Bill Carter was born in 1950 and is a performing singer/songwriter whose compositions have been recorded by over two-hundred artists over the decades that include, Ruth Brown, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Waylon Jennings, John Mayall, Robert Palmer and Stevie Ray Vaughan to name some. His roots are from Virginia and his grandfather was A.P. Carters’ first cousin, but he grew up in Seattle. His musical career began in 1966 in San Francisco in the Haight Ashbury district where he was hanging out. Then after moving to Austin, Texas in the 1970s he married his wife Ruth, who became his song writing partner. They supported themselves through songwriting along with Bill performing in the Austin area. Over the decades he’s hung out with everybody from Keith Richards (Rolling Stones) to Johnny Depp and toured with Stevie Ray Vaughan and the “Butthole Surfers.” At the same time he’s produced a number of his own albums over the years, the most recent of which is Innocent Victims and Evil Companions, released on the “Forty Below” record label. A video of “Black Lion,” one of the songs off of the album won “first place” as the 2016 “Best Music Video” winner at the “Big As Texas Short Film Festival.”
You’re related to the Carter musical family, did you know them or Johnny Cash? If so share some of your memories.
I met Johnny Cash and June Carter one time in L. A., but I never really had any close relations. My grandfather was the first cousin of A. P. Carter (Patriarch of the legendary Carter family) and I never grew up in that area. I just grew up on that music, because my father was from there in Virginia
Have you ever met any of the other famous Bill Carters, like the writer and film director or the New York Times TV reporter.
And then there is another one that is pretty famous. He’s a Nashville lawyer and he’s Keith Richards’s attorney. They’re everywhere.
(Laughter) That is funny. When you were touring with Stevie Ray Vaughan was there ever an interesting episode on the road?
By the time that I toured with Stevie, he was real straight. He had quit doing drugs and drinking and all that kind of thing so everything was pretty mellow. There was no activity other than great shows and they were all great shows. Especially him, of course. No, nothing that stands out that was a major earth shaking thing. It was just him playing every night was the most amazing thing, but yeah, I watched his show every night after we would finish. I was enthralled by him, he was just mesmerizing, how great he was and what he did.
How did you come to co-write the #1 hit “Crossfire.
Actually Stevie and “Double Trouble” were off the road and my wife and I would just get together and just jam with the band without Stevie. With Chris and Tommy and Reese and just kind of jam through stuff and I would kind of sing phonetically and make up melodies and stuff and then Ruth and I would go home and write the lyrics. We had some songs and Tommy Shannon had that bass part. We jammed on that, but Ruth and I wrote the song basically. They got credit on it, but Ruth and I wrote the entire song. Tommy had the bass part, but that was it. So we were just jamming in a warehouse when they were off the road, just making stuff up and Ruth and I went home and wrote that song from that bass riff.
What about “Why Get Up?” That was one of your first songs that got covered by somebody wasn’t it?
Yeah, “Why Get Up” was a real simple one, because I woke up one morning and that was going through my head because of the situation at the time, the situation that we were living under, my wife and I. So I wrote that song real quick. It was one of those that everybody can relate to, and I wrote it in 5 minutes. I literally wrote it from beginning to end in 5 minutes on paper. I made a real funky version of it on acoustic guitar, almost like an “Everly Brothers” kind of thing. Then Jimmy Vaughan and the Thunderbirds were making a record and I said, “Hey man, I’ve got a couple of songs.” Jimmy really loved that one and Dave Edmunds kind of changed…he produced that record “The Fabulous Thunderbirds” Tuff Enuff album. Dave Edmunds produced it and they changed kind of the rhythm of what it was, but that was the first cut, yeah.
When you write a song do you write it specifically for an artist who requests it or do they find out about it another way?
They find out some other way. I just write songs and the way they come out, they come out never with anybody in mind. Sometimes I’ll write a song thinking, I’ll want to write this style of song. Whether it’s a Beatles song or whether it’s a John Lee Hooker song you sit down to attempt that kind of thing, but never for any particular artist.
How do you get your work out there? Do you have an agent that markets it?
It used to be like that. People used to actually look for songs and being in Austin at that time, especially in the 1980s there were a lot of people here recording, and we knew them all, so it was real easy to get songs to people and then people would just hear them from then on out, somewhere on a record or I’d be playing them live, but things have changed. Songwriting is a craft that they made a mess of because everything is free. I mean, lik,e we don’t get royalties like we used to, because everything is downloaded for free. Songwriting now is real different. It’s not like you write songs for artists anymore for publishing companies. There’s no money in it, literally, you can’t make a living doing it anymore. Yeah, it’s literally gotten that bad, where everything is so free. We had songs on records that would sell 2 to 3 million copies. People don’t sell records anymore or CDs, nobody buys them. They download a song here and there for free, generally, so it’s just not the same. There were many years where I just wrote, just strictly wrote, because, but I always loved playing in town, but I would never go on the road, because you could write and people would do the songs and you would make royalties, but now that’s all gone. I mean it’s like unbelievable, what’s happened, songwriting wise, as far as a living as a craft. They pretty much eliminated it, in a lot of ways.
So now you have to make money by touring?
Yeah, going out and playing and hoping that you get a song in a film or something here and there. Selling merchandise. I mean, when I’m on the road and I play, I can sell CDs. People will buy them because they’re there and you’re there and if they dig you they figure that they’ll buy your CD, but that’s the only way to sell them. Even big, big, big acts, all their money is made on the road with merchandise. It’s amazing, it’s a whole different business of what I was used to for a long time.
Tell us about your new album, Innocent Victims and Evil Companions.
