The Last of the Hardest Working Men in Showbiz
Local musician Rick Carter continues to plug away, doing what he loves best.
August 20, 2009
Birmingham guitarist Rick Carter is one weary fellow. He’s performing solo on a Sunday afternoon at a Five Points South bistro where the patrons are more interested in conversation and eating lunch than listening to some fellow strum a guitar and sing. “And I thought I was an artist,” Carter says with a touch of cynicism as he extends a hand after finishing his set. He is worked every joint imaginable in 40 years of playing music, so he simply rolls with the punches. Though evening audiences ripe on alcohol are no doubt preferable, Carter remains the consummate professional in the face of mid-afternoon apathy, even if he does keep an eye on the clock in anticipation of quitting time.
It’s no wonder he’s tired. A few hours earlier, Carter finished a set in Auburn at 4 a.m. with his popular bluegrass trio Rollin’ in the Hay, returning to Birmingham around 7 a.m. By noon he was setting up gear for the Sunday afternoon job. “I’m gonna go home and take a nap,” he sighed after finishing his set, desperate for some much-needed sleep before his rockabilly-swing band Frankie Velvet and the Mighty Veltones take the stage six hours later at Metro Bistro for their weekly Sunday night gig.
“I started playing music in 1966,” he says on a recent afternoon at his Shelby County home, where an American flag is proudly displayed in the front yard throughout the year. “The first money I ever made as a musician was in 1967, when I was 14. I was playing with my band the Invaders in a teen club at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina.” Carter’s father was a career Air Force officer. (The Hawkins B. Carter American Legion Post 235 in Fultondale is named in his honor.) The family moved to the Philippines in 1968, where Carter formed a band called The Great Wind Controversy.
“We chose that name because it sounded psychedelic,” he says, laughing. “We played Steppenwolf, did a lot of soul stuff like ‘The Letter,’ ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.’ I played a Farfisa organ and we all wore matching clothes. In the Philippines, you got your clothes made because you didn’t really have access to new clothes unless you ordered out of the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and whatever you ordered took six months to arrive. So it was easier just to get a Sears catalog and tell a tailor, ‘I want that shirt or those pants,’ and the tailor would custom make you a shirt for a dollar.”
The band became fairly popular. “We got to be pretty big on all the military bases in the Philippines and we went on the Filipino TV equivalent of ‘American Bandstand.’ We were the only American band that had ever been on that show. We had to take my family’s maid with us ’cause we didn’t have a work permit to allow us to be paid by Filipinos. So they had to pay the maid and she gave the money to us.”
By 1970, Carter was living in Selma, Alabama, where his father was stationed at Craig Air Force Base. There he started the band Truffle and added Allman Brothers songs to the set. “We played all that dual guitar stuff,” he says. “I learned every Dickey Betts lick. In Selma, there was the Ramshack where they had high school dances. But at Craig Air Force Base, you had a teen club, an officer’s club, an NCO club—all those private parties. So there really was a nice little thriving music scene in Selma.” (A rival band with whom Truffle competed for jobs was The Born Losers, which boasted future HealthSouth founder and convicted felon Richard Scrushy as a member.)
“In 1975, I got the dream job of a lifetime—playing the Ramada Inn in Selma in the house band, six nights a week with Larry Hall and The Summer Breeze,” Carter says. “We had to wear powder blue leisure suits and got to live at the Ramada Inn, and each band member had his own room. I got paid $145 a week. We walked down the hall to work. All the food was free because the restaurant was right there. I don’t think we even drank much back then, maybe beer. But we never had to pay for that. We played that gig from June ’75 till March of ’76 before it dried up, which was a heartbreaker. I knew I had to do something, so I moved to Birmingham.”
The High Life
In Birmingham, Carter landed a job selling ice cream from a popsicle truck. He started Telluride in 1977, and the band soon established a following at the Wooden Nickel, now known as The Nick. “By that summer, Telluride was doing so well that I quit my day job and started playing music full time, which I’ve done for 32 years now.” For a bar band, Telluride traveled with an impressive amount of equipment. “We were the only [bar] band that had an 18-wheeler. We wanted to have the biggest show we could,” Carter explains. “We wanted to have the biggest light system, the biggest P.A. system. People thought, ‘Man, they must be the best band around. Have you seen the size of their truck?’ We had a four-man crew that loaded and unloaded the thing. It was a full-blown production. In the ’80s, it was the show, baby! The more lights you had, the better you sounded to audiences. That wasn’t necessarily the way it should be, but that’s the way it was.”
