Jimmy Carter’s Rock-and-Roll Legacy

In the decades since Jimmy Carter left the White House, there have been many reconsiderations of the former President’s legacy. Among the more unexpected of these is “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” a documentary released in 2020, which chronicles Carter’s overlooked relationship not only with rock and roll but also with country, jazz, folk, and other genres. The movie had accidental beginnings: its lead producer, Chris Farrell, who’d previously worked in finance and had never made a film, set out to make a movie about the Allman Brothers Band, a group that, like him, hails from Jacksonville, Florida. Then a friend suggested that he call up some people in Atlanta who had worked for Carter.

“They start telling me all these amazing stories about Carter and the Allmans,” Farrell recalled recently. Carter had struck up a friendship with the band’s members when he was the governor of Georgia, in the early nineteen-seventies. One night, Carter and Gregg Allman, the band’s lead singer, were drinking scotch on the porch of the Governor’s Mansion, and Carter told Allman he was going to be President. (Allman said that they had had “just about all” of a bottle of J&B; Carter recalled only “a drink.”) “We all thought, Oh, really,” Chuck Leavell, the band’s pianist at their peak, in the early seventies, told me. “But we did some concerts for him. We thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have a President from Georgia?” The band had split, temporarily, by the time Carter took office, but they were invited to some formal White House events. “We weren’t sure how to act,” Leavell said. Greg Allman came to one dinner with his then wife, Cher, who mistook a finger bowl for a drink and downed it.

The former Carter staffers Peter Conlon and Tom Beard had more stories—about Willie Nelson, for instance, who, Farrell learned, had smoked pot on the White House roof with the President’s son Chip. At Nelson’s Georgia shows, Carter would sometimes take the stage and pretend to play the harmonica during “Georgia on My Mind,” while Mickey Raphael was really playing it in the wings. After these and other tales, Farrell was about to say goodbye to Conlon and Beard when one of them asked, “Wanna hear about Bob Dylan?”

The stories that Farrell heard that day immediately changed his focus. (Conlon, who became an executive producer on the film, and is now the chairman of Live Nation Georgia, told me that making a film about “the first President to embrace rock music in his campaign” was his idea.) Farrell called an old friend, Mary Wharton, who had produced and directed a number of music-related TV shows. She agreed to direct the film. The veteran music journalist Bill Flanagan helped track down and interview the musicians who appeared in the movie: Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Larry Gatlin, Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Buffett, Rosanne Cash, Bono.

Dylan, who rarely grants interviews, was maybe the most coveted target on the filmmakers’ list. “Bob was the white whale,” Farrell told me. Flanagan, who was close with Dylan’s manager, put in a request, and eventually got good news. “Even on the day it finally happened,” Farrell said, “I remember waiting for him to show up and thinking, I don’t know.”

“He wanted to do his interview in a kitchen,” Wharton told me. “I was, like, I wonder if he’s gonna share some recipes with us.” They met at a house in Connecticut, near a gig that Dylan had at the time. When he arrived, Dylan made it clear that he didn’t like the kitchen. He helped Wharton decorate another room to his taste. (Among the items he suggested was a triptych of three goddesses.) “He’d come prepared with things he wanted to say,” Wharton told me. They did a few takes, as Dylan worked out the rhythm of his words. “There’s many sides to him,” he said, of Carter. “He’s a nuclear engineer, woodworking carpenter. He’s also a poet. He’s a dirt farmer. If you told me he was a race-car driver, I wouldn’t even be surprised.” It seemed to Wharton “like he’d written a song about Jimmy Carter.” Dylan also told the story of the first time he and Carter met. “The first thing he did was quote my songs back to me. It was the first time that I realized my songs had reached into, basically, into the establishment world.” He called Carter “a kindred spirit to me of a rare kind.”

“He’s not generally loquacious,” Conlon said, of Dylan. “But around Carter he’s totally different. He relaxes and tells stories. Not the Dylan you’re used to.” When Carter sat for his interviews for the movie, in 2018, “he was kind of rigid at first, but, when he realized that all we wanted him to do was talk about music, it was almost like a light bulb went off and you could see the joy emanating out of him as he recounted all these stories,” Farrell said. The former President described Dylan as “one of my best friends.”

