A steamy, romantic summer gives way to a melancholic autumn for a young woman who must now console herself with bittersweet memories of her first, fleeting love. That sounds like a blurb on the back of a young adult novel, but it’s actually the vividly detailed storyline of “Strawberry Wine,” a now-classic song built around the recollections of a burgeoning songwriter and brought to life by a former high-school cheerleader. Years beyond the true-life events that inspired the five-minute waltz penned by Matraca Berg with Gary Harrison, another fall would bring the U.S. release of Deana Carter’s breezy Did I Shave My Legs for This?, as its infectious lead single was climbing the country charts on its way to Number One.
Released in the States on September 3rd, 1996, a vastly different version of Carter’s LP was already on the market in the U.K., where Patriot Records, an imprint of what would soon become Capitol Nashville, banked on the rock-influenced singer to crack that market. While the journey to – and beyond – Did I Shave My Legs for This? and “Strawberry Wine” would prove a wild, tumultuous ride for Carter, it was also a self-described “love fest” buoyed by songs and songwriters that were wholly special to the artist. With more than five million copies sold since its release, the album remains one of the best-selling of all time from a female country act, and a debut disc that proved a tough act to follow.
Rolling Stone Country spoke to the Nashville native from her Los Angeles home, as she reflected on the fresh-as-ever-sounding, CMA award-winning (and Grammy-nominated) album. Carter, now 50, recalls the struggle to do things her way, the focus she says was pulled by Capitol labelmate Garth Brooks, and why traditionalists really have her to blame for the infusion of rap in country music.
There was an insanely long wait between teaming with the label, then led by Jimmy Bowen, and releasing your first album. What happened?
I had been in a development deal, four years of flirting with Capitol Records. “Am I signed? Am I not?” Bowen was playing golf a lot, and here I am waiting tables. I went to Bowen’s house and I told him, “It’s like you’re Santa Claus and I don’t know if I’m going to get what I want for Christmas or not. This has been going on forever and I need to know.” I said, “As a matter of fact, you owe me! You produced Dean Martin’s record that has a song of my dad’s called ‘It Just Happened That Way,’ which was going to be a single. You killed the single to promote the b-side. I was named after Dean Martin. If you hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have to be waiting tables right now!” He just died laughing. He was like, “Well, I guess we have a deal.'”
How did it come about that Did I Shave My Legs for This? was released in the U.K. first?
I went to Bowen and said I want to tour overseas and get my chops up before I do anything here. I flew over there with a guitar and a suitcase and did not know anybody. We went straight to rehearsal with a British band, and I was on a tour over there with [British musician and actor] Jimmy Nail. When I came back, there was another label head because Bowen had been ousted.
And the Liberty/Capitol deal here had fallen through by that point?
Basically, they dropped me because I was part of that old regime. So I called up the people in London and said, “I’m moving to London!” Because they had invested all this money. Back in Nashville, Scott Hendricks [acclaimed record producer who was engaged at the time to Faith Hill] was now in charge at Liberty, which had gone back to the Capitol name. Patriot was absorbed back into the Capitol label with other left-of-center acts like George Ducas.
But you had to begin the process of re-recording since the album wasn’t as mainstream and radio-friendly. How did you feel about that?
We argued! That whole process was, oh, my gosh… It ended up being great and now in hindsight, I’m glad. In the end, Scott was a hero because he turned it around from dropping me.
The album’s first single wasn’t supposed to be “Strawberry Wine.” How did you feel when you knew the label wanted to switch course and put it out?
I’ve still got boxes of the cassette single of “I’ve Loved Enough to Know.” We were set to put that out to radio. We shot the video for it and I was doing radio promo. We would sing that and then “Strawberry Wine” and maybe one other song [at radio stations]. The phones were going crazy over “Strawberry Wine.” Scott called me and said, “We need to switch the single.” I said, “No! My release is in two weeks!” He said, “I’m telling you, we need to.” We shot a new video and it about killed all of us, but we did it. He was a hero again, because he made that happen.
What did you hear in “Strawberry Wine” that resonated with you?
First of all it was Matraca; I was such a fan. I co-wrote all the songs on the first record, so in looking for material [to replace the songs from that album] I was like, “If I’m going to have to sing outside songs then I’m going to find songs that mean something to me.” The record was a love-fest. Having Matraca and Kim Carnes [who co-wrote the album closer, “To the Other Side”] on the record, that’s me going for the, “If we can’t have it this way, then we have to at least do it this way so that I feel like I’m in my skin.” Those girls are my creative sisters. It was so important to have them be a part of it. [The label was] pitching songs based on who owned it and I just wasn’t going to have it unless it was my story.
“Strawberry Wine” was my story. It’s her story, it’s my story, it’s all the fans’ story. We recorded it and they put the steel guitar on the front to countrify it a little bit. They wanted to take the bridge out and that was a huge fight because they thought it was too Beatles and too risky, but I wouldn’t budge.
Because of that song, how many stories have you had to endure about people’s sexual experiences?
Well, I think Kid Rock said he’s gotten luckier to that song than any other. [“Strawberry Wine” is alluded to in his hit, “All Summer Long.”]
“People were taking pictures of my feet and my butt.”
Once “Strawberry Wine” became a huge hit, things started to take off. What was that experience like, touring constantly — and meeting people who idolized you?
I was just young enough to be on the tail-end of mega-bus touring, going down the interstate where you’d see 10 buses a day. We would have Flying J parties [at truck stops], get burgers and open up beers. Things got crazy so fast and at the meet-and-greets, people were taking pictures of my feet and my butt. So I told the tour manager, “From now on, we’re gonna have a vibe room for the meet-and-greet in the back of the arena where everyone gets private time with me.” It was the first vibe tent, just like the circus we were in. I had lava lamps and blow-up furniture. Now everybody’s got that.
