Despite frigid December temperatures that must be a shock after the balmy L.A. weather, country singer Deana Carter is glad to be home. For the last year, she's been living in a three-bedroom rental house in Hollywood and carving out a new life for herself as an actress and screenwriter. She's mingled with actors Billy Bob Thornton and Matt Damon, watched a meteor shower with George Clooney (not alone, alas) and beaten actress Charlize Theron at pool. Diners at Granite Falls don't seem to recognize Carter as she nibbles at a Caesar salad; with her long blond hair spilling over the shoulders of her flannel shirt, she seems like the girl next door. And at least to us, she is.

like most of the thousands of hopefuls who pack up their aging compact cars and move to Nashville in pursuit of a dream, Carter is a Nashville native. She was born at Baptist Hospital. She attended Goodlettsville High School, where she was a cheerleader, and the University of Tennessee. After working briefly in rehabilitation therapy, she decided to follow in her guitar-playing father's footsteps and pursue a career in music. That gamble resulted in a debut album on Capitol Records that sold more than 3 million units, making it one of the best-selling country albums ever by a female. The memorable first single, “Strawberry Wine,” won the Country Music Association's Single of the Year Award in 1997, and it was followed by three more No. 1 hits: “We Danced Anyway,” “How Do I Get There” and “Count Me In.”

Now, more than four years after one of the most meteoric rises in country music, Carter, 36, is reflecting upon one of the worst years in her life. Her five-year marriage to singer-songwriter Chris DiCroce ended last fall, and her association with Capitol was expected to end this very December afternoon. “2001 has been so trying for everybody,” Carter said. “Even before Sept. 11, people were having a tough time. It was a walking-uphill kind of year for some strange reason. It came to be one thing after another. I know a lot of people are looking forward to [2002].”

An eternal, effervescent optimist, she has high expectations for her own future. A deal with RCA Records is in the works, which means she'll have new music out for the first time since 1998 (save for a low-profile Christmas CD that came out last year on Rounder Records). Just as promising, she has also landed acting roles in an independent film and two sitcoms. In March, she'll be seen in her first real role, in a film called The Badge co-starring William Devane, Sela Ward and Patricia Arquette. In late January, she'll tape an episode of the WB show Raising Dad, and she's got another upcoming sitcom role that she can't yet reveal. She's also written the script for a semi-autobiographical sitcom called Queen for a Day, which follows a singer's move to L.A. after her Nashville label folds. (She's hoping that family friend Willie Nelson will play the part of the singer's guru.)

“I hope this is a better year for everybody,” she said. “I wouldn't hold myself in a special place of tragedy any more than anybody else. It's just been a rough year, an odd year, and I know a lot of people in the same boat.” Describing where her own life is now, she says, “I'm getting off the chair at the ski slope, which is my least favorite part of the whole trip, because I'm petrified I'm going to fall and make everybody else fall down. But I know how much fun it's going to be in about 20 minutes. It's that petrified feeling right before it breaks: You know better things are waiting for you and you have a positive future ahead of you.”

Unfortunately for Carter, her horrible year wasn't over yet. Twelve hours after she completed her interview with the Scene, after eating dinner with her parents and taking a tour of Christmas lights with her family, she was pulled over by a Metro Police officer for speeding. She was arrested for drunken driving after refusing to take a Breathalyzer test. “I respect the Metro Police for doing their job, and I'm not upset at them about any of this,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I am willing to take my speeding ticket because I was going 48 in a 30, according to his radar. Right now, I am getting receipts from the restaurants I was at with family and friends to show how much I had to drink. I was not drunk.”

She was taken to jail, where an accused drug dealer asked her if she was married to Tim McGraw. “I was signing autographs in jail, which was humiliating,” she says. “I was able to cut up and joke about things and get up with only two hours of sleep and go do [WTVF-Channel 5's morning show] Talk of the Town. I called and left a message for Harry [Chapman]: 'If you don't want me, I'll understand. Everything that happened is a nightmare.' He said, 'Come on down,' so I went.”

Soon after the newspaper wires picked up the story, legendary producer Jimmy Bowen, who signed Carter to Capitol Records, passed along a message via mutual friend Herky Williams: “Tell Deana I got one of those things one time, and things started getting real good for me after that.” Carter told Williams, “Mr. B. always has an underlying meaning. He means it can't get any worse than this.”

Although Carter is in some ways afraid that, indeed, it could get worse than this, she believes her life will get better this year. She remains aware of how fortunate she is to have a new record deal, financial security and life experiences that few people ever obtain. “The main thing is,” she says, “I don't want to depict myself as being jaded, the underdog or forlorn. I'm excited about my life and where I'm headed. I'm a survivor and proud and excited and happy.”

