Jason Carter Pauses His Dream Job For A Solo ‘Hoedown’
Musicians are always getting gigs, and in bluegrass, pickers move around among bands like musical chairs for terms both long and short. It’s part of the business. But fiddle star Jason Carter has, I swear, the greatest got-the-gig story I ever heard.
Carter grew up in eastern Kentucky, right along its famous Country Music Highway, so he had the yearns to play early on. His musician dad helped him get started on the guitar at age 8, and after he kept at it for a few years, his dad bought him a proper Martin acoustic, a day he remembers with vivid clarity. Then he’s about 15 years old and he sees Del McCoury on TV, not the band we know today but one of the bands from Del’s days as a regional figure working out of Pennsylvania. Jason Carter was transfixed.
“It was something about the sound of the band,” Carter told me in a conversation before the holiday break. “So that's when I couldn't get away from Del’s music. And, you know, they ask kids, what are you gonna do when you get out of school? And so my answer was, I'm gonna play in the Del McCoury Band.”
HEAR MY INTERVIEW WITH JASON CARTER FROM THE STRING STARTING AT 37:00. PLUS BONUS CONVERSATION HERE ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM:
Two problems. First, that’s a really specific dream, and it’s good to keep options open in life. Problem two was that Jason played the same instrument as his new hero, and said hero, Del McCoury, had two talented sons then matriculating into the band on banjo (Rob) and mandolin (Ron). So Jason Carter, after consulting again with his dad, took up the fiddle at age 16, practiced like mad, and landed a professional job - with the Goins Brothers - just after he was done with high school. Jason got the word out on the circuit that he wanted that other job though, and when Del’s fiddler Tad Marks decided to step away, he offered the boss a tip about the kid. And one day the phone rang at home, and it was Del McCoury offering a three show audition run.
Thus it happened that in 1992, Jason Carter, not yet 20 years old and only a fiddler for four years, got the job he wanted and started a stunning 30-year run of success. He’s been named the International Bluegrass Music Association Fiddle Player of the Year five times, while the band itself went on a historic tear as the most influential bluegrass band in the country during a renaissance for the genre. They won IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year award nine times between 1994 and 2004 while branching out to new audiences through collaborations with Phish, the Lee Boys, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Carter joined Ron and Rob in forming the Travelin’ McCourys, an adventurous jamgrass offshoot of the McCoury band to establish a long-term future for all involved. Meanwhile, Jason took his fiddle to projects by Dierks Bentley, Leftover Salmon, Marty Stuart and the heroes of progressive bluegrass like Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas.
Once upon a time, Carter made a solo fiddle record under his own name. But that was 25 years ago, so during the pandemic pause, he started work on a follow-up, the soul satisfying bluegrass album Lowdown Hoedown, which was released late last year. Besides being overdue for an artist with something to say on his instrument, Carter was ready to do more lead singing. “I didn't want to do an instrumental record,” he says, at least not this time around. “When people hear it, I just hope they like it and are surprised. And that was kind of what I was going after. And then I started finding the songs.” Songs like “King Of The Hill” by Bruce Hornsby, and John Hartford’s elegant “The Six O’Clock Train And The Girl With Green Eyes.” I was nostalgically happy to hear Carter’s baritone and resonant voice sing Jamie Hartford’s early 2000s classic “Good Things Happen” as well as the superb and airy Grateful Dead number “Bird Song.”
The title-ish track, “Hoedown For My Lowdown Rowdy Ways” came from the quirky pen of banjo player and Bad Livers founder Danny Barnes. It stands out as the only song with a guest lead vocal, courtesy of country star Dierks Bentley. “I wanted to do something with Dierks,” Carter told me. “Because you know, years ago, we used to hang out a lot. And we played a lot of music together.” It’s true. I spent quite a few hours at Dierks sets in the late 90s when he was finding his path to country music, playing with the McCoury boys at the Station Inn and Market Street, the old brewery on Second Ave. downtown. In that way, Carter’s new album tells a story beyond a mere grouping of songs.
And these days, Carter is a master at telling a story with his fiddle and bow, but he admits that was not the case when he first landed his dream job. “I was very limited in what I could do. I could only play what I had learned to play,” he says. “I couldn't improvise or anything.” And here we get yet another sign that Del McCoury is one of the most angelic people that ever made country music, the polar opposite of the demanding, hard-driving bandleader who acts like he could hire or fire anybody he wanted. Carter says in his early days, he used to sit at the front of the bus and practice the fiddle while Del drove long shifts at the wheel.
“You would think that it would just drive him absolutely nuts to listen to somebody that's just learning to play, trying to figure this stuff out. And (Del) said, ‘well, it keeps me awake!’” But Del also nudged him along, singing melodies that Jason played back, suggesting variations and drawing out the musician we know today. “He would say, ‘you can play it however you want, you know?’”