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Songwriter Spotlight: Kim Carnes

“Bette Davis Eyes” singer has followed her colossal pop hit with timeless, Grammy-winning country tunes

Kim Carnes

NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 09: The Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum Presents 'Conversation And Performance: Kim Carnes' at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 9, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMHOF)

Kim Carnes

Kim Carnes will forever be linked to her massive 1981 hit, “Bette Davis Eyes,” a song that spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, but she readily acknowledges that since that Grammy-winning hit she’s had something of a “PR problem.” Although the song’s success both at home and abroad was earth-shattering for pop music and for Carnes personally, there’s been far more to her life and career before it and certainly since. So, a few history lessons are in order. While it’s true Carnes didn’t write that smash hit – it was penned by Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss – she has, in fact, written hundreds of songs for both herself and other artists. She also continues to perform live throughout the world, remaining a hugely popular draw especially in Europe and South America, where her albums after the Grammy-nominated Mistaken Identity (from which “Eyes” was taken) have scaled the charts of countries as far-reaching as South Africa.

But one of the most under-publicized and underappreciated aspects of Carnes’ career has been the impact she has had on country music, going back as far as the early Seventies, when her compositions began being covered by Nashville-based artists, a situation she continues to enjoy and benefit from to this day. A California native, Carnes has been one of those Music City-dwelling artists since 1994 when she and her husband, songwriter-publisher Dave Ellingson, relocated here from L.A. But even before she made the move (or made Bette Davis a Top 40 legend), Carnes was having her songs cut by the likes of Kenny Rogers (she and Ellingson wrote an entire album for the pop-country superstar), Dottie West and Dave & Sugar. Since then, Tim McGraw, Deana Carter, Suzy Bogguss, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Sawyer Brown, Pam Tillis and Tanya Tucker are but a few of the acts who have covered Carnes’ tunes, not to mention Number One duets she’s penned for Rogers and Ronnie Milsap and Vince Gill with Reba McEntire.

Although it’s been a decade since the release of her brilliant LP, Chasin’ Wild Trains, a set of tunes squarely entrenched in the Americana sub-genre of country music, Carnes continues to do as she’s always done, penning songs that suit artists in multiple genres, with cuts from Big Mama Thornton to Johnny and June Carter Cash. It was in fact, Carnes says, another member of the Cash family who first had her thinking about making Nashville her home, with an LP that was climbing the charts at the same time as Mistaken Identity.  

“When I heard Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache, I loved that,” Carnes tells Rolling Stone Country. “I thought, ‘That was cut in Nashville, she lives in Nashville. . . ‘ The wheels started going.”

Carnes soon began making regular visits to Tennessee’s capital city and, like many of the town’s tunesmiths, she would occasionally collaborate with other writers. To date, just a few of the writers she has worked with include Kim Richey, Matraca Berg, Al Anderson, Jeffrey Steele, Tim Nichols, Greg Barnhill and Connie Harrington. Although she also pens plenty of material by herself, and continues to tour the world billed as a solo act, Carnes sees herself as one aspect of a more collaborative effort.

“Even though I am a solo artist, I’ve never thought of myself exactly that way,” she explains. “I always think in terms of me and the band. My greatest joy in doing music is in the collaboration. To this day, when I do a TV show, I always tell them the same thing. ‘Don’t put me here and the band back there on stage. I want the band around me.’ I think of myself as a singer in a group.

“We did a video once and [guitarist] Waddy Wachtel, who played with me so much, his dad was there,” Carnes continues. “In this great New York accent, he said to me, ‘Wait a minute, you’re the star. You’re supposed to be up front. Why do you have your band all around you? They need to be back farther.’ Waddy was like, ‘Dad!’ I said, ‘No, they don’t. We all made this music together.’ I want to look around me and see my guys I count on so much.”

Collaboration was certainly the key to another of the Number One songs Carnes was featured on in 1985. The very same month she was on the pop charts with a solo hit, “Invitation to Dance,” she also charted with her Barbra Streisand duet, “Make No Mistake (He’s Mine)” (a song that would later top the country charts in a revised version), and in a trio, with James Ingram and Kenny Rogers on the hit, “What About Me.” But hovering above all of those was the all-star ensemble USA for Africa, and their recording of the huge international hit, “We Are the World,” which featured a solo performance from Carnes. The singer-songwriter was supposed to sing the entire line, “When we stand together as one,” but was battling a sinus infection that forced her to limit her entire solo to just the first two words.

“When I hit those two top notes at the end of the line they gave me I said, ‘I’ve got to have help on this because I have a horrible cold!'” she recalls. “To sing the chorus was no problem, but [not] to hit the note they wanted me to do. They were kind enough to give me the last big note of the song but I wasn’t strong like I should be. I felt horrible, but there was no way I was going to stay home! And, lyrically, three people singing that line, ‘When we stand together as one,’ actually made sense in the context of the song.”

