More than a country song, it's her life

Special to The Times

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.

"I wrote it for Joe," she says brightening visibly upon invoking the name of her new love, actor Joe Breen. "I mean, the chariot was actually an Altima with a big dent, but here was this man telling me -- me, the girl who has something to say about everything -- that you're going home. And you know what? I shut up and did just that."

Breen, like Carter, had sworn off love when they met in 2004 through mutual friends. He was a handsome actor and Carter found herself spending time with this gentle man who just seemed to want to take things as slowly as she did. They married two years ago in Jamaica.

"I was going to Nashville to do 'Wildwood Flower' [the play about her fabled kin, the Carter Family] and play Mama, and Joe was like, 'This is where you need to be.' I signed a one-year lease, ended up staying two years." Breen also encouraged her not merely to play a part, but to sing her own song as well, telling her, "You need to write."

Getting 'fired up' again

Nearly a decade had passed since 1995's "Little Acts of Treason," her most recent studio record, and the 1996 retrospective "Hindsight 20/20," putting her far enough off the career treadmill to write for its own sake.

After all that drama, time lost and career burnout, getting started on "Stronger" proved easier than she'd expected. Beyond the amount of life she'd survived, the woman who co-wrote the Doobie Brothers' "One Step Closer" and Emmylou Harris' "Easy From Now On" found she was inspired by the way life had turned around.

After laying the songs down with half-brother John Carter Cash, she recognized that the tracks needed more power, layers and perhaps fire. She turned to old friend and Doobie Brother John McFee.

"I like things all shined up and rocking with hooky pop choruses," she says cheerfully. "And the weird thing with [McFee] is that as long as I've known him, no matter what's going on with me, he knows what's going on in my head."

Says McFee: "Carlene's heart and soul just come through. . . . She's smart and she's a good writer, so you know it's gonna be good.

"But this is more than just a bunch of songs," he added. "She pulls no punches. She's brave and she has this attitude to face life, to go on. She's been through a lot and she figured out how to pull something from it."

"When John started working on these songs, started sending' em back to me -- taking them from black and white to Technicolor, I found myself getting really inspired," she said. "And then when I started playing 'em live, I was fired up."

Six months later, they were finished. Whether it was the autoharp-driven Carter Family-style "To Change Your Heart" about the dissolution of her decade-plus marriage to Lowe; the spare piano ballad about a last glimpse of Epstein and reckoning with the pain, "Judgment Day"; or the steel-guitar tinged "It Takes One to Know Me," a tribute to the unflagging loyalty of stepfather Cash; hers are songs born from an intensely lived life and a fierce love of the people who've touched her.

Indeed, on the title track, which closes the album, she looks back clear-eyed but without staring. Not quite an elegy for herself and her sister but certainly making peace with what happened and finding the will to go on.

"Wanna crawl in that dark hole; wanna curl up beside her," sings Carter in a mahogany contralto: "Wanna cradle her sweet soul, and never let go. Now there's rest of the weary and there's peace in the night. There's grace in forgiveness for angels in flight."

Exhaling deeply, Carter leans closer and confides, "You know, I didn't know if I had it in me, to start all this back up. . . . " Then she smiles, like she can't believe she ever doubted her drive to create.

McFee understands her excitement. Having gone to an intervention for her years ago in New Mexico and leaving thinking he might never see his friend again, he's not just glad to have her back, he's thrilled with the quality of her writing.

"I gave Elvis Costello a copy of ["Stronger"] when we did the Clover reunion shows for 'My Aim Is True' in November," McFee recalls, "and he sent me a note that started, 'I'm compelled to write . . .' and then got into all these specifics about her songs and the writing. That's praise, coming from one of the best songwriters of the last 50 years."

Costello, who's touring with the Police, may put Carter on some of his solo dates here in the U.S. But just as important, she's found a home on taste-making indie label Yep Roc Records -- alongside Lowe.

"There's this confidence and cockiness that really gets to you," says Yep Roc co-owner Glenn Dicker. "It's invigorating, the way she pulls you in. You have to pay attention to her, to these songs, and I think she's got even better music to come."

Carter hoots when you tell her that. She and McFee have plans for a Carl Smith tribute album, and she's starting up the promo grind. Having walked out of the black hole of losing a lot of folks she loved, drugs and jail, she's ready for the light.

And although she admits "I've developed more of a sense of humor," don't look for her to take the music lightly. With a knowing chuckle, she considers the future, then offers, "You know, looking at all of it, I can only tell you this: My heart is a little older and wiser. I don't really have any ditties left in me anymore."

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