In his home recording studio, a couple of red Miller Beer guitars are mounted on the wall like museum pieces. “When Telluride was sponsored by Miller in ’85 and ’86, you had to have all the Miller signage up [in each venue]. All the beers on the stage had to have the labels pointed out toward the audience,” Carter remembers. “We had to play the Miller guitar and the Miller bass on at least one song a night. So, we’d do ‘Bad to the Bone’ and we’d play the slide guitar parts with Miller beer bottles. It was actually very advantageous to us. We sent [Miller] our calendar, and by the time we got to the gig, they already had us set up for radio interviews, record store appearances, backstage meet-and-greets, all that kind of stuff. They would fly us up to Milwaukee and do symposiums and teach us how to do interviews and all the basic things you need to know about media etiquette or how to say the right thing and how not to sound stupid, basically. And they’d give us a nice, big check.”
Telluride was playing at Louie Louie’s in Five Points South in 1985 when a familiar-looking piano player walked into the bar. “Nicky Hopkins [former pianist for the Rolling Stones, among other bands] was in town on a promotional tour for a book called Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard,” Carter recalls. (Hopkins had played on a soundtrack album of the same name that Scientology founder Hubbard had produced to promote the novel. The book was later made into a movie starring John Travolta.) Hopkins asked to sit in with the band. After the set, he invited Telluride to play with him at a record convention in the Cayman Islands. Essentially, Telluride would be working for the Church of Scientology. Carter was skeptical that the trip would ever materialize. “Hopkins took all my contact info, and about a week later my mother called me and goes, ‘There’s a package here for you from FedEx,’ and I said, ‘Well, open it up.’ She does and it’s 12 tickets to the Cayman Islands. So I called our booking agent and told him to cancel all our shows because we’re going to the Cayman Islands. Oh, he was all in an uproar, saying, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t cancel Louie Louie’s or whatever it was.”
“The Cayman Island trip was awesome. But we didn’t know too much about the Church of Scientology at the time,” Telluride co-founder and guitarist Moose Harrell recalls in an interview from his Nashville home. “I feel like Telluride really set a standard for the way to be successful in that era, even if we didn’t hit mainstream success,” Harrell says. “We were a good, living example of what hard work and dedication can do for you. A lot of it came from Rick, he has an exceptional amount of drive. He’s always been a real professional. A lot of the stuff that Telluride did, and the way we did it, carry over into my life today, too. But we had more fun than anybody has a right to in 37 lifetimes.”
In 1994, Carter formed Rollin’ in the Hay. “Moose had quit Telluride, so we had replaced him with Barry Waldrep, who was really a bluegrass player,” Carter says. “He and I would sit around in hotel rooms and play bluegrass. So I thought if we could add a bass player, we could go out and pick up some extra money. We hit some kind of strange, odd niche, because within two or three years, that thing got huge. It just swallowed Telluride. We were doing Monday, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. And then we were getting offers for Fridays and Saturdays, and were making three times what Telluride was making per night. It was time to get off the road with Telluride. Rollin’ in the Hay was right before O Brother, Where Art Thou? and all that kind of stuff.”
Rollin’ in the Hay scored a contract with CMH Records to record for the label’s “Pickin’ On” series, which featured bluegrass instrumental versions of songs from popular bands played by studio musicians and bands like Rollin’ in the Hay. “We did right around 20 of those Pickin’
On CDs,” Carter says. “Pickin’ On the Allman Brothers, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Tim McGraw, R.E.M., Travis Tritt, all kinds of things like that. But the biggest one that we did was Pickin’ On Widespread Panic. When Telluride used to play Athens, Georgia, every time we’d go into the frats, there was always these three guys that didn’t look like frat boys hanging around. And we used to do the best Allman Brothers. That was my inspiration. So, one night I finally asked these three guys, ‘Who are you guys? You’re obviously not in a fraternity.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we got this little acoustic thing going called Widespread Panic.’ And I was like, ‘Well, good luck to you.’ And then years later, I’m doing a Pickin’ On Widespread Panic CD. That one busted us loose with that jam band genre. So now, Rollin’
in the Hay is the breadwinner. We get airplay in the British West Indies, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany.”
