Radiating softness and warmth, Deana Carter clutches a small tumbler filled with what appears to be a sweet white wine. She sits nonchalantly on the leather ASCAP couch overlooking Music City with ease, a confidently content smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her blonde clocks square her face with tenderness, highlighting her remarkable features in the cool sunset glow permeaating the room. With the physical release of her latest record, Southern Way Of Life, she basks in her long career, unabashedly humble for the woman who's iconic song "Strawberry Wine" lives in the hearts and minds of a digital music landscape.
It's been a long day for the songbird, who co-hosted Sirius' early morning show "The Highway" on this Thursday (Feb. 27). She never gets used to the time change, as she know resides in Los Angeles. "I don’t manage [early mornings] well," she chuckles to NashvilleGab, taking another sip of wine. "The thing is when you get up like that, I can’t go to bed. I’m on LA time. I lay in bed, and it’s midnight because it’s only really 10 o’clock in my body. Then, I ended up doing one eye the whole night going, ‘Is it two yet? Is it three yet?’ I just end up getting up and doing my devotions."
Being in Nashville again is like an overwhelming homecoming for the singer, who relocated to the City Of Angels prior to the 2005 release of The Story Of My Life. "I love LA. I love California. I love the weather and our little community," she shares, beaming. "I love our friends. We have a tiny little neighborhood in Studio City. We’ve cultivated tight connections."
"But there’s no place like Nashville," she assests of the town that fueled her career early on. "I love the community here and the music. I always have. Now, it’s just teaming with so much positive stuff. When I come back, I’m running on adrenaline. It’s so inspiring to come back and be part of it and have open arms, like I do. People are so kind to me and open-armed about seeing me back in town a lot."
Southern Way Of Life hit digital retailers on December 2, a rather unorthodox way of doing things with the physical street date several months later (March 4). "I wanted the street date to be in the fall," she explains. "We just happened to miss the window because they — Sony Red is the distribution partner with my label — did a cut off. People quit buying records sooner this year for them. We just missed it. We thought we had three or four more weeks."
She quickly notes, "It ended up: people quit ordering for Christmas season. So, we decided to come out on Cyber Monday, which was digital download day for everything, so we could hit the holiday season. We had ‘Father Christmas’ and ‘Southern Way Of Life.’ We had deals with that, too."
A few years back, Carter lost her father and session guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. to a stroke in 2010. Since then, the singer-songwriter has been able to use music as a healing process. "I definitely use music to process loss, whether it is sitting down creating it or I go back to the well of iTunes and search through all my old favorite records from other people," she relates. "Just last week, I downloaded The Cars’ Greatest Hits just to remember what summer felt like in 1982, just to reconnect for myself an era that I came from, musically."
"I think that’s important. I’m such a producer. It’s so great to get lost in those old records that are just amazingly produced. It’s not so much processing loss than it is coming to terms with who I am based on where I came from," she says.
Carter's last all-original full-length release came in the form of 2007's The Chain. She is fond of that record, but extremely hopeful for the next chapter. With the freedom to create on her own terms, the powerhouse is able to explore deeper musical roots, pushing herself to walk to the edge and back. "I just wanted things to be real simple," she says of the new album, released on her own label Little Nugget, which was named after her father's Nugget Records, just outside of Nashville.
"To me, the songs delegate what’s going to happen in the studio," she asserts of the creative process. "It just starts very simple. I’m pretty strict in production about wanting drum sounds to sound retro and not overpowering. I don’t want a snare to have a key to it. I don’t want to hear C. I want it to be tuned, where it is muted like a Don Henley drum or a Levon Helm kit. We just build the sounds through individual instrumentation, having the right tone for the songs. I don’t go in and set a tone, like the bass player just plays through the whole record."
"It’s every song has a map that I’ve pre-routed in my mind. I just bring old music to the studio, and I’ll say ‘listen to this.’ It’s not stealing from people, not direct riffs from people," she says, "but it’s definitely communicating to the musicians where my head’s at. From that place, when we get it on tape, it always has a life of its own. Having a starting point (a vision) and then the musicians going, ‘oh right!’ Their connection to the music and letting them play it from the place they remember it [brings] a very seasoned sound to it."
She adds that "when I’m co-writing or writing by myself, I’m literally producing and making those notes like, ‘let’s go to Bruce Springsteen and the ‘Born To Run’ record.’ It’s like this little music library I have in my mind of things I liked to listen to growing up. I’ll file through it and pull out snippets and on to the studio we go."
