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Those big, blue eyes sear out at you from the cover of the CD, smoldering, wicked and forgiving. The dirty-blond hair cascades below her rib cage, all tousled and just-woke-up. The lips, from the Mona Lisa school of innuendo, are a full stroke of red that say it all without even opening.

The lady matching this description is Carlene Carter; the CD is Little Love Letters. But more striking than what's on the front of the album is what's on the disc itself. When Carter sings, whether it's a sweet ballad or a barn-burning raver, her voice is always beholden to a warm strength that is pure country soul.

Which makes sense, if roots count for anything; if country music had a throne, Carter would be darn close to warming the crushed velvet. Her grandmother, Maybelle Carter, was one of the original members of the Carter Family, a group of folks from the verdant Clinch Mountain region of Virginia that set down the roots of modern country music. The Family began recording for RCA in 1927, taking old-time mountain, gospel and folk music and adding a more rhythmic feel based on Maybelle's unique style of guitar picking and the members' clean, intricate harmonies.

Maybelle (wife of Ezra) begat June--along with Helen and Anita, the other current Carter Family members. A few years later, June wed Grand Ole Opry star Carl Smith. This union produced Carlene; when she was 12, her mother married again, this time to a man named Johnny Cash. And according to Carlene, he really did wear a lot of black. "He had a huge closet," she says, "and everything was black in it. Although he did wear denim now and then."

The musical history filling the Carter household was never a psychological burden for Carlene. "I wasn't raised to be worried about that kind of stuff," she says from her home in L.A. "I was raised to be an individual, and not to be a carbon copy of my ancestors; because of that, I didn't inflict any pressure on myself. I have a certain amount of pride in my heritage and wanting to make my mark in a way, but I don't feel that I have to do what they did or have that impact."

Though she's in the same field as the Carters of old, it's hardly the same thing anymore. The country-music world Maybelle's granddaughter inhabits has been diluted with other forms of popular music. "I think of myself as a country artist, but I've always liked it with a rock feel," says the country artist, and she's not the only one. Sure, multiplatinum, oval-faced Garth Brooks has admitted to being heavily influenced by Journey, but when you're influenced by a band whose music was insipid yet still moved units, the music you make is bound to, well . . .

Carter infuses her brand of country with the essence of early rock n' roll, a vibrant thing not too far away in style--and certainly not in spirit--from what her stepfather has been doing for 30-plus years.

And like Johnny, Carlene has been known to have a wild streak; she's a gal who's never shied away from a good time. "I had never been very committed as an artist," she admits. "I just kind of made records to please myself, and did little tours here and there for fun. I never really took it real serious, as far as having a career, although I never saw myself doing anything else but music."

Or musicians, it seems. Carter was married to pub-rock icon Nick Lowe for 11 years. She went to England in the late Seventies to record with Dave Edmunds, "then I met Nick at the first sessions and, you know, I never kinda came home" (in fact, she lived there for eight years). Her squeeze of the last few years is a Heartbreaker: Howie Epstein, bassist for Tom Petty. Epstein is also Carlene's producer, and as such, he has pushed her career back into full gear through his work on Love Letters and its 1990 predecessor, I Fell in Love. "Howie has had a big influence on me in keeping me focused, working every day, keeping the recording going," she says.

Epstein's prodding of Carter came after a spell in which she was out of the public eye--a large break"--and during which she performed in musicals and recorded briefly with the Carter Family. When she moved toward her own work again, "people said, 'You've lost your momentum,' but I didn't care," she says. "The cool thing is, now I'm considered a new artist, even though I've been around for so long."

Any country artist, new or old, has to go up against the notorious, clannish, Nashville infrastructure. A lot of predictable, formulaic crap comes out of the country-music capital, simply because it will sell; it's a town that doesn't suffer outlaws easily. Yet with her insider background, you'd think Carter would know all the passwords. Not so. "I've never really tried to infiltrate that clique myself, and I haven't wanted to," she says flatly. "So I have no idea if I'm accepted or not, you know. And I don't even know who they are, to be quite honest. I guess there's a songwriting clique and a production clique and all that stuff. . . . So many of the artists use the same players and producers and formulas for songs; I feel like if I was one of them, I might find myself somewhat stifled."

God knows, the cats in Nashville certainly have good enough reason to be suspicious of Carlene. The Southern songbird has the gall to record her albums in smelly old Los Angeles! "I don't know if people say they dig me to my face and then go behind my back saying, 'God, she makes records in L.A.' I've gotten asked this question a lot lately--Is it a rebellious thing that you record in L.A.?'--and that's not the case at all. It's just that I happen to live out here, and I'm just fortunate to have a recording studio in the house I live in, so I find it much more comfortable to stay home and record."

And it's not just Nashville that has Carter stumped.
"Radio is weird. You never know what they're going to like or not like, what they're going to think is pop and what they think is country," Carter says with a throaty chuckle. "I thought 'Every Little Thing' [Love Letters' first single] was a pop song, and they loved it--it got a lot of airplay, and it didn't get any resistance. Then I put out 'Love You Cause I Want To,' which I think is a much countrier song, and they think it's pop because it's got horns on it."
But there is one thing Carter is quite sure about, one thing she flat-out does not like: "Trashy Women' by Confederate Railroad. I think that's a sucky song," Carlene says with a sniff. "I mean, I normally am not offended by people making fun of people, but I thought that was really in poor taste. A lot of girls wear tight dresses and have bleached-blond hair, particularly myself, and I sure as hell ain't trashy!"

Carlene Carter will perform on Wednesday, February 23, at Toolies Country. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap