By Jim Jerome
July 03, 1978 12:00 PM

Everybody just assumed it would be a country album,” says Carlene Carter. “You know, Carter Family girl, lives in Nashville, picks guitar, writes songs.” Carlene, 22, is indeed third-generation Nashville nobility—granddaughter of country matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter, eldest daughter of June Carter, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. Her father, June’s first husband, Carl Smith, is also a C & W mainstay. So are Carlene’s aunts and uncles. It all figures—except for one detail. As Johnny puts it, “Carlene’s been playin’ rock’n’roll at home since she was 12.”

The tradition-breaking result is her debut LP, Carlene Carter, a finely crafted synthesis of pop and rock without a lick of dobro, banjo or pedal steel picking. Aside from some familiar Carter dynasty phrasing, the family’s rock renegade is steering toward the Top 40 fast lane with a jaunty pop-rock single, Never Together but Close Sometimes. The LP was recorded not in Nashville but, Lord forbid, in London, with side-men from rocker Graham Parker’s band. Still, Mother June was supportive and “likes the album a whole lot,” Carlene reports.

One reason may be that C.C., as her musician pals call her, has already suffered the kind of hard livin’ befitting a country queen. Blessed with a dreamy beauty that can weaken the knees of good ole boys three counties away, Carlene has been through two marriages (at 15 and 18), two divorces, and had two children. “I don’t think I would get married again,” she says. “Now if a guy starts talking about plans for us—I’m gone. Fallin’ in love with a girl with two kids is a heavy trip, and I don’t want to drag my kids through more hell.”

As a child of a broken marriage herself, Carlene studied ballet and classical piano. By the time her mother married Johnny, Carlene was 12 and tagging along on some Cash and Carter tours. Joining in on Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at a gospel rally, she recalls, “I was shakin’ so I had to be held up by my aunt.” Then C.C. “knew this was what I was supposed to do in life and nothing else. It was never my dream to be a cheerleader.”

She studied music and creative writing for three years at Tennessee’s Belmont College, “but it got hard to explain to profs that I was late for class because I was playin’ at One-Eyed Jack’s the night before until 3 a.m.” Though performing her own tunes in 40-minute sets during amateur night showcases, she found herself “spending 75 percent of my time establishing the fact that I wasn’t there just to go home with somebody.”

In the meantime Carlene’s ricochet marriages to a college student (her first date) and then to a local singer-writer went blooey. “I was so young when I got married that when I got divorced the first time, it’s like it happened to someone else,” she says. As for the second time around, “I could’ve stayed married, raised a family and everything, but that old guitar just wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Now she finds playing the field “weird—it’s like I’ve been married all my life.” Carlene wants “to have fun with men,” she says, “but I don’t want to be bullshitted around by them. I can’t deal with getting my heart broken anymore.” That means fending off rock-scene lotharios like one L.A. heavy who “comes up to me and whispers, ‘Hey, honey, I got some Quaaludes and a Jacuzzi back at the house.’ I mean, come on!” C.C. had one not-so-wild-and-crazy date with a subdued Steve Martin (“He was really nice”). And since early this year she has been off-and-on with British pop-rocker Nick Lowe. “But,” she figures, “it’s almost hopeless to keep a relationship going with 6,000 miles between us.”

Carlene lives with the kids and their babysitter (who is also her best friend and secretary) in a modest brick house in Hendersonville, Tenn. She bought it from Johnny and June after moving from a trailer parked behind their mansion. (“I didn’t like the idea of mooching off them.”) “John did not want me to grow up,” she remembers. “We had a hard time when I was about 13. But then I got married and things have been great with him ever since.” As for her mother, who was recently hospitalized with a back ailment, Carlene worries that June “has been on the road since she was 8, and I think it’s time she slowed down.” Though her remarkable gifts are in a different mode, C.C. is Carter Clan proud. “I don’t want to disgrace them,” she declares. “John once told me, ‘Think of your grandmother’s dignity when you are onstage.’ ”

While her career has already eroded some anonymity, Carlene still likes to hang out in Nashville honky-tonks, sipping vodka and grapefruit juice. But it’s hard to keep her cover these days with her stunning looks and arrivals in a record company limo. Not that she objects to the idea of making it big. “Hey,” she jokes, “if Prince Charming came by today and asked me to come live with him, I’d have to say, ‘Let me check my itinerary.’ In this business, man, you can’t tell your manager you blew a gig because you met a cute guy last night. Nobody wants 15 percent of your love life.”