Carlene Carter, whose family legacy was explored at length in Ken Burns’ Country Music, turns 64 on Thursday. The granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, and daughter of June Carter Cash and singer Carl Smith, Carter made her recording debut in 1974 with “Friendly Gates,” a track from stepfather Johnny Cash’s LP The Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me. The album, which also featured a solo cut by June Carter Cash, was a true family affair, shining early solo spotlights on Cash’s daughter Rosanne, and Carlene’s sister, Rosey. “Friendly Gates” was among a trio of the LP’s songs that were penned by Carter’s then-husband Jack Wesley Routh.
Although raised in Tennessee, Carter would move to Los Angeles in 1978 and then record her self-titled debut that year in London. Merging country and rock with splashes of new wave, Carlene Carter recorded with Graham Parker’s backing band, the Rumour. The following year, she married British rocker Nick Lowe, an event that was reenacted for Lowe’s video accompanying the hit “Cruel to Be Kind.” Playing the limo driver in the clip was Welsh-born singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Edmunds, Lowe’s bandmate in the band Rockpile.
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Carter’s third album, Musical Shapes, released in 1980, would be her first to hit the charts, and generated her second country-chart single, a duet with Edmunds called “Baby Ride Easy.” A sweet, romantic tune with a distinct Southern twang and lyrical images of a waitress, a truck stop, the White House, a “winsome pale senorita,” and a bullfighter, the song was written on an oil rig off the Louisiana shore by the late Richard Dobson, a Nashville housemate of Rodney Crowell’s in the early Seventies.
On a 1980 edition of the British chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, which coincidentally aired on the singer’s 25th birthday, Carter and Edmunds performed the song. A bluegrass version of “Baby Ride Easy” was also recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in the early Eighties, at Carter’s suggestion. The sessions, produced by Billy Sherrill, were unreleased but later discovered in the Cash archives by John Carter Cash. The track was included on Johnny Cash’s posthumous 2014 album Out Among the Stars.
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