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.