Tim Carter adapted to music almost like osmosis. He grew up in Jamestown, North Carolina, the son of a well known radio DJ. He gained his appreciation of music from listening to the sounds played on his father’s show, everything from from Benny Goodman to Hank Williams, and, as he says, “everything in between.” His most vivid musical memories were of watching various touring bands come to the station on Saturday mornings and play live in the studio.
“It was a big station and it would accommodate big bands,” Carter recalls. “I would hang out there a lot. That was my first live band experience. I remember Gene Krupa letting me and my brother Danny play around on his drums. The musicians were always very cool guys. I always liked hanging out with them…even at 8 years old.”
Although Carter began taking piano lessons at age 9, his real interest was in listening to rock and roll. Even then his tastes were varied, drawing him to such diverse entities as Neil Young, Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Byrds, and Emmylou Harris. He was particularly enamoured with blues, but he says that once he heard Flatt and Scruggs, bluegrass had him hooked.
“My head began to spin,” he recalls. “I loved the sound of the banjo. It wasn’t so much the songs they were singing; it was the sound of the banjo itself. I was finally able to find a banjo from a friend. He loaned me his, and even though it was very cheap and missing the fifth string, I didn’t care. I’d play one string, and found that sound I loved so much. I couldn’t play a lick, but my world was engulfed in banjo land for the next few years, listening to everyone I could. Then, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Will the Circle record came out, they were my missing link…”
After finishing college, He and his brother Danny formed a band. Although Danny wasn’t as familiar with bluegrass as Tim was, they eventually found themselves drawn to a number of West Coast pickers, the Kentucky Colonels in particular. Calling themselves the Carter Brothers, they performed mostly around their native North Carolina. With a drummer in tow — a unique feature for a bluegrass band at the time — they gradually expanded their base of operations and eventually got a residency at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City.
“They liked us because we treated our intense bluegrass like a rock band… loud,” he muses. “Thats where we met Stevie Ray Vaughn. He showed up one night and was all about wanting to learn something on the banjo. I spent all night and half the next day teaching him Cripple Creek.”
The band toured extensively in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and increasingly began writing their own material while still embracing their southern roots. In 1994, they were signed to Capitol Records, but, as Carter recalls, it was not all they had hoped for as far a career breakthrough was concerned. “We came to Nashville and cut a bunch of country songs that we hated,” he remembers. “I think they let us record one of our own, but then Garth Brooks came along and Capitol cleaned their roster out. We were glad about that. We were not part of that world. We were indie artist all the way.”
Carter stayed in Nashville another 25 years, recording and touring with Vassar Clements, Alison Brown, Tim O’Brien, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Matt Flinner, Rob Ickes, Johnny Neel, and many others. He also became a recording engineer, and he now owns and operates the Treehouse Studio in Ridgetop, Tennessee where he records a variety of music, some of which has gone on to garner Grammy nods.
He’s mostly concentrated on original banjo music the last few years, incorporating rock and blues as well. “I really didn’t care if I made a lot of money at it,” he insists. “The passion was more important. I’ve never tried to fit in to any genre. I’ve always wanted to play music that I felt was honest to where my roots are.”
With his brother Danny’s health declining, Carter opted to carry on alone. His current album, Wishes, is dedicated to Danny and continues to reflect the multitude of influences that have always shaped his sound. For the past two years, he’s also played banjo with the band Hayseed Dixie, touring with them extensively overseas and recording a pair of albums as part of the current line-up.
“I’ve known (Hayseed Dixie founder) John Wheeler for many years,” he explains. “After the Reno Brothers left the band, they hired Johnny Button to play banjo, but he left for health reasons, and then John called me. My brother’s health was not good and I needed to play. I’d never really seen the band play, but I did some research and it seemed very well put together. John runs the band like a smart business man, so I was impressed.”
Ultimately, Carter is satisfied with the way his career has worked out. “I’ve done everything I’ve set out to do,” he insists. “I always wanted to live here in Nashville, live in a log house and do what I’m doing — playing the Opry, playing the Ryman with Vassar Clements, have the opportunity to write music with Alison Brown. So I’ve been very fortunate. But I’ve also worked hard for it, and I continue to work at it. It’s my job and I love it. My passion is still as strong as ever.”