Jesus of Cool: Carlene Carter, Back and “Stronger”

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Carlene CarterAs any loyal Popdose reader with a lingering affection for British power pop surely knows, the name of this column is cribbed from Nick Lowe’s 1978 album Jesus of Cool, which just last week was re-released on CD Stateside with its intended title. (Its initial U.S. release, in hugely bastardized form, was titled Pure Pop for Now People.) I bring this up not because I want to talk about Nick Lowe, but because his onetime wife and protege, Carlene Carter, this week has returned from a lengthy absence with a wonderful new album titled Stronger. As a huge fan of both artists — and as someone who should be, but for some reason isn’t, contractually obligated to mention Mr. Lowe as frequently as possible — I couldn’t let this confluence of events go uncelebrated.

Nearly 20 years ago, Carter was among the few artists lucky enough to release her best work during VH1’s brief love affair with country music — and that simultaneous, glorious period when women dominated the genre. As a result, her hits “I Fell in Love” and “Every Little Thing” were everywhere, even managing to break free of the TNN/CMT/”This is VH1 Country” ghetto and earn some prime-time pop airplay. I couldn’t have been happier.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/Qax_jG6TrYk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The past decade or so has been ridiculouly rough for Carter. She stuck by her longtime creative and romantic partner, Howie Epstein, for years while he descended into a swirl of drugs and depression; the two were arrested in 2001, driving a stolen car and in possession of nearly three grams of heroin. They later split, but she pronounced herself “devastated” by his death in 2003 — the same year that Carter also lost her mother, June Carter Cash, her stepfather Johnny Cash, and her sister Rosey. (Rosey was probably best known as the subject of her stepsister Rosanne’s song “Rosey Strike Back,” as well as Carlene’s song “Me and the Wildwood Rose.”)

StrongerIn the wake of all that, it’s not surprising that a dozen years passed between Carlene Carter’s previous studio album, Little Acts of Treason, and the recording of Stronger. Never mind Carter’s frightening resemblance to recent-vintage Kathleen Turner on the album cover; the great news here is that Stronger, while not quite as chipper as her classic late-’80s/early-’90s recordings, is full of the same passion and fiery independence she’s always shown — since the days she got Nashville’s knickers in a twist by announcing that she was “putting the cunt back in country.”

I was 14 and oblivious to Carter’s antics when she made that comment back around 1980 (though I was rocking out that year to her husband’s band, Rockpile, and their Seconds for Pleasure album). I first heard Carter’s name a few years later, when she showed up on “Solid Gold” with Robert Ellis Orrall in the spring of 1983, singing their wonderful single “I Couldn’t Say No.” That song, from Orrall’s Special Pain album, was the first, last and only Top 40 pop hit for either singer; sadly, it’s now available only on one of DJ Barry Scott’s Lost 45s CDs (it’s a great CD, but you really have to want these songs to pay $36 per disc).

Of course, resurrecting long-lost minor hits is part of what we’re here for. So bask with me in Carlene’s comeback, and don’t say I never did anything for you.

Carlene Carter – “The Bitter End”
Carlene Carter – “Why Be Blue”
Carlene Carter – “Stronger”
Robert Ellis Orrall with Carlene Carter – “I Couldn’t Say No”

Buy Stronger from Amazon, or download it from eMusic.

Editor’s note: The Political Culture column is taking some time off so that its author can work out his loathing for Hillary Clinton in private. However, in honor of the feminist strain that’s taking over the Democratic primary — and as long as we’re talking about the women of country music — here’s a rare blast of feminist country:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/Z2v-Cgk-rm4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]