Carlene Carter perhaps got famous first because she was June Carter’s daughter from her first marriage. You know, before she married Johnny Cash. But then Carlene went off to England to record her first album, with Graham Parker’s excellent band, the Rumour, and she earned some of her fame.
By the time of her second album, in 1979, she was writing songs with soon-to-be husband Nick Lowe and covering Elvis Costello’s great Radio Sweetheart. She also played a show at the Bottom Line where her parents were, supposedly, incognito in the audience, and where she indelicately introduced her song “Swap Meat Rag” by saying, “If this doesn’t put the cunt in country, I don’t know what will.” The story got prominent play in Rolling Stone at the time. Christian parents reportedly not pleased.
I’m not sure about the country part. The song is really a bit of shuffle, more a gentle boogie than regular country music, and fairly safe apart from the subject matter, which is handled discreetly.
This comes up today because I had a long chat with Patrick Davitt today, some of which will show up in this week’s BaseballHQ podcast (available at iTunes and baseballHQ.com) and it turns out he has a great love for the band Rockpile, who were the backing band for Carlene Carter’s third album.
He also told me a story about working in a record store in London shortly after Rockpile’s great Seconds of Pleasure album came out. He had the album playing on his Walkman one day and a woman came up to him and asked if it was his cassette that was playing. When he said yes, she said, “My boyfriend is in that band.” She was Carlene Carter.
Swap Meat Rag is a fine showcase for her strong voice, but it’s a bit of social cheese. She has written many excellent songs along the way, and her powerful vocals are a good match for her assertive tunes.
She has a brand new album out, which after one listen seems to be a meditation on death and the way families transform when members pass. Which is not to say it’s dark, really, but rather thoughtful and resonantly emotional, with songs that make that a pleasure rather than a trauma.
I suspect we’ve got some more Carlene Carter coming up soon.