How Jimmy Carter (Literally) Rocked the Presidency - Rolling Stone
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How Jimmy Carter (Literally) Rocked the Presidency

Before Clinton’s classic-rock love and Obama’s R&B shout-outs, the 39th president tapped into rock culture — and business — in a way no one had.

Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson in a scene from 'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.'Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson in a scene from 'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.'

Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson in a scene from 'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.'

Courtesy of Cinetic Media

One of the hallways in Dickey Betts’ home in Osprey, Florida, displays all the mementoes you’d expect to find associated with a former Allman Brothers guitarist, singer and renegade: awards for best-selling albums, photographs of now-deceased bandmates, a vintage guitar or two. But two framed letters, both from 1975, practically leap off the walls. “I understand that your current tour has been a great success … Please give my best regards to your parents,” reads one. Another, from the following month, goes: “My campaign is going well, thanks to great friends like you.”

The letters were hand-written by Jimmy Carter, who at the time was in the midst of a presidential race; the Allmans, who were from his home state of Georgia, had befriended him and helped raise money for his campaign. The following year, Carter would win the presidency, a one-term affair fraught with accomplishments and disappointments. His principle footprint will remain achievements like the Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel, the championing of human rights and solar power, and his pushback against the Soviet Union and Latin strongmen.

But another of his legacies is undeniable: Before the classic-rock- and jazz-loving Bill Clinton and the hip-hop-friendly Obama, Carter was the first American president with even a remote connection to rock and roll. Although he hadn’t grown up with the music, which didn’t exist during his teen years, the politician understood its impact and reach, as well as the big business it had become by the Seventies. (The topic is explored in director Mary Wharton’s Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, which has its “virtual” premiere on Sept. 9th.) And in a manner that was both sincere and shrewd, he aligned himself with rock in ways no previous candidate or president had. Carter’s term paved the way for Oval Office visits by the likes of Beyoncé and Kid Rock, benefit concerts by indie and pop acts, and, for a fleeting moment, a White House record collection that would earn the begrudging admiration of even the biggest music snob.

Carter’s connection with rock culture wasn’t a given. He was born in 1924, a good three decades before the music arrived; contrasting with rock’s anti-war stance, the future president attended the U.S. Naval Academy and went onto be a naval officer. After, he became a capitalist businessman, by way of a family-run peanut farm, store and warehouse. When Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, Carter was 41 — the median age of a generation that would have been appalled or simply not remotely interested in that jarring moment in pop history or rock itself.  He talked in a hip-pastor drawl and had the air of a shy, reassuring clergyman — in Southern rock terms of the era, less Betts and more Gregg Allman.

But Carter’s interest in civil rights set him apart; in 1964, he and his wife Roslyn were the only whites to cast a vote to admit African-Americans to the Plains Baptist Church. He got hip to Dylan’s early folk period and later talked about how rock artists like Dylan were able to “express a basic philosophy of enlightenment and compassion and sing about the search for peace, the relief of racial discrimination and the worth of the human being.” In a speech many years later, in the Seventies, Carter cited “Maggie’s Farm” as helping him grasp relations between “the landowner and those who worked on the farm.”

His indoctrination into rock started in 1971, when he went on a listening tour when running for governor of Georgia and stopped by the Macon office of Capricorn Records, then home base for Southern rock; its acts included the Allmans, the Charlie Daniels Band, and the Marshall Tucker Band. Carter and Capricorn founder Phil Walden, two progressive-minded Southern entrepreneurs, struck up a friendship, and before long, Carter was spending more time with that crowd, even stopping by sessions for Betts’ side project Highway Call. “He came by the studio for a session — turned out to be two or three times,” Betts told RS during a 2017 interview at his home. “And after he was governor, you could see the difference. It was like the sun came out in Georgia. It was the Peach State instead of the ‘afraid to drive through it to get to Florida’ state.’ We thought, ‘This guy’s all right.’”

For his part, Walden must have been happy when Carter, elected governor in 1971, later signed a tough, state-wide anti-piracy bill to combat bootlegging; Carter also proclaimed August “Music Recording Month” in Georgia. (Walden, who died in 2006, maintained that he didn’t back his friend only for those reasons.)

