The time was 1978, and Carlene Carter was young, nervy and unafraid to say anything at any time. Her debut album, a self-titled affair released by Warner Bros., had turned critics' heads in part because of her distinguished accompanists (her backing band on the record included members of the Rumour, known for their work with punky singer-songwriter Graham Parker), but largely for her intriguing combination of country twang and pub-rock propulsion. Carter, however, described her music in randier terms. As she told the audience at a packed New York City club date, "I'm the gal who put the `cunt' in country."

A good line, to be sure, but one that had unpleasant repercussions. As Carter remembers, "When I got off stage, my guitarist said to me, `I can't believe you said that with your parents in the audience.' And I said, `What?'"

Unbeknownst to Carter, her mother and stepfather, country music legends June Carter and Johnny Cash, were seated in the middle of the club not far from a handful of journalists who later rushed her off-the-cuff comment into print (Playboy dubbed it "the blooper of the year"). The Cashes had intended their visit to be a surprise, and a surprise it was. "It caused a big family stink," Carter notes. "My dad didn't speak to me for about a year after that, because he thought that I'd said it on purpose just to embarrass him--which was not the case at all. Now he knows that, but back then..."

Times have changed. Johnny Cash, C&W's man in black, is currently featured on Zooropa, the latest album by the Irish rock band U2, while stepdaughter Carlene is a country-music sweetheart. "I think that says something about how the barriers in music have broken down, which is what I've always wanted to happen," Carter says. "I hate parameters. They immediately alienate a bunch of people. Music should be judged on what you hear, not what you think you might hear."

Today, Carter's approach to music, as heard on the 1993 Giant Records release Little Love Letters, is not all that far removed from the style she exhibited back in her rebellious youth. The album, including the current country hit "Love You 'Cause I Want To," has a decided rock edge courtesy of producer Howie Epstein, a member of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, as well as Carter's romantic interest for the past five years. Epstein assembled a wide range of players for the project, including some (picker extraordinaire Albert Lee, the Desert Rose Band's John Jorgenson) with country experience and plenty of others (the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench, David Lindley, ex-Go-Go Kathy Valentine) with little or none. In addition, Carter co-wrote one song with Al Anderson of NRBQ, and another with, of all people, longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Only a few years ago, such decisions would have won Carter about as much airplay on country stations as, say, Black Sabbath. But while these kinds of creative choices were once seen as blasphemy by the country-music establishment, Carter has learned that this is no longer the case. "Things have really changed," she says. "When I first came out, country wouldn't touch me because I was way too rock, and rock wouldn't touch me because I was definitely country. Now I can be both, and it doesn't seem to matter." She adds, laughing, "I'm just lucky anyone's taken a chance on me again. Because I did make some pretty sweeping statements, and I lived wild and free."

Indeed, by the time Carter's first album was released, when she was 22, she was a twice-divorced mother of two sick to death of being linked with country-music royalty. She is no longer annoyed when writers feel compelled to note that she's related to, among other famous folks, Mother Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the rightfully acclaimed Carter Family singing group: "It just makes the articles two paragraphs longer. I don't read that part, I measure it," she says. But in her feistier days, she felt so thwarted in her efforts to establish her own identity that she moved to England and fell in with the scruffy musicians who were then at the forefront of the new-wave music scene. She eventually married one of them--bassist Nick Lowe, beloved for a series of entertaining solo albums and his production of several brilliant Elvis Costello discs.

New wave's cowgirl pinup followed up her first album with a weak sophomore effort (1979's Two Sides to Every Woman) and a third album, 1980's Musical Shapes, that sported "Baby Ride Easy," an entertaining duet with Dave Edmunds, and a jaunty tone that caught the spirit of early rockabilly. Unfortunately, neither of these works sold especially well, and a fourth recording, Blue Nun, was deemed so racy that Warner Bros. declined to release it in the U.S. (it appeared overseas on F-Beat, Costello's European label). American listeners certainly got the worst of that bargain, since Blue Nun is like no other album ever made: an exceedingly sexy exercise in pure abandon. The recording--packaged in a cover that featured Carter dressed as a cheerleader, her skirt hiked--included the self-explanatory tunes "Love Is a Four-Letter Verb," "Think Dirty" and "I Need a Hit," whose key lines ("I need a hit of something strong/ Something sweet and something long") probably gave her stepdad a few sleepless nights.

One more commercially unsuccessful album later, Carter was in trouble, and she knew it. "If I had made any more records that hadn't done well or didn't have a venue to be played in, I would have had no career left," she says. "So I took a hiatus."

Carter's vacation from the music business turned out to be fairly brief. Following her divorce from Lowe, she returned to the States and toured with the Carter Family for two years. "I finally realized that I wanted to learn about my heritage before it was too late," she explains. She was on her own again by 1989, and after floundering around for a year searching for a new direction, she met Epstein. With his help she secured a recording contract with Giant (a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which had dropped her nearly a decade before) and made 1990's I Fell in Love, for which she received nominations from the Grammy Awards voters for best country performance by a female and the Academy of Country Music for, of all things, Best New Female Vocalist. "That was hilarious to me," Carter acknowledges. "I'd already been around for twelve years."

Given the reception that greeted Little Love Letters, Carter, at 38, is likely to be around for a few more--and to capitalize on the momentum that album generated, she's planning on getting to work over the next several months on a new disc. Because Epstein is committed to a Tom Petty tour, a new Tom Petty album and the production of a platter for singer-songwriter John Prine, Carter will be working with Nashville veteran James Stroud. She'll also be collaborating with Nashville session types for the first time, an experience she sees as "really intriguing. It's a new process for me, but an age-old one in Nashville, and there's no reason I shouldn't be able to make something quickly." She pauses before adding, "Which for me would be about six months."

During that period, she hopes to spend as much time as possible in Los Angeles, in order to be with her children: a son, 18, who hates country music ("I tell him he really should get into it, because it's going to put him through college,"), and a daughter, 22, who recently moved back to L.A. from Denver (where she had attended the Colorado Institute of Art) in order to work at the production company that makes her mom's videos. Carter notes that she feels much more centered than ever before, but that doesn't mean she's entirely stopped shooting from the lip. While discussing rap music, for instance, she says, "It seems like there are ten words that are supposed to be in every song. Put `ho,' `bitch' and `motherfucker' together and you've got a hit."

Watch your language, Carlene. Johnny might be reading this.
Carlene Carter. 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, Grizzly Rose, 5450 North Valley Highway, $6, 290-TIXS or 295-1941.

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