Twenty years ago, when Deana Carter was enjoying the then-record-breaking crossover success of a grand-slam, multi-platinum No. 1 debut album, you just didn’t see barefooted country singers onstage too often. Neither were concertgoers very likely to smell incense from the stage or backstage areas at country shows until Carter, an alternative roots-and-folk-rocker around Nashville in her twenties, showed up on the national scene.
“Girls weren’t doing split kicks off the drum riser with a Telecaster, all that stuff,” Carter laughingly notes of the rock ‘n’ roll elements that influenced her stage show. You also didn’t see female artists, and especially new ones, co-producing their records. Carter, the daughter of noted Nashville session guitarist Fred Carter, Jr., seems to have been born a true original, but there’s no discounting the impact of growing up around recording studios and their distinctive atmosphere.
“It was so exciting,” Carter says, recalling encounters at RCA’s Studio B and entering at the back door where musicians loaded in their gear―sometimes for four three-hour sessions per day. Sessions on which Fred Carter Jr. played with unconventional out-of-towners such as Simon and Garfunkel or Bob Dylan could last even longer into the night, and Carter and his creative colleagues were in fact part of the reason why artists of that stature were leaving their New York studio haunts to soak up the flavors of Music City.
“My dad would be doing sessions and he’d call my mom in the middle of the night and say, ‘I need my Telecaster. Come get the 12-string.’ So she’d load us up in our pajamas and load up guitars and we’d go head down to 16th,” says Carter, a California resident who grew up in Goodlettsville, a good 20 minutes or more from Music Row.
The experience imprinted itself powerfully on the young Carter. “The smell of, like, rubbing alcohol and those six-inch swabs [used for cleaning tape recorder heads], cigarettes and ash trays, burnt coffee . . . carpet on the walls―you’ve no idea how much I love all of that,” Carter says expressively.
Her fondness for barefoot performances might just go back to those nocturnal, pajama-clad trips to deliver guitars to Daddy “and get a kiss at midnight.” In any case, Carter had no trouble feeling comfortable in a studio environment, be it on Music Row or in her dad’s own recording facility, either before or after being signed to Capitol’s Nashville branch in the ’90s, when she would make massive waves as a free-thinking Nashville artist signed by über-producer Jimmy Bowen and then hired to participate as a producer (albeit uncredited at first).
“That’s why I’ve always produced or co-produced my records,” Carter explains, “because I grew up with [a professional musician father], being in the studio and hearing every layer. I hear songs in layers, and even in songwriting I’m hearing it in a production capacity already. That all rubbed off on me, of course. It trained my ear to hear everything, the nuances and things.”
Carter’s own home studio is nearly complete, says the artist-writer-producer and now label head of Little Nugget Records, the spawn of dad Fred’s Nugget label back in Goodlettsville. “When I walk in there it kind of smells. You know, I’ve got an old rug in there that has a smell to it, and I don’t want a new one. To get the funk on your music, the studio’s got to have some funk in it, you know? That is all a part of my core, it is.”
Carter, whose restless artistic spirit (coupled with various music-business challenges and setbacks) cut her skyrocketing country career surprisingly short, has gone on to do production work and film soundtracks in addition to her own recording and writing. In 2012, her co-written “You and Tequila” was successfully covered by Kenny Chesney, scoring a Top 5 country hit as a duet with Grace Potter.
Still, she’s no stranger to the stage, even 21 years after the release of her groundbreaking Capitol debut, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” and its trio of chart-topping singles: the title track, plus “We Danced Anyway” and “How Do I Get There.”
Carter will be making a hometown-area appearance on Monday, Feb. 27, at City Winery and guesting on the Grand Ole Opry the following evening. Surprisingly, she anticipates a serious case of pre-show butterflies. “Every time I play Nashville I get nervous,” Carter admits, “because I have the utmost respect for the community, number one; and number two . . . it’s changed a lot, and I’m not living there now, so gauging the temperature, the live market and all that stuff [can be difficult].
“I don’t do like, the show-dog stuff. I’m myself,” she casually affirms. “And sometimes that goes over great, sometimes it doesn’t. So we’ll see. It’s a solo show. I have no instrumentation . . . [it’s just] me doing a storyteller kind of thing. So it’s a nail-biter, for sure.”
It’s highly likely that Carter, in addition to bringing her unique artistic personality to City Winery through song, will have some great stories of growing up around Music Row. It’s a safe bet that she’ll be performing sans shoes, too, probably on a rug that looks―and smells―none too new.