The Carter Brothers’ Piedmont blues

by Jordan Green

The Garage on a recent Tuesday evening presents an incongruous scene: Hazel Carter settles into a booth at this Winston-Salem listening room with Cindy Butler, her youngest son’s girlfriend. Her boys are in from Nashville for a visit and she’s reluctantly agreed to come out for their concert.

“She never comes to see us play,” says Tim Carter with a grin. He’s Butler’s beau.

Later, Mom will offer this no-nonsense answer: “They’ve been playing together since 1978. I usually like to see them outside.”

Consummate professionals and men of genuine warmth, they usher a visiting writer into the dressing room for an interview. Strains of classic punk-rock – the Ramones, Minor Threat and Operation Ivy – skitter over the sound system, briefly interrupted by the rollicking N’Awlins-style piano playing of Los Angeles-based musician Bob Malone, whose gig the brothers have horned in on. “Wow, would you listen to that?” Danny Carter says. “That sounds great.”

Since relocating to Nashville in 1994, in an odd way the Carter Brothers have brought a family namesake full circle – their great-grandfather was a first cousin of AP Carter, the patriarch of the first family of country music. And as sons of the Triad, they’ve also advanced a tradition of Piedmont blues that is sadly dying in the public consciousness. Above all, in influences, instrumental virtuosity, songwriting and business decisions, they’ve distinguished themselves as fierce independents.

Growing up in Jamestown, NC as the sons of WMFR DJ Diamond Carter, they were exposed to all kinds of music, a range from Benny Carter to Bill Monroe. The Carter Family was not a connection they bandied about then, and they do not do so now.

“Dad told us about it,” Tim says. “We didn’t talk about it because, shoot, you couldn’t get girls.”

“To this day, we don’t,” Danny adds. “We don’t want to rely on it. And it worked. Some people ask us about it, like you, and that’s fine.”

Danny picked up the guitar at the age of 14 and started learning the blues from Mississippi John Hurt records. That led him to the British blues – Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The Celtic influence of Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is apparent in his playing. The West Coast country-rock scene of the late ’60s also made an indelible stamp. Danny plays a 12-string Rickenbacker like Roger McGuinn, and Byrds songs are well represented in the brothers’ repertoire.

Tim initially took a more traditional route, when he took up the banjo as a student at Ragsdale High School.

“I was in high school and the janitor of our school taught me some stuff,” he says. “I went to college at Banner Elk. I really wanted to go into the mountains as far as I could. I got to play with Carl Story and these other guys. I was playing with all these seventy- and eighty-year-old guys at this general store. It was a hoot. I was the only young guy. I connected to it so much.”

They played places like the Blind Tiger and venues owned by Greensboro promoter Bill Kennedy before moving to Nashville. They landed a contract with Capitol Records. The phenomenal success of label mate Garth Brooks pushed the brothers’ music to the side, and they were eventually dropped by Capitol. It’s not the tale of music-industry woe you might expect, and in fact the brothers maintain a rather cheerful attitude about it.

“We were supposed to be rich and famous,” Danny says. “We got the record deal, but we figured out we didn’t really want the rest of it. Garth Brooks came along, and we were really low on the totem pole, so we were dropped. It was the best thing that ever happened to us. For a lot of acts it can be a nightmare. You might record thirty songs, and the label won’t release it, but you still have to fulfill your contract.”

Label president Jimmy Bowen let them out of their contract and, breaking with convention, allowed them to use tracks they’d recorded for Capitol to shop for another label, Danny says. The brothers’ lawyer advised them that with the advent of the internet they would do well to record for independent labels. Last year, with a vital fan base established in the southeastern United States and in Europe, the brothers launched their own label, Tree O Records.

An appreciative audience of about 25, including old friends, grows at the Garage as the brothers begin their set. They play songs from each of the solo albums they recorded last year: Danny’s Barcelona and Tim’s Bang Bang. Danny switches between the Rickenbacker and an acoustic guitar, and sings his narrative-style songs in a voice like rough honey. Tim juggles the banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar, deftly traversing blues, bluegrass breakdowns and music so exquisite it might qualify as classical.

As the set winds down, they trade licks on a song called “Freight Train.” It’s a Piedmont blues number composed by a musical pioneer who should probably be a household name in our state. The song’s soft bass line counterpoints its winsome, sad melody.

“When we go overseas, we kind of feel like ambassadors,” Tim says, by way of introduction. We like to tell people about the part of North Carolina where we grew up. This is by a woman who came from around Durham named Elizabeth Cotten.”

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