Twenty years ago, singer/songwriter Paulette Carlson left Highway 101, the country music band she had founded and guided to multiple hits and music awards, to devote most of her time to being a wife and mother.

Now with her daughter, Cali, grown, and her husband and herself re-settled in Fargo, Carlson is ready to get back on stage and sing.

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"She's 20 years old and off to college," Carlson said of Cali in an interview Friday in Grand Forks. "So mama can go out and have fun again."

Carlson was in town to promote her role in the upcoming Sunshine Fest Jan. 19-21, including a concert she will perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at Chester Fritz Auditorium.

Carlson, who claims two hometowns, Winstead and Moose Lake, Minn., has been singing since she was three years old. As a student at University of Minnesota Moorhead, she performed in bars and clubs with lots of different bands in Moorhead, Fargo and Minneapolis before moving to Nashville in 1978 to try her luck at a country music career.

Her fame came as founder and lead vocalist for Highway 101, a band that included session musicians Jack Daniels, Curtis Stone and Cactus Moser, who just got engaged to Wynona Judd.

Hit maker

Highway 101 charted four No. 1 hit singles (including "Somewhere Tonight" and "Cry, Cry, Cry"), seven Top 10 hits, a gold album and back-to-back wins for Vocal Group of the Year in 1988 and 1989 from both the Academy of Country Music and the County Music Association.

Highway 101's first hit, "The Bed You Made for Me," was a song Carlson wrote about an old boyfriend in Fargo. It spent 24 weeks on the charts, peaking at No. 4. Its refrain ("Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?") puts it squarely in the genre of classic country hurtin' music.

Carlson said a childhood as a tomboy in a neighborhood full of boys prepared her for life on a tour bus with the male musicians and roadies of Highway 101.

"Every day we were in a different city. It was a lot of fun," she said. "The best thing was walking out on stage and singing. Then I'd sign autographs and talk to people."

Moving on

She gave her band mates 10 months notice before leaving Highway101 in 1990.

"I basically felt it was time to move on. There were some things going on that didn't work for me," she said. "But we all got along."

Around Highway 101's 10th anniversary, she reunited briefly with Stone and Daniels and released two albums and toured briefly. Also, in 2004, she wrote a song called "Thank You Vets" for her brother, Gary, a Vietnam vet was then in the hospital. She since has performed the song at benefits and at veterans' events.

Carlson married Randy Smith in 1989 and their daughter was born in 1991. The family originally settled on a farm near Nashville, then moved to Montana, where her husband is from. She missed the north country, Carlson said.

Because her husband works as a construction foreman, they have also spent time in Alaska. Now that they're in Fargo, he's working for Meridian Commercial Construction. Carlson said she's delighted to be in Fargo and recently enjoyed ice fishing.

Community causes

Carlson performed at the last Minnesota State Fair, and also in Medora, N.D., which is where she met Van Larson, who along with his wife, Dee, established the Sunshine Memorial Foundation. They named it for their daughter Shannon Larson, who they called Sunshine, after she died at age 31 of dehydration while hiking in Arizona.

The Sunshine Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness of hiker safety. But it also has taken the lead in organizing the Sunshine Fest to benefit other community causes as well, including a hospital house in Grand Forks for families whose loved ones are receiving medical care, and a basketball court and a yoga room in the new Wellness Center.

Money would go to the Grand Forks Parks and Recreation Foundation Fund for a basketball court dedicated in the name of Brittany Dvorak. Dvorak, 16, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008 and finished treatment earlier this year. The yoga room would be named in honor of Dewey Kvidt, 50, a longtime member of the YMCA who died in 2005.