Albums from the Lost and Found: Musical Shapes

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Ask most music fans to name a famous musical offspring in the world of country, and the response you’re most likely to receive is Rosanne Cash, the daughter of country legend Johnny Cash. Mind you, this is certainly at least in part to do with the fact that Cash has played up her heritage frequently, scoring a Number One Country hit in 1988 with a cover of her father’s self-penned “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” (surpassing the chart peak of his own version in the process; the elder Cash’s version had stopped shy of reaching the Top Ten), bringing her dad in as a duet partner on “September When It Comes” on her wildly underrated 2003 disc Rules of Travel, and even using a list her father had made for her during her teens of the one-hundred most essential country songs as the basis for her critically-acclaimed 2009 disc The List (which included her interpretations of three standards that Johnny had once recorded himself, including Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.”) 

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Much less is made, sadly, of Rosanne’s equally talented step-sister, Carlene Carter, the daughter of two Country Music Hall of Fame members: June Carter and “Mister Country,” Carl Smith. To be fair, some of that was self-inflicted; for almost an entire decade, Carlene was less famous for any music that she made than for a wildly controversial comment she made onstage at a 1979 concert, introducing the song “Swap-Meat Rag” by saying, “If this song don’t put the c*** back in country, nothing will.” (Much to her horror, it turned out that both Johnny and June were in the audience that night.) Also, while step-sister Rosanne (married at the height of her fame to fellow country star Rodney Crowell, best known as the performer behind “Ashes By Now,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” and “She’s Crazy for Leavin’” and the songwriter behind the Dirt Band’s “An American Dream” and Bob Seger’s “Shame on the Moon”) never made any secret of her love for pop music, particularly the Beatles, Carlene Carter (whose first two albums included covers of Graham Parker’s “Between You and Me” and Elvis Costello’s “Radio Sweetheart) would go so far as to marry a rocker, – a British one, at that – and have him produce several of her earliest records, thereby alienating country purists even further.

But that rebelliousness was also what made Carlene’s earliest records surprisingly much cooler than your average country album from that time period, and it’s a bit astounding in hindsight that Carlene didn’t attain the same crossover success as Juice Newton (“Queen of Hearts,” “Angel of the Morning,” “Love’s Been a Little Hard on Me”), who similarly blurred the lines between country, pop, and even stone-cold rockabilly effortlessly and covered everyone from Brenda Lee and Merilee Rush to rockers like Dave Edmunds and the Zombies, scoring a multi-platinum album at the height of her fame in 1981’s Juice. Carter, in contrast, has just one lone Top 40 entry on the pop charts to her name, and it’s not even her own record – she was the featured duet partner on “I Couldn’t Say No” by Robert Ellis Orrall, later to re-surface decades later as one of Taylor Swift’s producers and co-writers. (It’s Orrall who co-wrote Swift’s stunning Top Twenty-charting waltz “Crazier.”)

But Carter had a secret weapon that made her albums – commercially overlooked though they were – even superior to Newton’s boundary-straddling full-lengths: then-husband Nick Lowe, then best known as the producer of Elvis Costello’s first five albums, though he’d also made waves on his own as the artist behind the albums Pure Pop for Now People and Labour of Love and the #12-peaking single “Cruel to Be Kind” and as the co-leader (alongside Dave Edmunds) of the much-loved retro-rock revivalists Rockpile. [The video for “Cruel to Be Kind,” in fact, actually features Carlene extensively via a combination of archival footage and re-enactments of Nick and Carlene’s wedding day.] 1981’s Musical Shapes, the third of her four albums for Warner Brothers, was the first of two records Carter would make with her famous husband as her producer, and the mostly self-written disc is simply a blast, whether you’re into country, new-wave, or rockabilly, as Carter throws something in here for everyone.

All four members of Rockpile (Lowe, Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams) provide musical backing here throughout, Edmunds even doubling as Carter’s duet partner on the pure rockabilly of “Baby Ride Easy,” and there is also added musical support from guitarist John McFee (then with the Doobie Brothers, for whom Carter co-wrote the very underrated Top 40 hit “One Step Closer,” an achievement that gets far too overlooked in bios on Carlene’s career) and keyboardist Sean Hopper, formerly of Clover (Costello’s backing band on My Aim Is True) and soon to join Huey Lewis and the News.

The presence of Rockpile helps give the disc an unusually muscular sound for a country album of its day, with chugging acoustic six-strings and Williams’ hard-hitting drums lending a real drive to the album openers “Cry” (complete with a very deceptive fake ending) and the infectious “Madness,” arguably the album’s best song, powered by Lowe’s elastic bass work and a chorus of handclaps. Even the waltz “Bandit of Love” is played with greater grit and a more forceful beat than you would initially suspect, while “Too Bad About Sandy” is delivered with a real sass that rivals such angry latter-day country tunes as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” Lowe’s influence on his then-wife’s writing can be heard on such cuts as the stompers “I’m So Cool” and “That Very First Kiss,” neither of which would have sounded the least bit out of place on Labour of Love alongside cuts like “Without Love” (which Cash would end up covering, which just further demonstrates the admiration that the members of the Cash-Carter clan had for each other’s material) and “Switchboard Susan.”

The most unexpected curveball of all arrives at the very end of the disc with the haunting ballad “Too Proud,” which combines a Rickie Lee Jones-esque jazzy, stark atmosphere with Be-Bop Deluxe-recalling treated guitar solos to create a dramatic piece that goes well beyond the confines of country and practically creates a genre all its own with its mildly psychedelic spin on torch-pop.  But, lest anyone think Carter is completely turning her back on the country world or her famous lineage, she offers up covers of both a Carter Family classic (“Foggy Mountain Top”) and one of her stepfather’s signature tunes (“Ring of Fire”), although she reinvents the latter song to fit her own style, the verses given a new-wave-disco sound reminiscent of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

After two more commercially unsuccessful discs (1981’s Blue Nun, featuring three duets with Paul Carrack, and 1983’s C’est Si Bon), Carter would disappear for much of the remainder of the decade, finally resurfacing in 1987 alongside her famous mother and step-father on an episode of Austin City Limits, which would help inspire Carlene to delve back into the world of country (albeit with the production help of another rocker beau, this time Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), resulting in her 1990 comeback disc I Fell in Love, which spawned two Top Three country hits in the title track and “Come On Back” and also featured Carlene’s own version of a tune she had penned for Emmylou Harris back in the ‘70s, “Easy from Now On.” Her run of country hits would begin to dry up again after 1993’s Little Love Letters and the hit single “Every Little Thing,” but she never really went away, even making a cameo in the 1994 film Maverick and being featured extensively as John Mellencamp’s duet partner on the Indiana rocker’s 2017 album Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.