Femme fatale Carlene Carter has emerged from hell with a little help from her late mother - June Carter Cash - and friends.

Carter, now 50, played June in the new Carter Family musical Wildwood Flower that debuted in Nashville in July.

The production co-starred her cousin, Lorrie Bennett Davis, who played her mother, Anita Carter - one of three sisters of June.

It was staged at the BellSouth Acuff Theatre, next to the Grand Ole Opry House.

The show focussed on the lively dynamic between Mother Maybelle Carter and her three daughters - June, Anita and Helen.

It unfolded against a backdrop of acoustic music and family harmony.

After the Carter Family's breakup in 1943, Maybelle and her girls began touring, as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

Carlene is the daughter of country star Carl Smith and then wife June Carter.

Her parents split in 1952 when she was two and Smith married fellow country singer Goldie Hill who died at 72 in February of 2005.

When Carlene was 12, her mother married Johnny Cash.

Following the marriage, Carlene and her stepsister, Rosanne Cash, became backup singers in the Carter/Cash touring show.

The four times wed singer, who lost partner of 15 years, Howie Epstein, to a heroin overdose on February 24, 2003, has bounced back after fighting her drug demons.

Carlene joined Billy Joe Shaver and Todd Snider performing songs handpicked by Tom T. Hall at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Wednesday August 10.

Carter and cousin Lorrie sang Keep on the Sunny Side and Me and the Wildwood Rose.

Now the four times wed mother of two plans to write a book about her career that embraced nine albums and role with Kiki Dee in Broadway show Pump Boys & Dinettes.


"I have great stories," Carter revealed recently.

"I am going to write a book. I've actually started it. I've got 10 chapters. It's not anything serious right now. It's just me trying to find my voice and my writing style. Plus, I'm concentrating on this right now. I like to do one thing at a time and do it to the best of my ability."

Carlene was just 15 when she wed Joe Simpkins and they had a daughter Tiffany.

They were divorced within a few years.

Carter enrolled in college as a piano major in her late teens, but she never graduated. At 19, she married fellow songwriter Jack Routh and had a son, also Jack; they were divorced within two years.

Carlene's stepsister Cindy Cash also wed Carlene's second ex husband Jack so she became John Routh Jr's aunt and stepmother.

Routh became the second husband of both singing stepsiblings.

So he was also legally his son's step uncle.

Cindy wed Marty Stuart in 1983 but split after six years in 1988.

Marty then married fellow country singer Connie Smith, 17 years his senior, in 1997.


That was 18 years after Carlene, just 23, wed English rock singer and guitarist Nick Lowe in 1979.

It was a year after she decided to pursue a musical career, heading to Los Angeles where she received a record contract with Warner Bros.

Her debut album, Carlene Carter, was a rock record recorded in London with Graham Parker's backing band, the Rumour.

The following year, she released second album, Two Sides to Every Woman, which featured support from the Doobie Brothers.

That same year she married Lowe, who was currently the co-leader of the new wave rock revival band, Rockpile.

Lowe helped Carter shape her musical direction in the early '80s, and her third album - new wave-country-rock record Musical Shapes (1980) - showed influence of Lowe, Rockpile, and Dave Edmunds.

Although the album was critically acclaimed, it was a commercial failure.

She followed Musical Shapes in 1981 with Blue Nun, which continued to pursue a new wave-country direction; like its predecessor, it was ignored.

Carter also released C'est C Bon on Razor & Tie Music in 1983.


She later hooked up with acclaimed producer Howie Epstein - former bassist for Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.

Epstein, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, also produced John Prine's Grammy-winning album The Missing Years.

He produced two Carter albums, one of which was nominated for a Grammy.

In 1989 she began working on a comeback record with Epstein - the same year she performed a duet with Southern Pacific on the Top 40 hit Time's Up.

Reprise signed Carter in 1990 and she released her sixth album, I Fell in Love, later that year.

I Fell in Love produced two hit singles, the title track, and Come on Back that soared to #3 on charts.

Her 1993 sequel Little Love Letters on Giant Records was equally successful.

It's first single Every Little Thing also reached #3.

Next album Little Acts of Treason enjoyed moderate success on the country charts in 1995 and was followed by Hindsight 20/20 - a greatest hits compilation in 1996.

But offstage Carter and Epstein were riding the storms of life that also waylaid her stepfather Cash at the peak of his career.

The couple lived together for about 15 years and suffered a brace of arrests for drug related charges after becoming heroin abusers.

They made headlines in June 2001 when they were arrested in Albuquerque with 2.9 grams of black-tar heroin and drug paraphernalia in a vehicle that had been reported stolen.
Epstein was not charged in that case.

Carter pleaded no contest to a charge of heroin possession and was sentenced to 18 months probation.