Leave it to Carter to find the silver lining in an arrest that made newspaper headlines across the nation and into Mexico. But it's going to take much more than that to keep her down. “She is very much an individual intent on living her own life and making her own decisions,” says her father, Fred Carter Jr. “She's tough. It's hard to throw her a curve ball she can't hit.”

Close friend Susan Bessire, an L.A. clothing designer, says Carter's upbringing has made her tough. “She said, 'I've never been raised around girls.' It was her two brothers and [her parents]. Part of the reason why she is so strong is that she's been surrounded by men. She has her feminine side, but she's very strong.”

That strength was fostered in the loving, safe environment created by her homemaker mother Anna and her father, a session guitarist who has played with Marty Robbins, Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Deana was named for Dean Martin, who recorded two of Fred's songs. Although dinner guests at the Carter home included Dylan, Willie Nelson and Neil Young, she believes that she had a normal upbringing. “I never got the feeling that my friends quite knew what my dad did for a living because he wasn't a banker or lawyer,” she says. “For the most part, it was an oddity what my dad did.”

When Carter was still in elementary school, she began singing in the Goodlettsville First Baptist Church choir. She took great delight in mastering the harmony parts and later landed lead roles in school musicals. She attended school with virtually the same hundred people from kindergarten until graduation. Pretty and popular, she had an all-American high school experience; she made the school's homecoming court, was elected student body president and was voted Best All Around. “She was just like she is now,” says Connie Franklin, Carter's childhood best friend. “That's what's so neat about her: She hasn't changed at all. She is just fun and has a wonderful sense of humor.”

At age 17, Carter attempted to pursue a music career by cutting demos with her father, but rejection quickly made her change her mind. At her mother's urging, she attended college instead. “In high school, music was always a way-out-there dream,” she says. “I got into college and struggled for that degree I never thought I would get. I thought, 'If college ever fails, I can do music.' ”

Although she had several scholarship offers, Carter chose to attend the University of Tennessee, majoring in rehabilitation therapy. Since she turned down financial aid, it was up to her to pay her way through college. “I wanted to go to a big party school, and I did,” she says. “My grades were horrible. It took me three years to pull me up to a 2.5 GPA. I enjoyed school more than it enjoyed me.”

After graduating in 1989, Carter took a job as a therapist at Tennessee Christian Medical Center, working with stroke and head injury patients. She didn't last a year. “Emotionally, it was hard,” she says. “It was great to see people get well, but it was really tough when they didn't.” Mounting college loans forced her to hold down four jobs at once: teaching preschool, manning a receptionist's desk, waiting tables and cleaning urinals. Her days began at 5 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. She hunted for change in ashtrays and lived on ramen noodles.

She increasingly felt the tugging of her musical aspirations, so she began performing writers' nights at local clubs like Douglas Corner. She told her father that she really wanted to be a recording artist and songwriter. “The main thing I thought was, 'My God, we could have been working on it all these years,' ” Fred Carter says. “ 'Instead of picking up a guitar when you're 22, we could have picked up a guitar when you were 5.' But nevertheless, I admire what she's done. What she did, she did on her own. I had retired and gone to Louisiana.”

Carter's songs, which by her own admission were horrible in the beginning, improved drastically and led to a deal with Capitol Records in 1991. But what should have been the beginning of great things turned into several years of corporate shufflings, unreleased videos and endless delays. Eventually, under Bowen's guidance, Carter's debut project, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, was released in Europe in 1995. Then Bowen got cancer and retired, and he was replaced by producer Scott Hendricks. Inheriting a bloated roster, Hendricks cut 25 acts and left only two new signings: Carter and Dean Miller. “The reason I kept Deana was I loved her voice,” Hendricks says. “She's got a very distinctive voice, for starters, and her image was unique. She definitely has a strong sense of who she is, and that's good.”

After listening to Carter's European release, Hendricks didn't feel the album was right for America, so he asked her to find seven new songs and introduced her to producer Chris Ferrin. “I didn't feel the album was strong enough content-wise to compete in its present state,” he explains. “She was resistant for a while because she felt like that album was as strong as she could do.” But Hendricks' advice bore out: Those later sessions produced “Strawberry Wine,” which became her signature hit, and two other No. 1 songs.

