By Annie Reuter
Deana Carter was born into music. Thanks to her father, session guitarist and producer Fred Carter, Jr., Deana grew up in Nashville around such artists as Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings and Simon & Garfunkel.
But family connections aside, Carter proved to be a talented singer and songwriter herself. An early demo tape of hers wound up in the hands of Willie Nelson, who, impressed with what he heard, invited her to Farm Aid in 1994. There she was the only female solo artist on a bill alongside John Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young and others.
Two years later she became one of Nashville’s hottest new stars, thanks to her debut album, Did I Shave My Legs For This? The album went on to sell more than 5 million copies, and its lead single, “Strawberry Wine,” became a No. 1 smash hit in 1996 and landed Carter a GRAMMY nomination.
Carter would go on to release seven more albums before she took a break to raise her son, Hayes, who is now 9 years old. And she continued to write: Her 2003 album I’m Just a Girl, in fact, included “You and Tequila,” a song she cowrote (with Matraca Berg) that Kenny Chesney later cut on his album Hemmingway’s Whiskey. “If it wasn’t for this song I wouldn’t have had a new record and I’d be working at Walmart,” Carter quipped from the stage during a recent show (Dec. 4) at Joe’s Pub in New York City.
So yes, after several years away from music, Carter has now released a new album, Southern Way of Life.
In an interview with Radio.com, Carter talked in depth about the album as well as her past recordings. She also told us about her experience writing songs with Kacey Musgraves — and why that was so inspirational for her — and discussed how she feels the TV show Nashville (which she auditioned for) represents the music community.
Radio.com: Southern Way of Life is your first album of original music since 2005. Were you nervous about getting back into the studio?
Deana Carter: I wasn’t nervous. As subliminally as I faded out, it wasn’t something I planned on doing. It was a choice I was making to focus on my child. Before you know it, five years had gone by. Coming back into the scene has been the same way. It was a gradual three, four years of writing, working with new artists, producing other people and organically having a lot of new music and going back into the studio and picking the ones I wanted to focus on [for the] record. I wanted it to be a collection that people could grasp.
“Do or Die” is so striking, and your fans seem to agree, as they voted it to be the album’s first single. You’ve mentioned that you were surprised. Why?
I cowrote all these songs except for “Do or Die,” [which] I wrote by myself. I used to write all the songs by myself because I felt like I could. When I was young it was just pride and fear. Now, it’s the opposite. I appreciate the help and the collaborating and that partnership. And that comes from age — you appreciate people helping you with anything.
“Do or Die,” it was like, “Is it objective, is it too dark, is it too honest, is it boring? I talk about Jesus not by name, but by description. Is that going to offend anybody?” It’s just self doubt. I really prayed about it because that song was the starting point for a turnaround, and that’s where I’m at and that’s why we’re here. When the fans were picking that song above the more uptempo songs, I was shocked. But it was such a compliment and affirmation to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It really encouraged me to keep going through this and to finish the record.
Why do you think your first big hit “Strawberry Wine” resonates so strongly with people?
Everybody’s had a first love. Everybody’s been heartbroken at some point of their lives over something that may have faded away, that you get nostalgic about. Time and age don’t change that place, it’s like a state of being that you can go back to, and music takes you there.
There are certain smells that will take me back to my Grandma’s house. I can be in New York City at a certain bakery and be [transported] back at my grandmother’s house. I think that song is like that. It’s like that for me every time I sing it because I have specific memories. People really dive into it like that, and it connects us all, and that’s a timeless thing. That’s what songs can be. Songs are timeless; they can really make time stand still in those moments for all of us.
You’ve written two tracks on the album with Kacey Musgraves (“I Don’t Want To” and “That’s Just Me”). Do you see some of yourself in her?
Absolutely. I’ll never forget the minute I walked in the door to our first writing session and she’s in the room sitting there with her guitar and she had it in open tuning. I was like, “Oh my gosh! This one knows what she’s doing.” You never know what you’re going to get [in a songwriting partner] — if they want to just sing or if they want to do lyrics. When I heard what she was playing on her guitar, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I used to do that. Now I’m so focused on writing, have I lost it?” Writing with her really did remind me of the point in my 20s where I used to write totally free. I would write everything and anything, no genre. That was really exciting to walk in that room.
We wrote “That’s Just Me” in an hour, and we were laughing because the next one took a little longer because it was heavier. It was so much fun. She’s such a great artist. She knows what she wants. I loved it. It was hugely important, writing with new artists and seeing their passion and drive, the freshness. It was so inspiring for me.
Willie Nelson was a big supporter of yours in the beginning. What was it like to perform at Farm Aid in 1994?
One of the label guys played [my demo tape] for him and he said, “Have her come down and play Farm Aid.” It was that casual. I called Chuck Jones, my guitar player. It was at the Superdome [in New Orleans], and it was more people than I can ever imagine singing in front of. When I walked on that stage I was nervous, because we didn’t get a sound check. You can go online and see my big hair, I’m in a vest and jeans and I look terrified. I was so bit by the bug that day when I walked on that stage and people were clapping. When we played “Did I Shave My Legs for This” [watch the performance below], that place went crazy and I thought, “What just happened?” We didn’t have a band, we just walked out with guitars in this huge arena and we played. From that day on I was like, “Man, I want to do that again!” It was amazing.
It’s so funny, that Nashville show, I feel like parts of it are my life. The thing that is cool that they depict is what a big deal it is. It is a big deal to be a new, struggling young songwriter with high hopes and dreams and get a break. I think they do a good job at showing how important that is and the excitement that it is.
Well, luckily for you your first big live audience didn’t throw beer cans like they did to Scarlett on Nashville.
They obviously embellish it for television. I auditioned for that Rayna [James] part actually out in L.A. I didn’t get the part; I think Connie Britton does a great job. But the story line is like, “What?!” It’s almost like they’re following my life. They have taken scenarios from real artists and what they’ve been through. Now, she [Rayna] has her own label and she asked for her masters back. I did that in Nashville earlier this year with my label head. I watch the show and I love it, and I think, “This is my life story. This actually happened to me. How did they know that?” Well, they know because it was public and in the news.
I think it’s great what they’ve been doing, and I’ve been enjoying it. I think they have taken real things and put them into these characters in a very creative way. It’s like songwriting; we take real life and put it into songs and people love that. [The show] is fun, I love watching it. I live in L.A. and I’m ready to move home. I just want to get back to my roots and I want to write songs. I want to be in a place that every day, that’s what people get up to do, and they do it well and they do it together. I’m ready for that again.
(Rick Diamond Getty Images)