In the Best Family Tradition, Carlene Carter Gets on Track and Steams Her Way to a Country Hit

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was as sure as a sure thing can be in Nashville back in 1978. Carlene Carter was 22, starlet-stunning, had a crystal-pure mountain voice and wore some of the best-fitting genes in Music City. Her grandmother was Maybelle Carter of country music's venerated Carter Family; her parents were June Carter Cash and '50s Nashville crooner Carl Smith. Even her stepdad, Johnny Cash, had sterling country credentials. With two teenage marriages behind her and a kid from each to raise as a single mom, she already had a lifetime of country lyrics in her heart and soul. No way she wasn't going to knock Nashville on its ear.

Then something incredible happened: namely, nothing happened. And it kept on not happening, album after album, as her quest for a niche drove her into country pop, R&B and ballads. Seemingly ready to sizzle, Carter remained a hitless wonder. She left Warner Bros. Records after four LPs, but she kept her string of flops alive at five with one more at Epic. By then husband No. 3 was British rocker Nick Lowe, who had produced her third and best LP, Musical Shapes; they were in London, and Carlene was getting by on song-writing ("Easy from Now On" by Emmylou Harris, "One Step Closer" by the Doobie Brothers, "I'm the Only One" by the Go-Go's).

"My last album didn't do nothin'," she sneers. "It was totally not me. Synthesizer pop, everything I hated. So I got discouraged and quit. I decided to take a rest, a long, very long rest."

That was mid-1980s. Now 35, Carlene is suddenly Nashville's 1990 Homecoming Queen; she has come back to her birthplace and her musical roots and finally found her spot—atop the country charts—with the potently rhythmic, lyrically catchy single "I Fell in Love." That tune, off her Top 20 album of the same name, has been followed by a second single, the fast-rising "Come On Back."

"I always thought that it would work out." Carlene says, smiling. "But I didn't think it would work out so late in life. I'm just a little behind schedule."

But right on time in terms of musical trends. Carlene split amicably from Lowe in 1985 (they divorced last year) but stayed in London. Late in 1986, she returned to a more receptive Nashville that has witnessed the purging of country-pop's Muzak maestros and the rise of the the no-strings detachment (Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black and others) bent on stripping country back to its "neo-traditional" elements. "There's been a changin' of the guard," she drawls. "It was too slicky-pop, and it's gone much more rootsy."

The return to her own foundations began four years ago in London. By then, Maybelle, the beloved family matriarch who had taught Carlene guitar, poker and fishing, had been dead for eight years. The remaining Carter Family performers—Carlene's mother, June, and her aunts, Helen and Anita—had come to London on tour, and "one night my aunt Anita got sick, and I took her place," says Carlene. "From then I just kinda wormed my way in. I guess I had a sense of my own mortality. It was time to learn about my heritage."

For the next two years Carter performed as part of the group, and eventually, says June, "She began to feel whatever it is that you're born with that makes you a singing Carter and makes you love and sing that Appalachian mountain harmony. She'd found her way back to traditional country." And even to the Opry, where Carlene recently performed songs by both the Carter Family and her father. For her appearance, "I had my daddy's rhinestone pink-and-turquoise jacket on," she says proudly.

Carter has also moved into the 70-year-old home near Nashville where her grandmother and parents had lived. Ironically, daughter Tiffany from her first marriage, now 18, has left Nashville for London to study art and now lives with Lowe, who adopted her. ("He and I are still great friends," says Carlene. "It's just that all the relationships ran their courses.") Son Jackson, 14, lives with his father in Los Angeles. Mom sees the kids often and talks to them almost daily, but she won't discuss their fathers except to say that "lots of girls marry at 16 in Tennessee" and "everyone makes mistakes.

Unfortunately, Carter's weren't just marital. She was also coping with problems familiar to many performers. "We were running pretty fast," she recalls of her earlier days on the road. "We'd celebrate doing the gigs and in the dressing rooms before the gigs." Then about three years ago she cleaned up her act. "My excess now is feeling good and being chemically free," she says. "Playin' totally straight is a million times more fun than getting smashed on champagne. I wasn't real gone. I just got bored and burnt out on it. I asked God for help and got it."

These days Carter's tour-bus stateroom has a library ranging from Twain and Tolstoy to self-help classics like A Course in Miracles and You Can Heal Your Life. Her daily 90-minute workouts keep her lean and toned, and there are no more numbing all-nighters, she says. She no longer gets her kick from champagne but does knock back double espressos.

One remedy for life's ills that Carlene hasn't yet found, despite her new LP's title, is lasting domestic tranquility. She says it's still too soon to name or discuss her new flame, and, she adds, "we don't live together; we're dating. I'm open to all romantic possibilities."

If they're as promising as her musical future seems, now that she has finally found her way into the family business, she has little to worry about. "There was a period where I was a little scared that I'd blown my chance. But I think everything that I did, every step I took, every wrong turn led to this," says Carter. "I've matured as a writer and human being. I've got some wisdom under my belt."

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