“I still think there were some awesome songs on that first album that we could readdress at some point,” Carter says. “I have to credit [Hendricks] for pushing me artistically to find the songs that we loved, just to up the ante a little bit and dig deeper. Bowen kept me writing nonstop for a couple of years before my album came out in Europe. When Scott came and said, 'You have to write some more,' I was pissed. But hindsight is 20/20, and I'm grateful that we did that.”

The album, certified quadruple platinum, was one of 1996's most successful and turned Carter into a bona fide media star. Her music was Southern, feminine, breathy and organic, as opposed to Shania Twain's highly produced sound. (She described her own voice as “more air than strength” to The New York Times.) Her videos, which featured a barefoot, denim-clad Carter, created an image of innocent sensuality.

There was great anticipation for Carter's sophomore release, but before the album had been completed, Capitol became entrenched in internal conflict. Labelmate Garth Brooks was at war with Scott Hendricks, and he refused to turn in his new album until Hendricks was gone. In 1998, Brooks got his wish, and Hendricks was replaced with Pat Quigley, a Northerner who knew little about country music but a great deal about marketing beer and skis. “I think Pat is a funny guy and a big kid,” Carter says. “I just don't think he should've been in the music business. He was all about marketing, marketing, marketing; but there's music involved, and artistry and vision.”

Apparently not a priority at the Capitol, Carter's follow-up, Everything's Gonna Be Alright, was delayed several times as tension grew between the singer and her label. Carter believes that Capitol never fully backed the album and didn't market it as well as her debut release. Though it did end up getting certified gold, she wasn't able to repeat her past radio successes, and the album ultimately didn't do nearly as well as the label had anticipated.

The bottom line? Carter felt that Garth Brooks was running the label. “I don't think I was the only one either,” she says. “I think the staff felt that pressure as well.” In 1998, she received several calls from people in the radio industry who said that Capitol had sacrificed her single, “Absence of the Heart,” so that Brooks' single at the time would get more spins and go to No. 1. “[They] basically said, 'This is going down, and we want you to know about it and we don't want you to take it personally, because we appreciate you.' ” “Absence of the Heart” peaked at No. 16, and the follow-up, “Angels Working Overtime,” reached No. 35.

To this day, Carter believes that Brooks' interference at Capitol had a direct and negative effect on her own career. “I've had a few conversations with Garth, but they never made me sleep better at night. I wouldn't say that he intentionally hurt my career, but he didn't help my career at all.”

At the time, Carter met with Quigley and pointed out that she should be given some respect, since she had brought more than $40 million to Capitol. “That was during the Chris Gaines era, so obviously people weren't thinking very clearly,” she says sardonically. “Reality wasn't part of the landscape. This is not a conversation I'm having about jealousy between artists. Manipulation can happen in a lot of different ways. I just feel like that was going on because he was selling the most records.”

Although some industry observers believe Carter's second album was not as commercial as her first, she still stands behind it. It was definitely not mainstream country, with its blues-inspired ballads and its cover of the 1971 Melanie hit “Brand New Key.” Los Angeles Times' Richard Cromelin described it as “a blast of aggro-chick attitude set to a booming rock production.” It had, he wrote, “some over-plotted rural-gothic narratives and generic love songs.... Rather than refining Carter's strengths, it sets her off in a variety of random directions.”

“I personally liked her second record,” Hendricks says. “I didn't think it would perform commercially as well as the first. I would have made her go cut a couple of new songs to hit somewhere in between.” Keith Hill, a New York-based radio consultant, says, “Musically, it wasn't very good. The first album was very radio-friendly. The second album was full of what I would call odd-duck songs produced in an odd way.” He says it mostly appealed to “the granola, sprout-eating, kaffeeklatsch crowd that likes Sheryl Crow and Alison Krauss stuff.”

Despite the criticism, Carter proudly stands behind her work. “I made an amazing record that was critically acclaimed by Time magazine as one of the best records of the year, and not only in country. I have never not done my job. It's my responsibility to make the music and for them to get behind it and push it. Capitol did not promote that record.”

To add insult to injury, when her manager placed a call to the label around this same time, a staffer mentioned offhandedly, “Oh, by the way, you can tell Deana that we have a plaque for her in the closet if she wants to come by and pick it up.” Says Carter, “After almost 5 million albums with the company, that says it all right there how they felt about my success.”

But the worst slight occurred in person, after Capitol had signed Georgia beauty Cyndi Thomson, whose Southern, feminine image was clearly inspired by Carter's own music. The word on Music Row was that Quigley had signed Thomson to put Carter in her place. “What hurt my feelings was when one of the Capitol executives said to me, 'So how does it make you feel knowing that we've signed the new Deana Carter?' ” Floored but determined to remain cool, she replied, “Great. That's a compliment. She's trying to be me.”

