CD Review of Stronger by Carlene Carter
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Carlene Carter: Stronger

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

espite her prized pedigree – one she inherited early on as the daughter of the late June Carter Cash and country singer Carl Smith, and equally significantly, as the stepdaughter of the legendary Johnny Cash – Carlene Carter has never had an easy go of it, either in her career or her personal circumstances. It’s telling that it’s been more than a dozen years since Carter released her last studio album, because in the interim, she’s suffered through a steady string of devastating losses and personal tragedies. In addition to witnessing the passing of both her mother and stepdad within months of one another, as well as the tragic death of her younger sister Rosey all within the same year, she was rocked by the heroin overdose that took her partner, producer and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, a scenario that forced her to confront her own demons, plied in the form of drugs, failed marriages and a career that literally seemed to come undone.

Still, those who expect Stronger to be soured by circumstance are in for a surprise. The sole hint of grief or remorse comes with the title track, the final entry on an album where the only thing that’s weighed down is the distinct down-home sound. Determined and inspired, “Stronger” turns a well-worn adage (“whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”) into a resounding refrain that’s all the more credible and convincing.

Ultimately then, Stronger opts for triumph over tragedy. Fiddles, pedal steel and honky-tonk regalia fuel the arrangements, turning the tellingly-titled rockers “The Bitter End,” “Why Be Blue,” “I’m So Cool” and “On to You” into giddy rockabilly rave-ups. Stoic back-porch ballads like “To Change Your Heart,” “Spider Lace” and “Judgment Day” sound as if they were plucked from the heartland, with a finesse and a caress that would likely have the entire Carter clan nodding its approval.

Stronger becomes a revelation of the stylistic sort as well. Throughout her career, Carter has balanced on a precipice between rock and country, even dabbling extensively in New Wave thanks to the informed influence of ex-husband Nick Lowe, whose Brit-rock colleagues fueled her earliest albums. As a result, Carter was shunned by many in the Nashville establishment for venturing well beyond her country confines. Stronger may assuage those concerns, but whether it does or not is hardly the point. Carlene Carter is back, and as the album title affirms, she’s all the better for it.

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