It’s just a collection of songs that I was writing at the time and I wanted to make a big production. Just because. So I wrote, arranged and produced all that stuff. I wrote all the chord parts and the string parts, I didn’t write them, but I melodically gave them to the people that did them. There’s a lot of different kinds of songs and different instrumentation. I just wanted to make a big production, so there you have it. I think there’s fourteen songs on there, but I just started recording and kept going because I was having a good time. Probably too many songs, but at the time it just seemed like the right thing to do. It was a lot of fun and a lot of my good pals played on it, guitar player friends here and Mike Thompson from the “Eagles,” he played with the “Eagles” for many years, he was the keyboard player and the horns for the most part. He plays trombone and did three different parts with it, so it’s an interesting piece of work.
I was looking at your website at and I checked out some of the videos of your songs off the album and was blown away. Explain the relationship between the lyrics and your video for the song “Black Lion.”
I just posted it on my Facebook that I won “Best Music Video of the Year” at the “Texas Film Festival,” for that video.
Wow! That’s great!
Yeah. Oddly enough, since you brought it up, just two days ago and the “Texas Film Festival” is pretty big.
It reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film.
Here’s the deal, the guy who made it was a guy named Pat Kondelis. He’s the guy who made my first video after he heard my stuff. We made it out in the back yard, it was called April Mays, it was kind of a hillbilly sort of tune, still on YouTube. He always just had an idea for videos and he would do these for me and I just do whatever he wanted me to do for them. That Last video, “Black Lion,” he made and he wrote the whole story line and stuff and I just went in and did it. He had access to one of those RED cameras, it’s the most expensive camera they make now. They make “Star Wars” and everything now with them, that’s why it looks so good. That’s about a $50,000 video that cost me $600.00 bucks. That’s just because he likes what I do and makes the stuff. He has a crew and all the best equipment, but I don’t know what his concept was. I think his concept with it was, he always sees me like an evil character, like Satan, in that video, just standing around. I think he saw it as just being something evil, and it kind of is, I mean you know, the song. There is a darkness and it covers a lot of different concepts. He just wanted to make a dark video of some kind and it is pretty violent, but hey, I went with it and look what happened, best music video of the year.
It was really good and definitely was dark and evil. One of the other videos on your site, “Fire On the Wire,” had a Mercury in it. What year was it?
1949, and the same guy (Pat Kondelis) made that video too.
It made me think of “Mercury Blues.”
Yeah, “Mercury Blues,” that’s a real old blues song. It’s a really great song.
How did you first connect with Johnny Depp?
I was pretty much the house band one day a week at Antone’s (In Austin) years ago in the early nineties. I forget what year exactly it was and he was making that film “Gilbert Grape” right outside of town and used to come in and see me and my band playing stuff and we just met and started hanging out ever since, after that. He ended up living with us with my wife and I here in Austin. So we’ve been hanging out off and on for many years. We’re also the godparents of his children as well.
This coming summer of 2017 is the 50 year anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” in San Francisco, initiating the hippie influence on the world at large. What do you think the legacy of the 1960’s is today in 2016?
Well, I was there. I was in San Francisco in 1966. I was in Haight Ashbury. The beautiful thing about everything at that time was everything was changing for the good, in a way. I mean, the music was cool, it was a lot looser, just the styles and everything. It was a great time and started out to actually be a real peaceful and beautiful thing and then drugs messed it up more than anything. I mean, hard drugs and stuff came in and things started getting weird. But those times were really, really great. I mean everything was changing, politics, I mean the whole world and then the war and everything, Vietnam and all that stuff. It was a very major time. I was glad to be there, but first and foremost, but first and foremost, I think that the music was the best of any decade ever, was in the sixties. Especially with all the English stuff as well and all the California and New York and everything in between. It was a very important time I think, the most important time.
Do you feel that it’s impact is still being felt today?
That’s hard to say, but I don’t think so. The only reason why I say that is because I was there then and I’m here now. I think that there is a certain amount of younger people that relate to it, but they’re just not that real. But I don’t know, it’s such a different world now in every way that it’s hard for anything from the past to have much of an impact.
Out of all your years as a musician since 1966 till the present, what is the most interesting or weirdest encounter that you ever had?
The time that I got to hang out with Keith Richards at his house in South Salem, New York, in 1976. I hitchhiked to Nashville, after I moved to Austin from the Seattle area to live down here. I hitchhiked to Nashville with my bass guitarist trying to look for work and I was writing songs at the time as well. When I got to Nashville, I met a guy that was going up to New York to play. He was an acoustic player and he played at the Lone Star cafe and asked me if I wanted to go up with him and play bass with him and I did. In Nashville at the time we met this guy who worked for Keith Richards as a guitar maker named Newman Jones. He wound up coming to New York and he said, “Hey man, Keith is over here do you guys want to go hang out?” Yeah! So we did and it was him and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas at John Phillips’s apartment and then the next day we went up to Keith’s house in South Salem, New York and stayed for a couple of days. The greatest thing was, I know a lot about Country music, and Keith loved Merle Haggard more than anyone, so we sat around and played Merle Haggard songs all night. Just him and I and it got recorded on a cassette, but this guy, Newman Jones and then he lost it. A cassette of just me and Keith doing thirty Merle Haggard songs and he lost it so I don’t have a copy of it. It’s horrible, it’s really unfortunate. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened. It would be a great thing to have for just obvious reasons. Not even to make copies, but to just have, because it was such a great experience, because he was so enthralled with the fact that I knew all that stuff, because he was really into it at the time. I mean he did too, but I’m an American guy, so it was more authentic for him, but that was a major high in my life.
Interview by Bob Gersztyn