Did you have same sense of camaraderie when you were working in the studio?
That started with the musicians in the studio. Every day at 5 o’clock, we would have a martini cart. I made sure of it. The bell would ring and here comes the martini cart. I had blue cheese-stuffed olives and it didn’t matter if we were in the middle of a song. We quit and would go have a toast, a little prayer and a hug. Then we would get back to work.
After “Strawberry Wine,” “We Danced Anyway” [also written by Matraca, with Randy Scruggs], and “How Do I Get There” also reached Number One. How aware were you that you were doing things that were unheard of for a female artist at that time?
“How Do I Get There” was the first song ever on country radio that had a rap loop in it, a drum loop on the front in the intro. I fought hard for that, too. I joke that you can blame me for what you’re hearing all the time now. The album really opened the door for wielding electric guitar and being barefoot, doing split kicks off the drum riser. We had a rock & roll show. We had a jam band, basically. That was just unheard of in country music back then.
Another rarity at the time was being a female producer, but when you went into the studio to cut the songs that were recorded for the U.S. version of the album, you were basically co-producing them. What was that process like?
As a female artist it was really, really rare to be a record producer. I didn’t get credit for it either, but I worked hard in co-producing that first record, with Jimmy Bowen initially and then again with Chris Farren. Bowen paid me money to co-produce, he just didn’t give me the name credit on the record. Back then, that just wasn’t how it worked. He said, “This is your first album, kid. If it fails, you don’t deserve that noose around your neck. But if it succeeds you haven’t really earned it yet, either.” That’s sort of logical, but at the same time. . . That’s probably why roulette is the only game I like to play in Vegas. [Laughs]
Even though it wasn’t one of the bigger hits on the album, most people remember “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” for the hilarious video. What do you remember about it?
It was a two-day shoot on the outskirts of Nashville. Roger Pistole directed it and two of the kids in it are real siblings who were beating the crap out of each other through the whole thing! There was a lot of improv.
There was also that great parody of the song from Cledus T. Judd, “Did I Shave My Back for This?” You appeared in that video, too.
As a sumo wrestler!
And have you heard “Did I Shave My Vagina for This?” by Tammy Faye Starlite? It’s not a parody per se, but it does mention “Strawberry Wine.”
[Stunned silence] Oh my goodness. Wow! That’s crazy. No, I’ve never heard that before. I’ve heard quite a few others as a joke. But that’s actually recorded? I want to say I look forward to that but I’m not sure if I do. [Laughs] I would never dream how far the ripples go.
“Boy, is that a sign that I just need to take a lap.”
You were always very outspoken at Capitol. How did they react to that?
As an artist, I put the pedal to the metal on wanting everything to stand out and be different. From the album cover being a hologram, which had never been done, to the drum loop, to a pop-up video version of “Did I Shave My Legs for This.” That used to make people crazy! “She’s driving us nuts.” But everything I did I wanted it to be great, special and different and fun.
In spite of having sold five million albums, you had to contend with Garth Brooks, who was getting a lot of your label’s attention. How did that affect your relationship with him and with the label?
Don’t even get me started! [Laughs] I had started a book… I had it down, regarding him. In 2007, my computer got stolen. I had set up in this office in Hollywood, which I thought was a secure place. Not only my laptop but my backup drive, my purse, two phones… I got wiped out. New music I had done and that book that I had started and had quite a few things laid out. It was all gone. I said, “Boy, is that a sign from God that I need to just take a lap.” [Laughs] That’s a whole other interview. The people at the label weren’t at fault. They were just working hard to try have success.
There’s a perception that when the follow-up album, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, was released in 1998, it was a failure. What’s your perception of it now?
It still sold almost a million records! But for that second record there was no party, no press. It was just like, “See ya later.” We had all this big success and then it started this whole thing of everybody’s story was different, like where “Strawberry Wine” came from and how the record was made. It was sad. We were trying to achieve the same amount. I was working my rear off on the road, trying to write and record another record that was gonna top that record. The saddest thing is there wasn’t the time. I’d had 25 years to prep for the first record and give it all I had. Then the second record, it was, “We’ve got to turn this around in nine months.” It was hardcore. But it still did great. It paled in comparison to five million records. But some of it was creative differences, another label head, wrestling all that again. The label itself was struggling to keep focus.
What do you think you learned from that experience at Capitol that you’re benefiting from now that you have Little Nugget, your own record label?
That was my record, it was my vision and there were many, many people that were part of that team that I could not have had any follow-through without. Ever since I started Little Nugget to do this on my own on a tiny scale, I’ve called people and said, “Man, thank you for what you did.” I was doing ISRC and UPC coding by myself on this last record. I don’t want to take credit away from people. It took a village.
What’s coming up for you and when might there be a new album?
I’m on the road every weekend until Christmas, which is crazy and awesome. If you’re gigging that much, it’s hard to get a record finished. At the end of last year I did record 20 songs. We just have to finish ’em up, which is in the game plan for this fall. Then we’ll probably release something early next year. I’ve also been mentoring new artists and producing some other artists, providing a sounding board for them. I like to be involved in the production of the music. I would love to put artists out on my label but they need to be in the biggest place they can be.
Any more acting work in your future?
I did a film at the end of the year last year called Painted Horses. I played the aunt of the lead character and helped with the music supervision of the film. We’ve started a new one in Austin called Take 2 for Faith. It’s about a super famous country star who returns home to get grounded again. I’m helping with the music for that film.
Any last thoughts as you look back to 20 years ago?
I just had a vision and I wasn’t gonna let it get by me without doing my best. And it took a lot of people to help make that happen. God has been so good to me through music and through so many people. I am so grateful.