In the same spirit of collaboration, Carnes tells Rolling Stone Country the stories behind three favorites from her catalog — songs that were all written at the special requests of iconic singers.

Kim Carnes

Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” (Carnes, David Ellingson)
Kenny Rogers asked us to write a concept album for him and he wanted the character to be a modern-day cowboy. We gave him a name, Gideon Tanner, and we had to make up an entire life story for him. Right after I wrote it, I thought it would make a good duet. Kin Vassy, who was the most incredible singer and is unfortunately no longer with us, he and I demoed it as a duet. When I played it for Kenny, we played him the whole album. He stopped after that song and said, “If I do this project, will you sing the duet with me?” I couldn’t wait for it to come out. I had nothing but positive feelings about how it would be received and just being so proud that we had actually pulled it off. We’d written a whole album for someone who was selling multi-platinum at that point.

I’ll do the song in every show, but I always say that I don’t really think that way personally, that you shouldn’t fall in love with a dreamer. Because I’m a dreamer, all my friends are dreamers. I think it’s a wonderful thing to dream big.

Kim Carnes/Barbra Streisand and Kenny Rogers/Ronnie Milsap,”Make No Mistake, He’s Mine” (Carnes)
Barbra Streisand had already cut two songs of mine, “Love Comes From Unexpected Places” and “Stay Away.” I’d gotten a call from Jon Peters [Streisand’s then-manager] to write a duet to sing with her. While I was extremely flattered, I said, “Let me think about it. I’ll try my best.” As I hung up the phone, I thought, “That is so bizarre and it will never work in a million years because our voices are so different. I can’t pull this off.”

Much like the Gideon songs, I went to piano a half-hour later and an hour later the song was written. It’s a love triangle and these two girls are singing back and forth to each other about being in love with the same dude. It just wrote itself. It was another meant-to-be. I was so afraid I would lose it if I got up from the piano that I yelled out, “Somebody please bring me a yellow pad and a pencil!” I didn’t want my fingers to leave the piano keys. I knew, as much as I could ever know anything, that it was the only song we could ever sing together.

A few years later, Kenny Rogers called and said, “I’m going to do a duet with Ronnie Milsap. Do you have anything two guys could sing?” It was a simple change [to] “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.” Who knew when I got a call to write a song for Barbra Streisand – that was so left-field, so out there – that it would end up being a Number One country record and they would get a Grammy for it! If more people had an open mind when they hear a song that isn’t sung by a super-country voice and isn’t an obvious country song, if they have the imagination to hear that if the arrangements were a little different and the singers were a little country, it would work fine. There are so many songs that translate and it’s so hard for most people to hear that for some reason. In this case, both of those guys heard it immediately.

Then, last year, it was a duet on Glee! That was a huge surprise. And it was another slant on the song. It was “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” but it was a guy and girl singing it about another girl! I was thrilled about that. They did a great version.

Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, “The Heart Won’t Lie” (Carnes, Donna Weiss)
I kind of set out to write something for Kenny [Rogers], something that was like “Dreamer,” Part Two. I usually don’t do that. I usually sit down and write from inspiration. But once I decided to do that, it did become inspiration. I wrote the chorus and called Donna Weiss up and said, “This is perfect for the two of us.” [Producer] Jimmy Bowen paid us the best compliment. He said that when he hears a song we wrote together, it’s like one person wrote it. So Donna and I wrote it, made a demo of it and sent it to Kenny. He loved it and said, “Let’s do it as a duet on my next album.”

The next album came around and he said he couldn’t do it because he had a duet with Gladys Knight on that one. So it sat there and it didn’t get on the next album. I was puzzled, but shit happens… or doesn’t happen. Then, he was going to do it as a duet but not with me, with Reba McEntire. I thought that was perfect. Reba was hot as a pistol and always is. The writer part of me was thrilled and I wasn’t disappointed we weren’t going to do it.

Kenny and I have the same attorney and I went to his office and told him I had heard Kenny and Reba cut a song of mine and it came out great. He looked at me with the strangest look and said, “It’s not going to be on the album.” He said it came out so good that Reba’s label wanted her to put it out and Kenny said, “Wait a minute, we came to you. This is my album, I should put it out.” The answer was, it was on nobody’s album! Think about that: it came out so great that it’s not going to be on anyone’s album. It’s preposterous! Like I made the story up.

I don’t know how much time went by, but I got a call out of the blue from [producer] Tony Brown. I loved working with him. He called and asked if anyone had cut it and said he was going to cut it with Reba. The next call I got was that Reba ended up doing it with Vince Gill. I was beside myself. I love Vince Gill. He sang backgrounds on two songs on my View From the House album in 1988. It worked out really great, through all the ups and downs. It went up the charts so fast, it flew. It was a dream scenario, and they made just such a perfect record. They both have duets albums, greatest hits albums, so, like “Dreamer” and “Make No Mistake,” it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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