Epstein, father of a daughter Jamie, then 15, was separated from Carlene for about six months when he died at 47 on February 24, 2003 from a heroin overdose in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The day before he was taken to the hospital, his dog, a 16-year-old shepherd named Dingo, died.

He was taking antibiotics for an illness and had recently suffered from flu, stomach problems and an abscess on his leg.

"I'm devastated," Carlene said at the time.

"I loved him very much. My kids thought of Howie as their father. We had a good life together for 15 years. We've been apart since May last year, and all I know is I'm going to miss him very much. He was working on new music. He was liking living in Santa Fe. It was hard for us to split."

Local friends described Epstein as talented, kind and generous, though he struggled with a drug problem.

"He had a lot more going for him than the Heartbreakers," said his girlfriend of six months, Tanya.

"He was always warm, always kind, always generous to people who never appreciated it."

After the June 2001 arrest, Petty fired Epstein, citing the bass player's "ongoing personal problems."

Epstein had joined the Heartbreakers in 1982.

"His departure from Tom Petty wasn't something that hung over him," Tanya said.

"He was looking forward to making positive changes in his life. Even if his departure from the band didn't hang over him like a patio umbrella, his other troubles certainly did. In a Rolling Stone article, Tom Petty described the death of Epstein like finding that dying tree that you've grown to love in your backyard has been cut down."


Carter plans to relaunch her career in Music City where she is revered as a singer who did it her way from her recording debut as a teenager.

"When I came back to Tennessee, I thought I was going to stay for just the run of the play," Carter revealed.

"I thought, "I'll stay for the summer." That's what I had decided. But I got here and started singing this music with the cast, with Janet and Gina and Lorrie and Mark W. Winchester, who is so great as Chet Atkins. That week, I decided I've got to come back home. It's time. Before that, I went to L.A. and did some things for myself to get myself on track. It took me about a year to feel like I could do it. And it all worked out.

Carter rebuilt her career after regaining her health with the help of support group MusiCares after Epstein's death.

"I actually really concentrated on my recovery, in all aspects," Carter explained.

Recovering from losing so much of my family and losing my own love of music, too. I've also had problems with my addictions. I really had to get it in perspective. "I'm going to die if I keep doing what I'm doing. I was given a good opportunity. MusiCares was really good to me. I can't say enough how MusiCares helps other people. They really, really helped me. They have the greatest groups and support for musicians in recovery."


Carter is now writing and planning her 10th album - with a little help from loyal friends.

"I'd like to make a new record, yeah," she says.

"I've had a lot of thoughts on that, and I've had a lot of conversations with other people about it, about the business. It's there for me because I want it. I don't need somebody to offer me a record deal. I can make music myself, whether it's just in my living room or here or wherever I believe everything falls into place as it's supposed to. I need to write some more songs. I've got quite a few new songs that I feel really good about. I think I'm going to go into the studio soon. I like making records. There are a lot of things I'd like to do. Now that I'm back here, I'd really like to start writing with people and working my catalogue. I've got a large catalogue built up over the last 30 years. I've been writing songs for the last 30 years."


Carter performed her song Me And the Wildwood Rose at the end of the musical.

"It's about those days," Carter says of the song that detailed her Carter family era childhood.
"It's from my point of view. Mine and Lorrie's points of view as little girls. When I wrote that song, I was still grieving for my grandmother's soul because she was such a huge part of my life and such my friend. I just wanted to be with Grandma and Aunt Helen and Anita, too. All the time! That's what I wanted to do as a kid. I loved being with Grandma.

"When I wrote it, it was like 1988 or something like that, I wrote it at the suggestion of Howie. He said, "You should really write a song about those days. You've told all those stories. Like how you used to make beds in the floorboards." Mama always called Rosey "the Wildwood Rose."

Rosey Nix Adams was Carter's sister; she died in 2003.

"I couldn't really get Me and Lorrie and the Wildwood Rose to work but it was about me and Lorrie and Rosey," Carter added.

"Also, yesterday was Rosey's birthday, and she passed away two years this October. This is for her, too. This is her music too. I felt like it was important to put in there.

When I sing the verse about "I'll always remember the day that she died," not only do I think about my grandmother, I'm thinking about my mom, Aunt Helen and Aunt Anita. I know it sounds really sad, and I don't want to get any kind of pity from people, but I feel it every time I sing it. I remember getting on that airplane and I remember riding over there by myself, and we stood in a circle and sang Will the Circle Be Unbroken. So I want to do that in life. I want to stand in a circle and sing Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I don't want to sing it just at funerals, or when I'm gone, I don't want people to just do that. I want them to sing No Swallerin' Place - a novelty song in the play or something."

top / back to diary