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Carter finally gets her shot

By Robert Loy, November 1996

Deana Carter comes from a rich musical background. No, not that Carter Family.

Her father was legendary Nashville session man Fred Carter, Jr. That name may not be familiar, but it's a sure bet the man's music is. He's played with everybody from Buck Owens and Marty Robbins to Simon and Garfunkel.

"There was a thing way back then called the Nashville Sound," explains Deana (pronounced DEAN-AH as in Dean Martin, after whom she is named). "And my dad was an integral part in creating that sound. Kind of post-Chet Atkins and the old school guys. "

Surrounded by music and musicians, Carter always knew she wanted to follow in her father's formidible footsteps. She made her first attempt at snagging a record deal when she was 17 years old. Things didn't work out, and although she was disappointed at the time she's philosophical about it now.

"It didn't work because I wasn't ready. Plain and simple. Looking at it now from age 30 I can see I was nowhere near ready - especially for what I wanted to do in music, which was to be different and to have an artistic quality about myself, that would be distinctive. And I didn't have any of that stuff at 17. LeAnn Rimes has it, her voice is great, but she's not writing - maybe she will - but at 17 you just haven't lived enough to have anything of value to say to anybody. At least I hadn't."

Plan B involved college and a career in rehabilitation therapy.

"I worked at rehabilitation therapy for about a year. It just broke my heart every day. I had a couple of patients that died. When you've been with someone every day for six weeks or three months, and you come in and their bed is pressed and starched and empty, it does something to you.

"I still kept at music while I was in college, just kind of messing around. Humoring myself, doing cover bands. My dad gave me a guitar when I was a senior in college, and that was the first time I really started playing. I was 22. I was trying to write, and I'd never had a lesson so it was kind of a long haul."

"When I decided to get serious about music, I quit therapy, did odd jobs - selling china door-to-door, temp services, cleaning urinals. Then I landed a job waiting tables at Zaney's which is a comedy club here (in Nashville). And that was really a blessing for me because I learned a lot about stage presence and about entertaining and relating to people as an entertainer, when I had no clue how that worked. It was great to see that from another genre of entertainment. I waited tables at Zaney's for a couple of years and I wrote songs, went to writers' nights, took notes, bought albums, just did my homework."

Carter concentrated mainly on writing during this time, but she made a difficult task even harder by refusing to settle for writing anything less than the perfect, definitive song.

"My professor referred to Bob Dylan in class, so that became my goal. I wanted to write a song that was credible enough to have depth and meaning and be in a poetry book in the year 3000. I ended up sabotaging myself cuz I was trying to write deep, murky dark stuff, trying to be creative - which means I was just faking it. And it doesn't resonate if it's not real."

Eventually all that homework started to pay off.

"Willie Nelson gave me what I guess you would call my big break. He asked me to perform at Farm Aid in 1994. And I was the only female on the bill. I didn't realize till it was over when I was standing on stage and I looked around and saw that I was the only girl. I saw Willie Saturday at this past Farm Aid. And it was wonderful to be able to publicly credit him with helping me so much."

At this year's Farm Aid, Carter introduced John Conlee, Steve Earle and John Mellencamp, "which was great. We played and there was tons of great people playing from Son Volt, Jewel to Rusted Root and Hootie and the Blowfish. It was great to meet everybody. And to hear people that aren't even in country music say stuff like "I can't wait to hear you play," and "I love your song."

The song the performers are referring to is, of course, "Strawberry Wine," a wistful erotic ballad about first love. It is one of the cuts (no pun intended) off "Did I Shave My Legs For This?" Carter's Capitol CD.

Carter is more mature now. She's not trying to write perfect songs, she's trying to write them honestly. She co-wrote 6 of the 11 songs here, unusual for a new artist.

"I insisted on doing much of the writing because I wanted to make a statement that I was serious, so that people don't think I'm an ornament, or that I'm hovering above. It bothers me that they give Shania so much grief (since) she did write those songs and she was probably involved as much as I was. And my name isn't even on production credits. Sometimes you only get one shot, and if this is to be my one shot then I want to go down kicking and screaming."

Carter's stamp is all over this album, from the 3-D multi-image cover ("I know they've had varieties of that in pop and alternative music, but they've never had a holographic cover in country. I am excited about because now we kind of have poetic justice to do wild things on the cover now. Right out of the chute we did a swan dive there.") to the inspirational aphorism from Theodore Roosevelt inside ("I am a history buff - mainly for the knowledge of people who achieved very high standards. I've always tried to find little sound bites like that, to put in my car or on my refrigerator. Or if I get a great fortune cookie I'll put it on my mirror for while. Little things like that have encouraged me and kept me going.").

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