Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Rick Carter, lead singer of the Alabama-based acoustic power trio Rollin' in the Hay, about his father's storytelling prowess, recycling songs for different girlfriends and paisley ponchos.
CP: Who are some of your musical influences?
RC: I'm a huge fan of John Prine and Arlo Guthrie. I'm a huge fan of singer/songwriter/storyteller kind of guys. Many of the bigger hits that we've had were from that genre.
I started playing seriously in the early '70s in the South in Selma, Ala., where Marshall Tucker and Allman Brothers and all these bands were in our backyard. They were our peers, and that's what we did. The Rollin' in the Hay thing became like a power trio thing without drums and with a very southern-rock slant.
CP: Yet you're listed by most places as being a newgrass group.
RC: They do, and it's strange because when they say "newgrass," I guess it's because it doesn't have that high, lonesome sound. Being the lead vocalist, my voice is low and gruff. When they say newgrass, it's more of the vocal presentation than the actual instrumentation. But you're right, though, they do call us one of the forerunners of newgrass.
CP: So you see yourselves as being closer to The Allman Brothers than Newgrass Revival.
RC: I think we're a little heavier than that. The kids call us "redneck speed metal" because it's fast, but it's a lot more punchy than newgrass. It's more leftover sound than anything else in that genre.
CP: As a result of that name and being popularly lumped into the newgrass genre, has that opened any doors for you for festivals other straight Southern rock bands might not be able to play?
RC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. A lot of it, oddly enough, is because we don't have a drummer. Without a drummer, you're more apt to be welcomed into that traditional bluegrass festival camp. Once we start playing, it's as if there were a drummer because of the fundamentals and the "oomph" we play with. The traditionalists see us as a mandolin a guitar and a bass, but when we start playing, they're like, "Wow. That's a lot heavier." We are welcomed in, though, because of our instrumentation, and a lot of those songs go back to that storyteller tradition.
CP: A lot of families, particularly in the South, have a relative who's the family storyteller. Did you have one in your family?
RC: Yeah, that would have been my father. He was definitely that guy. So I guess, being the next generation, I just added music as the background to the stories or the ability to do that.
CP: Do you count him as one of your influences then, if perhaps not in a musical way?
RC: Absolutely, and you're the first person who's ever made me think of it that way.
CP: What are some of your favorite stories that didn't come from songs?
RC: Oh god, a bazillion of my father's. They weren't not traditional stories that were passed down from generation to generation, but the way he mispronounced words or things that happened to him and the way he would relay the story is something I'll try and mimic in generations to come when I tell stories.
I'll tell you one. He's funny as he can be. My brother is a graphic designer, and my father, when he was about 80 at the time, calls me up and goes "Oh my god, you're brother gone gay." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, I went down to his office, and he's got pictures of ding-dongs everywhere. Call him up and ask him if he's gone gay."
So I called him up and explained the story to him, and he said, "No, I'm doing the illustrations for a penile implant company. He had pictures of penises all over the place, and my old man thought he'd gone gay. (Laughs.) I called my dad up, and he said, "Well, what'd he say?" and I said, "Yep. He's gone gay." (Laughs.) He was that guy.
I was playing a festival one time in front of 10,000 people, and he walked up to me and said, "Hey, come here." There are thousands of people out there, and eventually I just said "What?!" He said, "Get me a beer." (Laughs.) That was his him.
His stories were his own. Most of them made no sense, but you can't not repeat them as often as possible.
CP: How did Rollin' in the Hay actually get started?
RC: In the beginning of 1993, we had a touring band called Telluride that was really big in the South during the '70s and '80s. Like any good thing, we got tired of it, and it started to play itself out as a regular touring basis. We still play shows to this day, but as an off-shoot.
At the time, one of the other guys in Telluride and I said, "We gotta make some money."
He could play bluegrass guitar, so I said, "Let's start a little bluegrass band." All the agents were going, "That's crazy, no one is going to listen to that." Before long, it ate up the other band, and we started doing that full time. It formed in January or February of 1993 out of necessity.
CP: You often end up playing with jam bands or in jam festivals. Do you feel much of a connection to that music?
RC: Well, we draw that crowd, and it's not that there aren't a couple of songs where extend the soloing, but it's more songs than it is improvisation as far as jam is concerned. But the same crowd will come to see us.
It may be the subject matter of the songs or just the way it makes them feel. We don't have any songs that are past four for five minutes long. We're not those guys who say, "We put out an album that had two songs on it." (Laughs.) We're not those guys at all. We're very, very song related.
CP: Where do you draw most of your creative inspiration?
RC: It's just like any writer; it comes in so many different ways. It may start with a chord progression or a guitar lick or just a song title or something that happened or something I need to write about.
I recently wrote a song called "River of Love" because it sounded good, just the title. I built the title around that. I have a song called "Jerry and JB" about Jerry Garcia (from the Grateful Dead) and John Bell from Widespread Panic as the icons, and the similarities between generations of concert goers. There are a lot of Allman Brothers references or show references, things like that, Rolling Stone Magazine, things that represent that particular culture.
I've been writing songs for 42 years. Sometimes, I sit down to write a song because I can; sometimes, I sit down and write a song because I needed to.
CP: So was "Jerry and JB" a case of you wanting to write a song or needing to?
RC: I had a whole lot of success, the band had, with a song called "Miracle Ticket." It really shows that deeply rooted, John Prine/Arlo Guthrie/storyteller kind of thing. We had a whole lot of success with that song, and it was really more of a guy telling a story with a musical bed in the background about a kid wanting to go see the Grateful Dead and trying to get a ticket. With the success of that, I wanted to write a sequel to that song, and that's where "Jerry and JB" came from.