By 2001, Pat Quigley was out and Mike Dungan was in at Capitol—her fourth label head in 10 years. Carter says she played about 30 new songs for the Dungan regime, but they “weren't into it.” By year's end, the parties mutually agreed to go their separate ways. (Dungan declined an interview request.)

Meanwhile, she reached a similar decision with her husband, whom she met in 1991 and married in 1995. “I don't know what to say about it,” she says of the divorce. “I'm sad. The thought of living your life now with that person removed is what's awful. I think I kept holding on to the hopes that he could still be there, but that's not reality, and I just hope that we can find happiness. It's devastating.

“I don't feel like a failure; we worked hard. Chris and I were under so much pressure, really from the get-go. So I'm proud of the fact that we lived through it. I'm just sad that we can't rise to that next challenge together. If you look at it, facing it by yourself is awful.”

Her words come more slowly as she fights to maintain composure. It becomes a losing battle. The tears begin to trickle slowly down her cheeks as her already soft voice breaks. “It's taught me that you don't have to be Superman and that no matter what, you have your friends and family and that business isn't the most important thing. Those are probably the top three. The fourth would be, just be hopeful.”

Carter was so heartbroken by the divorce that she didn't even want to attend last November's CMA Awards—country music's biggest night of the year. “My divorce was final two or three days before, and I felt like I was going to be Carrie in the movie Carrie, and I was going to get egged or something,” she says. “But there was so much love.” She was urged on by RCA chief Joe Galante, Willie Nelson and friend Sheryl Crow. “So I rented a limo, got an outfit and went by myself to the CMAs,” she says. “I said, 'You know what? If I'm going to tackle this stuff, I'm just going to do it.'

“It was emotional, but it was great. So many people were hugging me and glad to see me and just things I didn't realize. I was so embraced, it was so comforting to know that the investment in my work wasn't for nothing, and that my marriage not working out really didn't have anything to do with it. It was nice to have that clarity and support.”

In the months since her divorce, Carter has found therapy in painting the walls of her Hollywood home. She's taken so many long walks that her dog Gibson, a miniature pinscher, has lost weight. She listens to Björk, Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne, and has taken up crafts, making studded T-shirts and rhinestoned light switch plates. The heartbreak has resulted in unintentional weight loss that has dropped her 5-foot-5-inch frame down to a size 2. “I feel like I'm showing what I'm going through in my face right now, and it's been a lot,” she says. “But I know it will ease up and things will change.”

Things will change soon. Carter has already begun teaming up with A-list writers like Matraca Berg (who co-penned “Strawberry Wine” and “We Danced Anyway”), Kim Richey and Carolyn Dawn Johnson to create songs for her first RCA disc, which is set for release around August. She was attracted to RCA because Nashville label chairman Joe Galante has been there for 25 years. Galante, in turn, was drawn to Carter because of her creativity and individuality. “She is the original,” he says. “She has an innocent sexiness about her, and it comes across in her music. She has that ability to capture what people feel, especially our audience. She can have one foot on the Opry stage and another one on a VH1 stage, and be comfortable in both places.

“What I get about her, which is missing in the format now, is that sense of humor, that little bit of a smart-ass,” Galante continues. “She has that smile, and behind it you're not sure whether she's playing with you or there's something about to happen to you that you're not quite ready for. There's an energy about her that's very special.... She has a good instinct about who she is. She's a beautiful woman, but at the same time, she's not threatening to anyone. She reminds me in some ways of Dolly [Parton].”

Although Carter has had huge success, it's been a while. Given that the recent Christmas CD generated little fanfare, she really hasn't been heard from since 1998. The last few years have brought a bevy of popular young singers such as Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina, Lee Ann Womack, Jessica Andrews, Jamie O'Neal and, yes, Cyndi Thomson.

Carter's not worried about her absence from the limelight. “I don't want to say that I'm back because I don't feel like I've left,” she says. She also says she's not going to create a record designed with country radio in mind. “The most important thing is for me to shine through, so I'm not trying to be something I'm not. I've been through so many great experiences that I have more confidence. It might be a little bolder and soft at the same time. I would like to portray how I really feel, which is confident yet approachable.”

Taking stock of the year ahead of her, “it feels great,” she says. “But I have to say I'm a little shell-shocked because I just sold my house, and I've never not had a home in Nashville. This morning I walked to the pier in Santa Monica, and it's 80 degrees and beautiful. I said my thank-you prayers and said, 'OK angels, it's up to you.' This is all totally new; let's see what happens.”

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