The lineage of Carlene Carter—daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash—speaks for itself, but her own solo work has been criminally underappreciated over the course of her career. Truly, few artists have been able to bridge the divide between country and pop as compellingly as Carter. Her 1980 masterpiece, Musical Shapes, combined the new wave influence of then-husband Nick Lowe with the country-rock style of Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris; listening to modern country, it’s an album that’s still ahead of its time some 28 years later, and one wonders if Nashville will ever really catch up to it.
Carter achieved her greatest success with 1990’s I Fell In Love and 1993’s Little Love Letters, which streamlined the edginess of her sound but which still flaunted massive pop hooks and polished, rock-leaning production. Stylistically, Carter has been a major force in defining pop-country, but few of the artists who found greater success with that formula have ever matched her sheer creativity or understanding of genre conventions and how to subvert them. Her music was too left-of-center to make her a star on the level of Reba McEntire or Faith Hill, but considering that she’s also a forceful singer and a songwriter of real grace and wit, it’s surprising that she’s rarely been given her due as a figure with an important place in any serious discussion of country music’s ongoing evolution.
Perhaps one of the reasons for her low profile is that Carter released her last studio album in 1995. In the interim, she’s had a couple of well-publicized run-ins with the law (including an arrest for drug possession and stealing a truck) and suffered a nearly unfathomable year in which her mother, stepfather, younger sister (Rosey Carter), and long-time boyfriend and producer (Howie Epstein) died in the span of eight months. In regrouping from that devastating series of losses, Carter met and married actor Joseph Breen, who encouraged her to get back into writing songs.
The result of this new inspiration, Stronger, is perhaps more deeply personal than any of Carter’s previous albums, but it still bears the keen pop instincts that make her work so distinctive.
The multi-tracked falsetto vocals on “Why Be Blue” recall the new wave sound of Musical Shapes, and she even updates that album’s “I’m So Cool” with a grittier arrangement that reflects an underlying self-deprecation. Opener “The Bitter End,” “On to You,” and “Break My Little Heart in Two” showcase the rockabilly influence that brought so much energy to her hit singles from the early ‘90s, while “Bring Love” and “To Change Your Heart” demonstrate her skill with traditional country styles. And what makes the most striking first impression on Carter’s records is the production, and Stronger, thanks to producer John McFee, is no exception.
Though her voice has lost a bit of its punch, Carter is still a powerful vocalist with an instantly recognizable sense of phrasing. She slides convincingly from the playfulness of “Why Be Blue” into the vulnerable territory of the album’s most personal tracks. “Judgment Day” is clearly informed by difficulties in both the legal and romantic arenas, while the closing title track doubles as a wrenching elegy for her sister and an opportunity for self-reflection, as Carter questions why, of everyone she lost, she’s still around. The album’s standout is “It Takes One to Know Me,” which Carter wrote as a gift for her stepfather when she was 18. Performed with Breen singing backup, Carter is able to give an old song a new context, as it bears the weight of Cash’s passing but still finds hope in a fulfilling relationship. On the whole, Stronger is an album of precisely that kind of hard-won optimism—even the break-up songs have a sense of humor about them.