CP: The song definitely perks your ear up. Was any of it autobiographical and drawn from your own experience?
RC: A lot of it is directly from my life, definitely. Yeah, it's all personal experiences.
CP: Do you remember the first song you wrote 42 years ago?
RC: The first song I wrote was during the Vietnam War. It was 1968, and the song was called "Thunder of Shells." It was very psychedelic, and we all wore ponchos out of paisley material that my mom made. I can remember it so vividly, like it was yesterday, but I can't remember what I had for dinner last night. (Laughs.)
It was a talent show with a strobe light, and we had on these obnoxious, matching paisley ponchos playing "Thunder of Shells."
If you hit an amplifier on top and it has reverb, it makes a god-awful sound, and I thought, "Oh, man, we could start the song off like that." It sounded like the end of the world. (Laughs.) That's how it started off, and then, there would be this dreamy, psychedelic, heavily reverbed guitar lick. Then, the flash of the strobe light would come on, and we would put on our little ponchos. I thought, "Today, the gym. Tomorrow, 'Ed Sullivan.'" We were on the way.
CP: Do you still play it?
RC: Oh good lord. That was in school, so it was January or February of '68, and by popular demand, it was probably retired by March of '68. (Laughs.) We thought it was great. Sometimes, it's the audience's fault when things don't happen, not ours. (Laughs.)
CP: Do you remember the second song you wrote?
RC: The second song I wrote, and I still play it today, is "Living There Without Me."
CP: What's the story behind that one?
RC: It was just typical. My father is in the Air Force, so we were in transition all the time. We were very, very transient in our living. I moved to the Philippines, and I had my little girlfriend, and that was the song about leaving her. I used it for years to come every time I moved - the same song, different girlfriend. (Laughs.)
CP: At the beginning of "Jerry and JB" before the music starts, someone asks "Did you get your swerve on?" What is getting your swerve on? How do you get your swerve on?
RC: The funny thing is, the guy who was saying that was sober, and it was just a joke, is all. He said something like "Your swaz." When we were recording that record, that was a huge phrase in the vernacular at the time: "Getting your swerve on." We were, tongue-in-cheek, making fun of that by saying, "I got my swaz on."
CP: The question stands, though. How do you get your swerve on, day to day?
RC: Right now, Jet Fuel coffee out of my little coffee machine that I've just brewed as we've been talking. (Laughs.) That's what I use nowadays.
CP: What is your musical philosophy?
RC: I think my musical philosophy is that if you entertain yourself, as a songwriter or a guitarist or whatever your musical interest may be, it becomes very contagious.
That's why I like to write songs. I started writing songs just because they would entertain me. Before I knew it, my friends were going, "Hey man, play that, that's fun." As I grew older, I've found that, if they entertain me, there's a high probability that they will entertain others.
CP: For example?
RC: "Miracle Ticket." I can play that song for as long as I can sit upright to anyone who spoke the English language, and they will die laughing. It leaves itself open to so much impromptu references that I can take everything in the room into consideration. There are so many things in that particular framework of that song that I can fold into. That's the song that I can use to make anybody entertained or laugh.
CP: The "Pickin' On" record series records bluegrass instrumental versions of popular songs, and you've contributed to many of them. How did you get involved in those?
RC: Well, we were approached by that company, CMH Records out of California, to do the very first one. They wanted to see if we could do it. It was on Tim McGraw. Basically, they send you four or five songs, and you pick the ones you want to turn into a bluegrass instrumental song.
Aftert Tim McGraw, we went, to the best of my recollection, through 17 or 20 of those. The biggest selling one was on Widespread Panic, but we did R.E.M., Neil Diamond, Queen, Dolly Parton, The Allman Brothers, Phish, String Cheese (Incident).
It was very challenging because, a lot of times, the melody line wasn't a whole lot to work with, so you had to get very creative to turn a melody line of three or four notes into something that could be entertaining for three or four minutes.
CP: Who was the most difficult to do that for?
RC: One of the most difficult songs was by Phish: "Some Things Reconsidered." It was just so hard to cop that. There's a difference in being from the South and from the North in your timing and musical delivery. Something about the timing of that song made it hard to work with.
The most interesting band to cover in an instrumental way is R.E.M. because they have very strong melodies as lead singer, but their background vocals have these lush intertwining melodies and counter melodies and gushing vocals lines. When you turn a song into an instrumental and have all that to work with, it's like, "Wow, we could have a fiddle do this part and a banjo do this part." That was the most entertaining one for us to do because of the strong melodies.
CP: What was the most recent "Pickin' On" artist you did that for?
RC: The last one we did was Queen. To be honest, I don't even know if it ever got released because I didn't get a copy of it, but it was extremely cool. I know it got released to the point where I heard one of the songs on XM Radio that we had recorded. It was "Fat Bottomed Girls."
If you think about it, almost any song can be double-timed to where it sounds like bluegrass. You can do the same melody line, but the music in the background is going twice as fast. It's a bluegrass song, but the vocal line is still the same. That's pretty much what we did with those Queen songs, and they sounded great, very much fun.
CP: What other songs did you perform for that one?
RC: "Bohemian Rhapsody." That's a masterpiece. That's incredible stuff. I mean, Freddie Mercury is just ... beyond. They don't make them like that anymore. The guy was a composer. There's a difference between a rock'n'roll song writer and a composer. That guy was incredible.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
RC: I'm actually doing a solo thing. I just redid that old Thompson Twins song "Hold Me Now." I didn't think about this until somebody said it, but they said, "It sounds like that Johnny Cash, Rick Rubin-produced thing." It's dark.
In Rollin' in the Hay, we're just in the songwriting phase for another record. I'd like to have them both out by Christmas. We're aiming at an end-of-the-year release for both projects.