can see some pictures I took of the show on my website here:

If you're interested in Carlene Carter, here's her myspace page

Rod Reynolds, Los Angeles, USA


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