Carlene Carter

Stronger

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The last time most folks heard about Carlene Carter, the news wasn't good -- in 2001, she and then-boyfriend Howie Epstein, who had produced her best-selling album I Fell in Love during downtime from his gig as bassist with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, spent the night in jail in New Mexico after they were pulled over in a stolen truck with nearly three grams of heroin. Since Carter hadn't released an album since 1995 and had a reputation for drinking and rowdy behavior, it was easy for many fans to imagine the worst, and while Carter began pulling herself back to health, she returned to the stage in 2003 in a musical set in Nashville about the Carter Family (in which she played her own mother, June Carter), that would prove to be a devastating year for her, as her mother, her step-father Johnny Cash, her sister Rosey Carter, and her former beau Epstein all died within the space of a few months. After all this, the mere fact that Carlene Carter is healthy, happily married, and making music again seems surprising enough, so it's doubly impressive that 2008's Stronger is one of her best and most personal albums to date. Carter's voice is deeper and a shade less flexible on Stronger than on her previous recordings, but she sounds soulful and impassioned and can still bring her songs to vivid, compelling life in the studio, and with the help of John McFee, who produced the sessions and plays most of the instruments, she's made a disc that's as lively as her music of the '80s and '90s without sidestepping the emotional gravity that informs her new material. With the exception of the opening cut "The Bitter End," Carter wrote all the songs on Stronger by herself, and while not every tune refers to the drama that's come into her life since her last album, "Judgment Day," "It Takes One to Know Me," and the title cut are clearly informed by the good and the bad that's come her way in the past dozen years, and even upbeat songs like "Why Be Blue" and "Break My Little Heart in Two" are tougher and edgier that you'd expect (and the remake of "I'm So Cool" from Musical Shapes adds some depth missing from the original). If Carlene Carter's dark days have aged her, it's done her music good -- Stronger shows she still has spunk and fire to spare, while also revealing a hard-won maturity and strength that richly, truly earns her the over-used appellation of "survivor."

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