Carter reflects on success 20 years after ‘Strawberry Wine’

Deana Carter will take the stage at 9 p.m. today to close out the first day of this year’s Foothills Festival in downtown Jasper. – Photo Special to the Eagle
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When Deana Carter takes the stage in downtown Jasper tonight, the first song on the set list will be “I’ve Loved Enough To Know” — the opening track on her debut album, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”

The album, released 20 years ago, reached multi-platinum status and included three No. 1 singles — “Strawberry Wine,” “How Do I Get There” and “We Danced Anyway.”

“We go through a lot of the songs from the first album because it’s so fun to reconnect with the fans and see them singing all the words. They know all the songs, even the ones that weren’t singles. They still sing them back to us,” Carter said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

If not for country music fans, “I’ve Loved Enough To Know” would have been Carter’s first single.

Prior to its release, Carter made the then-customary rounds of local radio stations in which she introduced herself and sang several songs off the album.

In an era before social media, call-ins were the gauge by which new singles were measured. The response to “Strawberry Wine” was immediate and overwhelming. It was destined to be a hit.

“I am so grateful to have come out at a time where you drove cross-country to radio stations like Loretta Lynn back in the day and when phone calls mattered and it wasn’t just social media postings. I got to experience hands-on, tactile phones lighting up and DJs answering the phones. It was still very manually run and very manually received by the fans,” Carter said.

Carter points to album sales, which were better before staying connected meant more than having an online presence, as proof that the fans respond when artists reach out to them.

“To me, that it is a testimony to how important it is to keep the music authentic, present it real and in person and shake hands, hug people and say, ‘Thank you,’” she said.

“Strawberry Wine” was an unlikely breakthrough smash for Carter.

Though cheating songs have always been common in country music, a ballad recounting a first sexual experience was considered taboo in 1996.

There was concern that radio stations would be reluctant to play a song that ran for nearly five minutes and was in a waltz tempo.

Carter’s label also pushed to remove the song’s bridge, deeming it unnecessary and “too Beatles.”

Carter fought hard to keep it in, believing that it would both reinforce the song’s message and would appeal to fans who didn’t ordinarily listen to country music.

“The radio version is shorter than the album version. We had a jam on the end of it like ‘Free Bird.’ To me, ‘Strawberry Wine’ is the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of country music. Our live shows backed up more of a rock edge than the album reflected. We organically were cross-marketing, and that was reiterating a message that was connecting with an audience in all genres,” Carter said.

Carter followed up “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” with six more albums. The latest, “Southern Way of Life,” was released in 2013 on her own label, Little Nugget Records. (Her father, famed studio guitarist and producer Fred Carter Jr., owned Nugget Records.)

Though the follow-up to her debut, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” sold nearly a million copies and included a Top 16 single, the timing that brought so much success with “Strawberry Wine” would elude Carter for more than a decade.

In 2003, she released “I’m Just A Girl.” The day that the album went on sale, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began.

Still, the album peaked at No. 6 on the country charts and the single “There’s No Limit” became her first hit in the Top 20 since 1998.

The fourth track on the album was a song that Carter co-wrote with Matraca Berg, who penned “Strawberry Wine.”

Though both Carter and Berg recorded “You and Tequila” for their own projects, it wouldn’t become known to country audiences until Kenny Chesney released it as the fourth single on his 2010 album “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”

The song was nominated for Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammys, CMAs and ACMs.

Though Carter frequently co-writes her own songs, “You and Tequila” marked the first time that she received recognition by fellow songwriters and that a fellow artist took one of her songs into the Top 10.

Success was made much sweeter by the fact that she was sharing it with Berg.

What most people didn’t know was how close Carter had come to giving up on music.

When Carter tried to get a record deal in her early 40s, she soon learned that major labels were interested in up-and-coming young artists.

Carter had gone through two divorces and worried about supporting her son, Hayes, who was then starting first grade.

At her lowest point, Carter prayed for direction. The song “Do or Die” off her 2013 album “Southern Way of Life” was penned during that time.

“I thought, ‘Do I really even keep trying to do music?’ I wasn’t in the right age pocket anymore. I didn’t know about my songwriting anymore. You start second-guessing yourself in your 40s. It’s a tough time. I said my prayers, picked up my guitar and wrote ‘Do or Die’ just pouring out my heart. A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call that Kenny had recorded ‘You and Tequila,’” Carter said.

In addition to her own career, which includes film work as well as recordings, Carter also enjoys mentoring and working with younger artists.

“Southern Way of Life” includes songs that Carter co-wrote with fellow artists such as Kimberly Perry of “The Band Perry” and Kacey Musgraves.

Carter also produced Audra Mae’s 2012 album, “Audra Mae and The Almighty Sound.” Several of its singles caught the attention of artists as varied as Miranda Lambert and Christina Aguilera.

“She and I worked really hard on that record, and she just killed it. You see the results. You see people wanting to be part of something that is authentic and real, and that’s what I always want to maintain until my last breath,” Carter said.

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