LIKE MOST PEOPLE, COUNTRY singer Deana Carter doesn't generally read The New York Times Magazine for laughs. But she had to hoot when they recently predicted that she would succeed sirens Dolly Parton and Shania Twain as Nashville's next sex symbol. "All I can do is look down at my breasts and go, 'Wow! Dolly and Shania have got me beat!' "
Carter may not be quite as voluptuous, but the 31-year-old beauty is already one of country's new hit girls. Her sassy debut album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, has sold almost 2 million copies and soared on both Billboard's pop (No. 10) and country (No. 2) charts. It has also put Carter—who six years ago had an unglamorous gig as a janitor cleaning urinals—in the running for best female country vocalist at the Feb. 26 Grammy Awards.
The giddy ascent began last fall with her No. 1 single "Strawberry Wine," a bittersweet ballad about a 17-year-old girl's first sexual experience. Carter sings the song (written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison) in a sultry rasp that critics have compared to divas as diverse as Kim Carnes, Skeeter Davis and Edie Brickell. "The first time I heard it on the radio," says singer Vince Gill, "I was mesmerized."
Legs' title song, cowritten (with Rhonda Hart) by Carter after she'd given a live-in lover the boot, has a very different effect on fans. The ex, she says, "would come home drunk and fall asleep. I started getting a complex about myself physically and emotionally—so I took his house key one day and never gave it back. I say in my shows that 'his side of the story probably is that I can't keep a man; my side of the story is, did I shave my legs for this?' People just go nuts."
Those concert stages are beginning to feel as homey as the recording studios Carter grew up in. The daughter of renowned Nashville session guitarist-songwriter Fred Carter Jr.—whose licks have graced albums by Simon & Garfunkel, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan—she knows that world well. "Walking in the door of a studio, with the rank smell of cigarettes and burned coffee and rubbing alcohol for the tapes—it's just like coming back home," she says. "My dad had his own label called Nugget, and I lived in that place, packing 45s and labeling them in the back room with my brothers and my mom. It's just something I love."
Deana, who was named for Dean Martin—he'd recorded a Fred Carter Jr. song, "It Just Happened That Way"—grew up in Goodlettsville, outside Nashville, with her father, now 63; her homemaker mother, Anna, 53; and brothers Ronnie, 34, who works for the state of Tennessee, and Jeff, 22, who plays guitar in her band. "There was always music in our house," she says. "At family gatherings, you either found a harmony part or washed dishes. I chose the harmony part."
But she put her musical dreams on hold when a demo tape she made at 17 failed to score a recording contract. "I thought, 'Obviously it's not meant to be, so I'm going to go to college.' " After earning a rehabilitation therapy degree at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1988, she cared for stroke patients at Nashville's Tennessee Christian Medical Center. "I wanted to help people, but it just broke my heart every day," says Carter, who quit after a year. "I don't take death well."
Falling back on music, she wrote songs and performed in local clubs while waitressing and working as a temp to pay off her student loans. In 1991 she signed with Capitol Records, only to find herself in limbo while the label struggled through management changes. "I was dropped, picked up and dropped again," says Carter, and to cope with the confusion, "I just wrote more songs."
Her patience paid off last year when Capitol released Legs. Carter's romantic life also took a radical turn for the better when she crossed paths with Nashville musician and video art director Chris DiCroce, 30. "I was walking out of a restaurant with a friend, and she was walking in," DiCroce says. "I said, 'I'm going to marry that girl' " A month later the two were formally introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and in 1995 they wed. "My friend," he says, "is still shaking his head."
The couple recently moved into a Victorian home outside Nashville. "He has a great sense of humor," she says. "Plus, he's a wonderful cook. And so gorgeous." No doubt about it, says Carter: She'll keep shaving her legs for him.
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville
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