Who said Country was wholesome?

Carlene Carter has impeccable Country credentials. Impeccable manners too, sometimes. By Nick Hayns

Some years ago Carlene Carter bounced on stage at a club in New York and indulged in a little Shakespearean word-play around the word Country. Every journalist in town was in the audience. Also, Carter's mother and stepfather had chosen this particular night to pop in and give their girl a nice surprise. For Carter, everything went prickly pear-shaped.

"My mama came backstage afterwards and I said: 'Mama, I'm so sorry I said that word'," says Carter, widening her eyes and dipping her head in approved Southern style. "And mama just said: 'What word was that, honey?' She'd already blocked it out, you see." Her stepfather, Johnny Cash, didn't speak to her for six months, however.

There have been one or two of these occasions. She once spent an entire evening yelling at the handicapped section of a college audience to "get up and dance, Goddammit!" And then there was the time she found herself the toast of a "hot Beverly Hills party, handsome guys all over, and I'm in these beautiful clothes teetering around on heels like Minnie Mouse, la la la, thinking I'm really happenin', like I'm hot shit", at which point she fell down the lavatory. "There I am," she says, with practised humility, "with my butt in water, promising God I'd never get the Big Head again."

The way she tells it, Carter's life has been one splendid embarrassment after another. They have come thick and fast, and often rudely, and they all are recounted as if moral purpose were their engine; as if every stumbling humiliation were a component of some great plan to enable Carlene to arrive at the age of 40 intact and a better person for the experience. In many Americans, this tendency to treat life as a retrospective parable is a ghastly thing. In Carter it's a bit of a giggle.

Responsibility for this governing humour rests squarely with her mother, June, herself the daughter of Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the American holy-rollin' folk and country dynasty, the Carter Family. June is barking, according to Carlene, and accustomed to doing things her way. June wears turbans and rubber gloves about the house. June, at 65, is inclined to hitch up her skirt and do comedy duckwalks downstage to lead the community singing during spiritual interludes in husband Johnny Cash's live shows. "Eccentricity has never been discouraged in our family," says Carlene.

However, the sense is that the mature, gaff-free Carter is still somewhat torn. She's a self-confessed party-maverick with a taste for rock 'n' roll chaps (a key early husband was that eminence of Britpop Nick Lowe; she currently lives with Heartbreaker Howie Epstein). Yet she is also a nuclear conformist who "loves little kids" and, given the chance, will go on at length about the tender relationship she enjoyed with her childhood pony. She says she's spent her whole life "trying to fit in" in a way that permits her always "to be myself".

"I've always wanted to make records that rock like hell," she says, waving a cigarette, all gritty. "But also, I've never wanted to compromise that Country place deep inside." Which means that her records are always soppy, sentimental, saucy and robust. She used to write lines like "when you stink you make me think dirty". Nowadays she's more felicitous than that. Her last album, Little Love Letters, is a classic of libidinous country- rock with manners.

This uneasy duality may account for what has been a lurching career. From childhood a member of the Carter Family holy medicine show, she decamped to west London in the mid-Seventies to hook up with the roots-rocking sub-community that circulated about the robust persons of Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, the Rumour and Brinsley Schwarz. In that sense she's a frontierswoman of British country-rock.

In another sense, she's what you get when you cross down-home American liberalism with big hormones and an instinct for mayhem. Above all, she is her mother's daughter. "Mama" infests Carter's conversation as a mnemonic for those things that are wild but good for the soul.

Her earliest memory is of being in the back of the car in Kentucky with her sister Rosie, and of her mother leaning down from the front seat and saying, "Look Carlene! Look Rosie! That thing over there - that's a coal mine," while Carlene and Rosie studiously played house on the expansive floor of their father's moving Cadillac.

n Carlene Carter's new album 'Little Acts of Treason' is out now on the Giant label

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