One of early rock and roll and country music’s premier guitarists, Fred Carter Jr., died Saturday, July 17 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville following a stroke. He was 76. Carter is best remembered for his session work during the 1960s, when he put his distinctive touch on Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” and dozens of other tracks.
Yet, Carter’s career as a musician began at the birth of rock and roll and over the next four decades he branched off into songwriting, production, and label management. He also played a key role in the career of Ronnie Hawkins, serving as his lead guitarist from 1959-60, and being a mentor to his eventual replacement, a young Toronto guitarist named Robbie Robertson.
Carter was born Dec. 31, 1933 in Winnsboro, Louisiana and developed his guitar playing style out of a love of the wide range of music he heard growing up. He got his first taste of fame playing in the house band of the popular Louisiana Hayride radio program, which led to a gig with Roy Orbison during the late ‘50s when Orbison was signed to the famed Memphis label, Sun Records.
Carter then played briefly with “Suzie Q” hitmaker Dale Hawkins, taking over from fellow Louisiana guitar slinger James Burton, who had moved to L.A. for a lucrative spot in teen idol Rick Nelson’s band.
In short order, Carter was poached by Dale’s cousin Ronnie Hawkins for his band the Hawks, just as the Arkansas native was establishing his fame in Canada. Not wanting to remain in Canada, Carter willingly passed the torch to Robertson and settled in Nashville where he later started his own recording studio and ran the country and western division of ABC Records. He maintained close ties with Hawkins and the Hawks (later The Band) in years to come, working especially closely with Levon Helm in his late ‘70s group the RCO All-Stars, and producing his 1980 solo album, American Son.
Although Carter recorded with top country stars such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson, it could be argued that his biggest contribution was being a crucial member of the group of Nashville session players that enabled artists such as Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Ian & Sylvia, and Leonard Cohen to record some of their most memorable music there.
Among Carter’s surviving family is his daughter, award-winning country singer Deana Carter.