Incredibly, it's been 17 years since the release of her very first record, Did I Shave My Legs For This, and comparatively, Carter finds that Southern is a "sister record" in many ways. She details, "I think this record is the most like my first record. The title has a sense of humor, and the song does, too. The content is a little bit humorous, and it’s simply produced."
She goes on: "It just has a certain feel to it. It feels like my first record. The sequencing does. ‘That’s Just Me’ is kind of like ‘We Danced Anyway.’ There’s a lot of nods, but I think it is a little more seasoned. The lyrical content is a lot more experienced, having been a mom (now), toured and had a career with ups and downs, been through a divorce. It’s been an interesting roller coaster ride."
"It was that way on the first record because it was a lot of years of living. So, this is experiencing those similar circumstances with a seasoning," she ponders.
In its own right, "Strawberry Wine" has become a country classic, standing the test of time. Carter recalls choosing to record that song, "That song was just my life. I lived that song, and I heard that song when we were looking for songs for my record that had already been recorded and shelved and recorded and shelved."
"I had been through the mill at Capitol, at the time," she says. "We were looking for new songs with the new label head. Then, I said, ‘gosh, this is it. If I’m not going to have ones [on the record] that I wrote, then I want to have the ones I’ve lived.’ I fought really hard for that song and ‘We Danced Anyway’ to be on the record. They wanted to take the bridge out. It was too risque for them. They were scared to death, initially, but they did forge ahead. We recorded it and it was on."
"I don’t think anybody knew [it was going to smash]," she admits of what the song has become over the years. "It was the dark horse of the record. I was just in our last interview, and I was singing it for the Music Row mag people. I was sitting there thinking, ‘man, I never dreamed that it would be what it’s become and still be as relevant.’ When you see videos on Youtube of karaoke, it’s like the whole room is singing it. The crowd will just start screaming when someone sings that song. It’s not even about me as it is about that common human experience that enough time has gone by, people are just clinging to that."
During her press junket last fall, Carter shares the story of a viral video that hit the web, of a fan performing the nostalgic track in a downtown karoake bar. "We were here in the fall doing a lot of press and promo for the record’s release. We had a meeting at the Palm downtown. We got out of the car for the valet guy, and I said, ‘hold the phone! Who’s singing?’ I was like, ‘let’s go.’ I ran up and there was this girl was singing it on the roof. We just ran up the steps and Jules [Wortman] started video-ing it. We stood there. There was not a soul in the place, and this girl was singing her butt off. I was going, ‘oh my gosh, check it out,'" she laughs. "The girl freaked out."
"Those are the moments," she realizes. "I want to always live that way where it’s organic and not calculated. I want to always be spontaneous and present."
The digital and social media age has certainly contributed to a whole new way of life, particularly for musicians trying to get their work heard to a wider audience. "I've been fortunate to live through it all. I was on the backend of the super old school genre, where you had cassettes. I still have them. You can have them if you want them," she giggles. "My dad’s era had LPs in the back of the trunk that they had to take to radio stations and stuff. But we had cassettes. Then, they went to CDs not long after that."
"In a lot of ways, it’s this instant gratification [now]. We were a lot more exhausted [then], because we’d physically drive all over America to meet people," Carter says. "This has been really fun to feel like you can get to know people through social media. You learn more about them. It can make or break an artist…or anybody."
"It’s a beautiful world we live in that people can find opportunity online. On the other hand, it can be a trainwreck kind of thing," she maintains.
Damian Elliott, also known as Buck 22 in Billy Ray Cyrus' hip-hop "Achy Breaky Hart" remix, was one particularly interesting collaboration on Southern. "It’s so funny. Warner Chappell hooked us up to write," she recalls. "He just did that Billy Ray Cyrus remix. I had no idea it was him, Buck 22 or something. He’s got so many names. So, I see him in his video, and I’m going, ‘what the…?' I got together with him. I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know any background. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to go and write a song."
"He was laughing about my southern accent," she continues, smirking. "We were in LA. I started writing down southernisms. I wanted to write a song with all of them strung together, ‘Let’s just try that. That’d be kind of funny.’ Then we came up with a silly song."
