Rollin’ in the Hay, which performed at Albany’s downtown Mardi Gras celebration in March, is one of 24 bands scheduled to perform at the fifth Briar Patch Festival Thursday-Saturday. Rollin’ in the Hay play a unique brand of bluegrass that is hailed for its high-octane energy.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It’s perhaps telling that when Rick Carter heard his name announced as recipient of a Birmingham Music BAMMA Lifetime Achievement Award, he was both honored and perplexed.
Carter is, after all, one of those musical lifers who’s been playing professionally for the past 46 years, pounding out a living in the business for 36. He’s had his own taste of renown and has played alongside artists whose names are magical in music circles.
But even as the birthdays have stacked up some 60 high, Carter is as involved in his unique musical career today as he was when he was a 14-year-old kid just starting out.
“I was honored to be recognized by my peers for what I’ve done in music,” Carter, who with his band Rollin’ in the Hay will be one of the headliners at this weekend’s Briar Patch Festival in Damascus, said in a phone interview. “But when I think about ‘lifetime achievement,’ I think about somebody that’s dead. I’m still out there, still playing, still mentoring the young musicians.
“I’m not dead yet.”
Not even close.
Even the high-energy young guns in the music business would be hard-pressed to follow in Carter’s footsteps for a few days. Rollin’ in the Hay, which is advertised as a “newgrass,” high-octane bluegrass band but actually mixes in a little country, rock, soul, funk and blues and heaping helpings of professionalism and showmanship in its act, could play seven nights a week, 365 days a year if band members were so inclined. Watch them once, and you’ll get it: Very few regional bands have the same mix of stage presence and musicianship.
But when Carter wants to get his rockabilly on, he may do a few shows with one of his side projects, Frankie Velvet & the Mighty Veltones. Or he might play a set or two with Rick Carter & the League of Legendary Artists. Or he might just take his acoustic guitar and do a solo set.
“What can I say; I’m an artist,” Carter said of his many musical outlets. “I like writing and performing different kinds of music. I think each genre I play — blues, bluegrass, R&B, good old Americana folk music — is an expression of a different side of myself.”
Of course, in all the free time this modern-day musical renaissance man saves up, he also conducts Wednesday-night Singer/Songwriter Coalition showcases with aspiring musicians, books other musicians to play at his Birmingham restaurant and plays “all Alabama music all the time” on his Rick Carter Radio podcast.
“I believe in diversity,” Carter said. “I guess I’m the only one in my circle who started out in this all those years ago who survived. But over the years I’ve kind of learned how this is supposed to work, and, besides, I’m still having fun.”
Carter, who plays guitar and sings lead vocals for Rollin’ in the Hay, started playing music at the height of the British Invasion in 1966. A year later, he landed his first paying gig, playing with The Invaders. He hasn’t stopped playing since.
Moving from place to place with his Air Force father, the young musician ended up joining bands in the Philippines (The Great Wind Controversy) and Selma, Ala. (Truffle, and Ramada Inn house band Larry Hall & the Summer Breeze) before moving to Birmingham in 1976.
A year later Carter formed Telluride, and within a few weeks he’d quit his job as an ice cream salesman and officially started singing for his supper. Telluride became a huge regional hit and even had songs climb into the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. Even with its reputation as one of the South’s biggest bands, though, Telluride became passe when Carter formed Rollin’ in the Hay.
Hay has independently recorded and released six albums of original music but is best-known in some circles for the “Pickin’ On” series of albums. Rollin’ in the Hay — Carter, bassist Stan Foster, multi-instrumentalist Johnny Kulinich, drummer Leif Bondarenko — perform bluegrass instrumental versions of songs of artists as diverse as Travis Tritt, REM, Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, the Allman Brothers Band, Tim McGraw and Widespread Panic.
“That’s a fun project, and it gives us an opportunity to showcase our diversity,” Carter said.
Side projects like acoustic solo gigs, the Mighty Veltones and the League of Legendary Artists offer Carter an opportunity to step outside the confines of Rollin’ in the Hay and embrace some of the other musical formats that are among his various interests.
“You could say I’m addicted to this,” Carter said. “I just love playing music. Man, I have the kind of career where nobody ever asks me about work. They say, ‘Did you play last night?’ When you have a job where you play for a living, well, there’s not much better than that.”
Rollin’ in the Hay have gradually become Albany favorites, playing several shows in the area and picking up new fans at each gig. And while the band is not above playing in any little hole-in-the-wall bar along the way, Carter said he and the boys love playing festivals like the Briar Patch.
“When you’re up there doing a long, two- or three-hour show, you’ve got to save back a little something,” the frontman said. “When you play at a festival, well, that’s just the best. You’re typically playing a 45-minute to one-hour show. You don’t have to hold anything back; you can give every bit of energy that you have.”
Carter admits, though, that it was tough generating energy at the last outdoors gig he played here: the icy-cold downtown Mardi Gras festival.
“Man, that was ugly cold,” he said. “Even playing in the middle of the afternoon, it just wouldn’t warm up. But it was pretty cool looking out at the folks who came to the festival and seeing them enjoying what we were doing. When you can add some new fans in conditions like that, things are going pretty well.”
Carter said that, even with his diverse musical interests, he really sees himself as one of those “John Prine-type” singer/songwriters.
“There’s nothing better than that good old Southern folk music, the Americana ... a guy, a guitar and a microphone,” he said. “Of course, when you do that and sing some of your own songs, well that’s the ultimate thing.
“I don’t have a lot of regrets in this business about not making the ‘big time,’ not being one of those huge musicians that everyone knows. I guess the thing I most wish I could have done is write one of those songs that, somewhere down the road my great grandkids will say, ‘Remember that song? Well, my great granddad wrote that.’”
Still, Carter has shared the stage with Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Daniels, Gregg Allman, Alabama, Widespread Panic, the Doobie Brothers, the Little River Band, Charlie Daniels, the O’Jays, .38 Special’s Jeff Carlisi, the Four Tops. And he’s looked out on crowds that were really into his music.
“There’s nothing better than that,” the musician said. “There are all kinds of different currency in the world, and money is the nastiest of them. Seeing people happy, moved by something that you do, that’s a kind of currency money can’t buy.”