In 1974, Carter was finally able to meet one of his heroes when Dylan and the Band played the Omni in Atlanta, where, according to a local report, the governor sat “in a literal sea of pot smoke.” (Elvin Bishop, another leading Southern rocker at the time, told RS at the time that Carter was the “only politician who has balls enough to come to a rock concert.”) Carter’s son Chip was a Dylanite — he had made a pilgrimage to Woodstock to shake Dylan’s hand in 1968 — and broached the idea of going to the show.

President Jimmy Carter greets singer Cher as her husband Gregg Allman stands by, second from right, during a reception at the White House in Washington in 1977.

President Jimmy Carter greets singer Cher as her husband Gregg Allman stands by, second from right, during a reception at the White House in Washington in 1977.

Peter Bregg/AP/Shutterstock

But in an unthinkable move at the time, especially for a Southern politician, Carter then invited Dylan and his posse to an after-show party at the governor’s mansion, where guests were served ham, grits and scrambled eggs. “It was just a nice comfortable, casual early morning breakfast not unlike bands might have at a hotel at 2 a.m.,” recalls Nederlander executive Alex Hodges, a party attendee then running the Paragon booking agency in Macon. “There was nothing staid about Jimmy.” Although he opted for vegetables and orange juice, Dylan took Carter up on a private tour of property. In Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President, he says Dylan only asked him about his Christian faith, and the musician claims in the movie that “when I first met Jimmy, the first thing he did was quote my songs back to me. And that was the first time that I realized my songs had reached into basically the establishment. I had no experience in that world … He put my mind at ease by not talking down to me and showing me he had a sincere appreciation of the songs I had written.”

The Band’s Robbie Robertson would call it “the hippest governor’s mansion ever,” not without reason. Arriving after most of the guests had left, Gregg Allman was greeted by the head politician of his state barefoot and in jeans. (“Yeah, he’s far out,” Allman remarked later.) In his memoir Testimony, Robertson recalled seeing Allman and another excess-prone musician, drummer Buddy Miles, emerging from a bathroom, and Carter’s son Chip “just winked” at Robertson.

That same year, Carter announced his presidential run, with a dream of having Dylan play a benefit along the way. It never happened, but Carter, a deliberate person and politician, knew how to use the power of rock — and the wallets of his newly booming audience — to his advantage. Within a year, his campaign was $300,000 in debt, and his new pals in Southern rock came to his rescue. In the fall of 1975, the Allman Brothers raised over $64,000 at a show in Providence, Rhode Island, which netted the Carter campaign about half that amount after expenses. “He took advantage of the fact that we were available, and we embraced it as well,” says Hodges. “We didn’t feel like we were making any sacrifice by being close to a politician. Jimmy was pretty deep in his appreciation of music, not just the hit songs but the full musical content that was out there. With our bands, he was a real fan.”

In another novel move, when fans bought tickets to those shows, they were asked to sign vouchers and include their addresses. That way, the Carter campaign could prove that the tickets amounted to small donations — and thus qualify for the newly instigated, post-Watergate concept of matching federal funds. “Jimmy was smart,” Betts told RS. “The way he explained it, ‘The government had this program that will match any funds someone donates to me. And there is a way I want to work this, which is totally legitimate. I don’t want you guys to donate any funds to me; I want you guys to donate your time to me and whatever money we can raise, the government has to match it.’ We raised millions of dollars, which back then was a lot of goddamn money. We never talked about it in interviews or nothing, but the reason we did it is because he totally changed the attitude about Georgia.”

Combining ticket prices and matching funds, the splashiest Carter benefit — a Florida stadium show featuring Betts, Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band, former Delaney & Bonnie frontperson Bonnie Bramlett, and the Outlaws — netted the campaign around $280,000 (over $1 million today). Carter wasn’t just the first Clinton but, in terms of grass-roots donors, the first Bernie Sanders. He leveraged rock in ways no one had done before.

For all his associations with hirsute, drug-amenable rockers of the time (during the campaign, an Allmans roadie was sentenced to prison for supplying Gregg with cocaine), Carter seemed to pay virtually no price; if anything, he reveled in it. “Anyone who doesn’t want a President who likes this kind of music and who is proud of his friendships with the people make that music can go vote for somebody else,” he said at the time. He praised rock during a campaign stop at a convention of record store owners, quoting lines from “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Yesterday” to display his bona-fides. In an interview, he boasted about the “profound influence” rock had on American life and namedropped Dylan, the Allmans and Simon and Garfunkel. Fishing on a day off, he was seen wearing an Allmans T-shirt. Even the way he went by “Jimmy,” and not his full “James,” made him sound like he could’ve been a Macon, Georgia, session man.