Part of the argument of the documentary is that Carter, who is now ninety-eight and in hospice care, changed the relationship between rock and roll and political power. “Previously,” Conlon explained, “the thinking was that there was too much risk mixing politicians and rock and roll—‘You can’t be around this guy. He does drugs.’ But Carter was very accepting of people and their frailties.”

Beard helped put on concerts in support of Carter’s Presidential campaign—including one headlined by Lynyrd Skynyrd that nearly went off the rails when the singer Ronnie Van Zant was too tanked to perform—and later served as deputy assistant to the President. Beard’s basement office occasionally hosted musicians waiting their turn to see Carter. Among those who stopped by were members of the group Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Stephen Stills, who had performed in the concerts that Beard helped to organize, told me about the band’s visit. “We took the pictures and stuff,” he said. David Crosby’s 2006 memoir refers to an unnamed member of the band “smoking a joint somewhere in the White House, just to say he did.” Stills told me that Crosby himself, along with one of the band’s managers, “lit up a doobie in the Oval,” although people who worked in the White House at the time cast doubt on the likelihood of this. “I was so embarrassed I didn’t speak to him for a couple of days,” Stills said, insistent that it happened.

Stills found the connection to Carter ennobling: “He made you take yourself seriously, you know? In a very offhand kind of way, he’d kind of remind you that you had a part to play here. I don’t know, I bit.”

Conlon recalled another occasion in the White House, in 1977, when he was hanging out with Carter’s call screener one night “and Elvis called.” Apparently, Elvis called sometimes. “I talked to Elvis for a minute,” Conlon said. Years later, Conlon asked Carter about the call. “First of all,” he recalled Carter responding, “Elvis and I are cousins. The Carters and the Presleys go way back.” Then the former President explained: “Elvis was calling because a friend of his was in jail in Memphis for passing bad checks and he wanted me to give him a Presidential pardon.” Carter told him he couldn’t help.

Musicians were occasionally asked to do more than just play. “He tasked me to do things, and I’d carry them out,” Stills said, noting that, on a musical-diplomacy visit to Havana, in 1979, Carter’s people had told him, “Pay attention while you’re in Cuba.” He added, “It wasn’t transactional. I liked him. My favorite thing about Jimmy was his laugh. He had this sort of half guffaw and half bray that came out when he was really tickled.” I asked Stills when Carter had been the happiest during his Presidency. He was often happy, Stills said, “but I heard he had more fun at Camp David than any other time in his life—riding around between those little houses while he told them to say the helicopter is broken.” Stills was on the South Lawn the day that the Camp David Accords were signed.

“Musicians are drawn to his spirituality and authenticity,” Conlon said, offering a theory for why Carter became friends with so many of them. “He’s deeply soulful and open-minded. He doesn’t judge people. Wouldn’t that be nice, in the current political environment?” (Conlon once asked Carter what he thought about Donald Trump. He chuckled at the one-word answer that he said Carter gave, with a wry smile: “Interesting.”)

Jim Free, who served as special assistant to the President for congressional liaison, told me a story that seemed to illustrate this characterization. When China’s Ambassador visited the United States in 1979, Carter asked whether there was anything he could do for the envoy. The Ambassador was a fan of country music, and wanted to go to Nashville. Free was tasked with putting the visit together. The Ambassador saw the Fisk Jubilee Singers and visited the Grand Ole Opry. The weekend ended on Sunday morning, at the home of Tom T. Hall, the musician and short-story writer, who’d invited “everybody who was anybody in the Nashville music industry,” Free recalled. Minnie Pearl, Jimmy C. Newman, Johnny and June Carter Cash all came. “When it came time to say the blessing, there was this awkward moment,” Free said. “And all of a sudden John and June started singing, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ I still get chills.”

Leavell appreciated Carter’s generous spirit, too, recalling a Newport-style jazz festival that took place on the South Lawn, which featured Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Cecil Taylor, among others. “I remember Carter running over at the end of Taylor’s piece and giving him this huge hug,” Leavell told me. “I thought, If Carter gets that atonal stuff, that’s pretty cool.” Carter also joined Gillespie onstage to sing his bebop tune “Salt Peanuts,” which Carter did enthusiastically, later calling it “a very peculiar song.”

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