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Like Fine ‘Wine’

Michael McCall is a freelance writer based in Nashville

Deana Carter traveled to Texas last July to relax. After five years of trying to get her career off the ground, after all the botched starts and endless delays, the 30-year-old country singer thought that--finally--everything was set for her recording debut.

Carter originally signed with Liberty Records in Nashville in 1991. In the ensuing years, she recorded entire albums that have never been released. She completed three introductory videos, at least two that will never be seen. She also had been repeatedly shifted within the EMI Music divisions; at different times, she was with Liberty and the short-lived Patriot Records before settling into the Capitol Nashville roster.

As she enjoyed the long-needed Texas vacation, she was 10 days away from the release of her first single. Everything seemed locked into place. Then she received a call from Capitol Nashville President Scott Hendricks.

“Scott called me and said, ‘How would you feel about changing the single?’ ” Carter recalls, letting out a laugh that still carries some of the vexed surprise she felt when she heard his question.

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The label initially planned to release “I’ve Loved Enough to Know,” the first song on Carter’s album, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”

“We had done a video, and all this packaging,” Carter says. “At first, I just freaked out about it. He said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I was sitting in the car going, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ ”

Hendricks explained that an advance release of Carter’s album sent to country radio stations had been getting a strong response, and that many of the station programmers displayed particular interest in the song “Strawberry Wine.” That tune also had received the strongest response when Carter traveled the country to perform at showcases set up specifically for radio station personnel.

“We were set to come out with ‘I’ve Loved Enough to Know,’ but they were saying, ‘Why are you trying to introduce yourself slowly to radio? Why not come out with that killer song?’ ” Carter says. “So we just decided to change it.”

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As it turns out, it was a career-making decision for the blond-haired, personable performer.

“Strawberry Wine” and LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” ranked as the premier country music hits of 1996. A wistful waltz about a woman remembering a summer stay at her grandparents’ farm that resulted in her first seduction and subsequent heartbreak, the song transformed Carter’s long-delayed debut into one of the few commercial bright spots during a period when country album sales dropped dramatically.

The single sold an impressive 35,000 copies in its first two weeks, and Carter’s album has sold nearly 2 million copies in less than four months. “Strawberry Wine” also has been nominated for a Grammy in the best female country vocal category.

For Carter, the song’s success validated a long-running struggle to come out with music she thought was substantial and, in a word she often repeats, “credible.”

From the start, she wanted to record “Strawberry Wine,” but knew others might consider it a gamble. Because of the song’s tone and subject matter, some within the cautious country music establishment thought Carter might be presenting too big a challenge to country radio, a format that is careful not to offend the conservative portion of its audience.

Sitting in an upscale restaurant in downtown Nashville, picking at a salad that serves as a late lunch, Carter remembers the first time she heard “Strawberry Wine,” which was written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison. She already had decided to record another Berg song, “We Danced Anyway,” when she came across the new tune during a listening session in preparation for recording “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”

She loved it right off, but feared the song might prove too strong lyrically to gain the necessary support from her record company.

“My words were, ‘They’re never going to go for it,’ ” she says. “But they did. Scott [Hendricks] loved it. He said, ‘It’s a great song, but what do we do with it?’ ” Carter then beams a mischievous smile. “We obviously figured it out.”

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The song goes against several current country music conventions. Carter can easily count down the reasons why “Strawberry Wine” wasn’t the initial choice to be the album’s first single.

“The fears were: It’s a waltz, the subject matter of the song, and, as a first single, it being a slow song,” she says. “A waltz, the meter of it, is never really popular [at radio]. Only Vince Gill has been really popular at waltzes. There haven’t been many females. For a new artist and the first single, it was swan-diving.”

Much of country music in the youth-oriented ‘90s leaps from innocent love to relationship difficulties to the heartbreak of separation. Love usually is discussed only in superficial terms of devotion and longevity, or of betrayal and pain. But “Strawberry Wine” delves more deeply into physical images in ways country music largely has avoided since some of the steamier hits of the 1970s.

The theme of a high-schooler losing her virginity to a man a few years older is depicted within the song’s opening lines. “He was working through college on my grandpa’s farm / I was thirsting for knowledge, and he had a car,” Carter sings in a sweet, dusky whisper that conveys both intimacy and innocence. “I was caught somewhere between a woman and a child / When one restless summer we found love growing wild / On the banks of the river on a well-beaten path / Funny, how those memories, they last.”

Initially, some country radio stations were hesitant to play it. But once the song took off, its popularity couldn’t be denied.

“As soon as the song was added [to playlists], it was the most aggressive song at the station,” says Allan Rider of Left Bank Management, a Los Angeles-based firm that works with Carter out of its Nashville office. “Calls would come in. I think it was [because] so many people related to that whole story about love way back when.”

Several major country stations that initially didn’t air the song started getting bombarded with requests for it, Carter says. “After a while, they couldn’t deny it any longer. We could understand their concerns, because people have a job and a business to look after, and a boss they have to answer to. So you understand. But once it caught on, it really got legs and, you know, just ran.”

Now all those years of false starts and failed promises don’t seem so frustrating to Carter. “I’m glad it took this long now,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made this record five or six years ago. I would have been 25 or 26--I hadn’t lived enough. I’d lived, but not enough. And I learned a lot about the [music] business in the last couple of years, too, and that helped me get ahead.”

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Carter knew more about the travails of the music industry than most young singers pursuing a singing career. Her father is Fred Carter Jr., a respected Nashville session guitarist who played on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and other significant songs. She can remember sitting around the dinner table with guests Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and Levon Helm, the last a longtime friend of the family and frequent household visitor.

She initially attempted to start a music career while in high school. When it didn’t work out, she entered the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study rehabilitation therapy with the idea of eventually working with the elderly. She took a job as a therapist, but when she found the emotional burdens of the job too difficult, she decided to give singing another shot.

“Music is a very serious business with me,” says Carter, who lives in Nashville with her husband of one year, rock musician Chris DiCroce. “It’s something I hold up high and respect. If I’m writing a funny song or a parody, it still has to hold weight and have credibility. You can have fun with what you’re doing, but don’t let the music suffer.”

In the end, she credits two themes--honesty and credibility--when explaining why she believes she reached a large audience during a time when so many country music newcomers have failed to break through.

“I think where we hit the nail on the head was honesty,” she says. “We always wanted to go in from that place instead of a contrived place. We fought really hard as a group--my managers and myself--for my artistic credibility. I refused to do cookie-cutter music, or anything that goes against the grain of me naturally. We’re going to continue to do that.

“I’m already concerned about the next album. I want to do something that nobody’s done, you know? I’ve yet to experience what that’s going to be, but I’m keeping myself open to it. I want to come up with something different.”


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