Business, as Usual
“I got a check one time for foreign royalties for my song ‘Sail Away’ that I wrote in Selma,” Carter recalls with a grin. “Telluride recorded it. The check was for a bunch of money, so I called BMI and said, ‘Are you sure this is for me?’ It was for foreign royalties, which can come in two or three years later than the actual play period,” he explains. “We had a hit with that song in Europe and never knew it until after the fact, because if we had known that, we’d have gone over there. I bought a National steel guitar with that check, so I can always say I bought that guitar with a song. The license plate on my Corvette says ‘SONGS.’ That’s what bought it, songs and royalty checks. I wrote a song called ‘Redneck Girl’ and my wife at the time said, ‘Don’t ever play that song for anybody. That’s the stupidest song I’ve ever heard.’ So I gave it to J. Hawkins at the Florabama [Lounge]. He always played those kind of nasty songs, silly songs. He was playing at the Florabama one time and Jeff Foxworthy came in. Foxworthy has a record label called Laughing Hyena. They do all those CDs you see at truckstops and convenience stores that say ‘Truckers’ Favorites.’ Well, ‘Redneck Girl’ ended up on one of those. Turns out I get this big giant royalty check for that song, and I showed it to my wife and she goes, ‘You are kidding me! Somebody bought that?’ And I told her, ‘More than one person bought it, baby.’
“To say that I’m addicted to work would be an understatement. I love to play music but I also have always understood the business aspect of it,” Carter admits. “But you do have to ultimately have the songs. If you don’t have the songs, you’re just another band. If you want to eat, it just depends on how good you want to eat. And I always wanted to eat steak. But ultimately I always wanted to just play music. And the more I played music, the happier I was. That’s why if you play with me, you’re gonna work. Rollin’ in the Hay just did seven shows in seven days in seven cities, and I’m 55. So I haven’t slowed down in that department.”
Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Rick Carter’s first solo record was Loveland. He assembled a large entourage of local musicians and singers he dubbed the Loveland Orchestra that opened for Bob Dylan. “We did four shows opening for Dylan in ’93 and ’94. For the show in Huntsville, I told the band, ‘Let’s close with “The Weight.” We’ve got all these voices and everybody can sing really well, and by then everybody’s ready for Bob, so that’ll kind of secure our success as the opening act if we play that song and do it well.’ I walked into my little dressing room after we came off stage and there stands Bob Dylan. He walks up to me and says [nasal voice], ‘Hey Rick, that’s pretty crafty using that Band song to finish the set.’”
Carter developed a friendship with late jazz and blues guitar legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “We were playing in Slidell, Louisiana, at a barbecue joint, and Gatemouth had a little piece of the place [as part-owner]. Rollin’ in the Hay used to play there and Gatemouth lived nearby and used to come hear us and sometimes sit in on fiddle,” Carter says. “He used to tell me that his favorite food was grape jelly. One day he called me when he was in Birmingham playing a blues festival downtown, and told me to come eat dinner with him. So I went backstage and they were bringing the catered food in. Sure enough, they bring in a big jar of Welch’s grape jelly. We’re having catfish, green beans, and baked potatoes, and Gatemouth takes about a quarter of that jar of jelly and drops it right in the middle of that catfish. I said, ‘Damn, grape jelly on catfish?’ And he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you I love grape jelly? Grape jelly is on top of everything I eat!’”
Carter once booked bands for the Star Dome when it was a music venue (before becoming the Comedy Club). His chores included an afternoon spent babysitting Bo Diddley. “Bo Diddley and I went into Mike’s Pawn Shop at Christmas time, and there was this guy buying his son a guitar and amp. And the guy goes, ‘Damn, Bo Diddley!’ And Bo said, ‘That’s right.’ And the guy said, ‘I’m buying my son a guitar, which one should I get?’ And Bo said, ‘Well, don’t buy that red one! Get that black one, don’t buy no red guitar.’ And I’ll be damned, because I’ve seen pictures of him for years where he played that red Bo Diddley guitar. Guess he didn’t want anybody else to have a red guitar. Then Bo said, ‘Watch this. I guarantee you he’s gonna ask me to sign it.’ So the guy asked him to sign it and Bo turned to me and goes, ‘I told you.’
“Back at the hotel, he wanted some barbecue, so I went to Golden Rule. And this is a sight I’ll never forget. I knocked on the door with his barbecue, and Bo opened the door and he was in a pair of boxer shorts and cowboy boots, no shirt, and he’s go that damn cowboy hat with ‘Bo’ on it. I gave him the barbecue and he said ‘Thanks,’ and slammed the door, didn’t even ask me in.”
His career in music has afforded Carter a comfortable lifestyle. While walking through his bedroom to look at some photos in his office, I did a double take at what I thought was a casket. It turned out to be a tanning bed. “I’m the weirdest guy in the world,” he laughs. “I have a refrigerator in my bathroom upstairs, I have a tanning bed in my bedroom, and a washer and dryer in the closet in my bedroom. At my age, I don’t want to have to walk downstairs to get a Coke, and I don’t want to have to drive to the tanning bed place, and I don’t want to have to walk downstairs to get my damn clothes. They’re all right here. I’ve got my rock ‘n’ roll crib.” &