Also on the record, The Band Perry's lead vocalist Kimberly Perry contributed her songwriting talents to the opening track, "You Can't Stay." Carter shares the experience, "That was our first get together. She had been on the road working. She had a little bit of a cold that day. She sat down and just plowed through it. Her voice just blew my mind."
"I was so impressed by her, because she reminds me of myself when I was younger. Her and Kacey [Musgraves] both. They have the vision and this artistry. With Kimberly, I feel like she’s aggressive, creatively, with what she wants for herself," she says. "She brought the goods. I demoed it, hoping that she would cut it."
"I wasn’t in record mode [at the time]. I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to cut these songs, and I want more cuts.’ Kenney [Chesney] had cut ‘You And Tequila.’ On the back of that, I wanted a Band Perry cut. I always wanted a Keith Urban cut but never had one. All these songs I’m trying to write and get cuts back to back to back. It just eventually ended up being a record for myself."
"It’s really cool for her and Kacey to have cuts on my record," she mentions.
On Musgraves' blockbuster success over the past few years, Carter recalls, citing some sisterly love and adoration for the 25-year-old, "When I met Kacey, she didn’t have a deal. She was working through her songwriting process. She was so worthy of a deal. She’s just naturally good. I kind of felt she was my little sister. I just love her. I have a special place in my heart for her, to have seen her get her deal and that process and then all the success and see how well she’s handled it and stood out."
After downing the remainder of her glass, Carter reveals a song that she wished she had never written and recorded, or at the very least, had penned a bit differently. "I wrote a song one time when I had my heart broken by somebody from a certain state," she reluctantly confesses in her off-beat adorable way. "In my sarcasm, I never meant it to be towards the state, but I wrote this song with a cuss word in the title."
"It was sarcastic and a little insulting," she concedes. "I never mention anyone’s name or anything but I do mention the state. I ended up recording it in a rebellious way. I regret it so much. I don’t regret writing the song, because I do think you have to work through the process."
"It’s a clever song, but if someone heard it, they could be insulted. In my life now, I have God as more of my focus and all that. I am ashamed I put an expletive in the title," she concludes, but with a hopeful gleam in her eyes. It's all about positivity, folks.
"You live your life out in front of the world. I boldly recorded it and made it a bonus track. I won’t do that again."
When you are as steeped in the country music community as Carter is, you'll find your music finding its way back around, funnily enough. For her, it came with her song "You And Tequila," which she originally included on her 2003 record I'm Just A Girl. At the time, she was out on the road with Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. "They would come out and sit and listen to that song," she mulls. "That was their favorite song on the new record."
"We had the best tour ever. We were friends and it was so much fun. It was just amazing. Someone sent him a male version of it. I had no idea. Universal Publishers had a male version recorded. They pitched it and Kenny was like, ‘oh my gosh, I remember this song.’ I had nothing to do with it other than singing it on tour with him," she snickers, tossing her hair.
As part of what could be considered a Female Renassance in the '90s, she reflects on the industry and how much it has changed since then. "Everything goes in cycles," she notes of the current trends of few females being heard at radio. "That run ran for a decade. We had five or six girls going for adds on our add date once. That was unheard of at the time."
She continues, "I was in the wave of coming out of the Garth Brooks era into girls saturating the market but I was part of that saturation. I was probably the sleeper of the bunch that ended up having staying power, which was great. That’s how I look at it now: ‘Girls, get your lipstick on, because it’s about time to take the stage.’ It’s been guys, guys, guys for so long. We’ve got so many great girls, like Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe and Kacey. Miranda [Lambert]’s been great. The girls are about to step up to the plate."
Despite the chillingly depressing weather outside, Carter sits back and dreams of a tropical vacation (by my urging, of course) and who she would take aboard a cruise ship. "Keith, Keith and Keith," she quips. "Blake [Shelton], I love that guy. Kenny, of course. He’d be fun. John Rich, because we could write songs the whole time. I’d take Dolly, too."
"It’s too strict. Can you give me more?," she asks. I nod. "I would definitely take Dolly, Keith, Kenny, Blake, Kacey and Miranda. Vince Gill, too. Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, George Strait, if he would come. These are people I’ve worked with that are amazing," she grins.
We part ways, and it's like I've just caught up with a good friend I haven't seen in years.
Listen to one of the new album's cuts, titled "Do Or Die," above and grab your copy of Southern Way Of Life at iTunes.
Photos courtesy of Deana Carter and Little Nugget Records