The generational shift — and Carter’s incorporation of it — was blasted into homes during the 1976 Democratic convention. In his acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden, Carter, with his semi-blow-dried haircut, just slightly over the ears, looked less like a politician and more like an FM rock station owner. In his speech, he made his new-generation image clear when he cited his favorite songwriter: “We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying,” a line from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Three days before the election, the Band saluted Carter on Saturday Night Live by playing “Georgia on My Mind”; days after, Carter won the election.

Once in the White House, Carter’s rock connection continued, albeit in a slightly less ostentatious manner. He wasn’t the first president to invite rock stars to his adopted home; Richard Nixon had welcomed the Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash for official White House concerts. Gerald Ford, Carter’s notoriously fuddy-duddy predecessor, had invited George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in 1974 after Ford’s son Jack had befriended the former Beatle.

Jimmy Carter and Bob Dylan

Jimmy Carter and Bob Dylan.

Courtesy of Cinetic Media

But Carter took the rock and politics dance to unforeseen new levels. Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin sang at his inaugural balls. During their 1977 reunion tour, Crosby, Stills & Nash stopped by the White House for a quick visit; at one point, one of their managers sneaked over to a nearby window, lit up a joint and quickly extinguished it, just to say he’d done it. That same year, Willie Nelson and Carter’s son Chip smoked weed on the roof of the White House. In 1978, Carter snagged the Atlanta Rhythm Section — known for Southern soft-rock mainstays like “So into You” and “Imaginary Lover” — for a pig-roast cookout and concert on the south lawn of the White House. That may seem corny, and no big deal in light of Obama inviting members of the Grateful Dead to the White House right after they’d played at one of his inaugural balls. But it’s hard to understate how unprecedented Carter’s rock hangtime was at the time.

In 1979, the President oversaw what could have been his most enduring contribution to the White House’s rock infusion. At the urging of the record labels association, he helped upgrade of the White House Record Library, a collection of LPs that had been initiated during the Nixon administration in 1973. The original stash had a smattering of rock albums (by Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Who), along with many country and folk discs.

But with the aid of knowledgeable rock, jazz, country critics (including the late Paul Nelson, then reviews editor of Rolling Stone), the library received a cred level-up: It suddenly included pristine vinyl copies of Blood on the Tracks, Born to Run, Let It Bleed, Led Zeppelin IV and Hunky Dory alongside rock-crit favorites like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Funkadelic’s Hardcore Jollies, and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Place of Sin. One could argue that the collection — and the fact that Carter signed off on it with no issues whatsoever  — is one of the defining aspects of his four years in office.

The near collapse of Carter’s presidency by the time of his 1980 re-election bid coincided with Southern rock’s middling fortunes. The year before, Capricorn Records went bankrupt, and new wave and disco took control of mainstream pop. In an all too appropriate bit of symbolism, the White House Record Library was carted out of the building soon after the Reagans moved in; it currently sits in storage at a facility outside D.C., the pristine LPs still housed in their original blue slipcases with the White House logo.

Carter himself has intermittently reconnected with the rock community that helped put him in office, albeit for only one term. He was spotted at a Dylan show in the late Eighties and introduced Dylan when he was honored as MusiCares’ Person of the Year in 2015. Bringing matters full circle, Carter was also spotted at Gregg Allman’s funeral. “You guys really elected me,” he marveled when he recently ran into some of his Georgia music business friends.

Now that Kid Rock and Ted Nugent have stopped by the White House for Trump photo opps, the concept of rock-rebel musicians palling around with a president is no longer shocking. Carter went there first, but his Southern love rock filled his campaign coffers and made him palatable to the skeptics like Hunter S. Thompson. During an era when the grubbiest of rockers made some people want to cross to the other side of the street, Carter didn’t just invite rock to Washington; he welcomed the underdogs it stood for and championed. He made it the party people’s party, but also so much more.



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