Jason Carter: Country Fiddler Has Talent, Moxie, and the World on a String
How Carter landed a dream gig with one of the hottest bluegrass bands of all time
It took Jason Carter a while to decide that the fiddle was his future—because he was too busy in the present mastering too many other instruments. The problem, if that’s what you want to call it, was that the Carter household offered an abundance of choices to a young man with music itching in his fingers. His father, Bruce Carter, was a steelworker in Lloyd, Kentucky, on the banks of the Ohio River, but when the day was over he grabbed his guitar, mandolin, banjo—whatever was in reach—and started picking.
Everyone knew that Jason, his youngest son, had talent. Jason himself never doubted that he would grow up to be a musician. Of course, he never dreamed that he would wind up playing with acclaimed guitarist, singer, and bandleader Del McCoury, his first inspiration in bluegrass. Nor did he imagine that he would be honored, three times so far, by the International Bluegrass Music Association as Fiddle Player of the Year.
Of course, things could have turned out even stranger: Like his older brother, he might have wound up playing sax.
“It’s funny,” Carter says. “When my brother was born, that’s what my dad was playing. But when I was born, he’d just started playing mandolin in a bluegrass band. I guess it was just a matter of what we heard when we started growing up.”
Born in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1973, growing up some 20 miles away in Lloyd, a semi-suburban/partly rural community, Carter also heard all the music that kids listened to at the time. Sure, every now and then he cranked up a little Aerosmith. But somehow it was bluegrass that stayed with him. By age eight, he was emulating on guitar what he’d heard his father and his friends play together at home.
“I remember this guy named Mike Carson, who was a friend of my dad,” Carter says. “He had a son who played guitar, and they’d come over, sit in our kitchen, and play. And I thought, man, this guy’s only a couple of years older than I am. If he can do that, I can do that. So when he left I asked my dad if he’d show me how to play, and he started by showing me the chords to ‘House of the Rising Sun.’”
Not long after that, Carter began tagging along as his father’s band, the Buffalo Creek Express, played gigs, mainly parties at people’s homes. As his playing improved, he would be invited to sit in on a couple of songs each night. By age ten he was traveling with his uncle to bluegrass festivals and joining in on jam sessions there. Some of the acquaintances he made on these trips, with artists like Ray Craft and Don Rigsby of Rock County and guitarist Clay Hess, who would eventually work with Ricky Skaggs, grew into friendships that endure today.
Carter was around 12 when he started playing mandolin. It quickly took the place of the guitar as his favorite instrument, though he stuck with guitar on gigs with his father, who was playing mainly the mandolin at that point. Jason’s inspirations came from the progressive side of bluegrass: He’d copy every Tony Rice guitar lick he heard and immerse himself in albums by the New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and the Johnson Mountain Boys.
Then, in his mid-teens, Carter discovered Del McCoury. “He sounded different from anyone I’d heard before,” he remembers. “His timing was so good, right on top of the beat. He could sing really high and piercing, but he also had an amazing low end.
“Hearing Del changed everything for me.”
Specifically, it pushed him straight toward the heart of traditional bluegrass. Equally important, the fiddle, with the way it complemented McCoury’s vocals, stirred something in him that guitar and mandolin had left untouched. He’d been intrigued with the way Jerry Deer, another of his father’s friends, had played the instrument during those gatherings at the Carter house. But hearing McCoury and his band persuaded Jason to put down the pick and pick up the rosin.
He began by asking his father to show him the basics; they worked up an old tune, “Ragtime Annie.” After a while Carter moved on to teaching himself as he had already learned guitar and mandolin, by sitting next to a turntable, playing selected passages from LPs, and mimicking what he heard until he’d nailed it. He set the bar high, with a Bobby Hicks fiddle break on the tune “Big Spike Hammer,” and moved on from there.
“It wasn’t easy,” he admits. “It was tough at first for me to get the feel of holding the bow. But then I saw Tim O’Brien [of Hot Rize] on TV. He had a different grip, with his thumb underneath the frog and his hand lying on top. I started holding the bow that way and found it a lot more comfortable; I still hold it that way now.”
Aside from practicing some hoedown rhythm patterns he’d heard from Paul Warren and other early bluegrass fiddlers, Carter based his education almost entirely on copying how fiddlers played behind singers. “I never even learned many fiddle tunes,” he says. “I remember learning ‘Katy Hill’ from a recording by Georgia Slim [aka Robert Rutland], who was a great player. But mostly I listened to how the fiddle player backed up the singers. Bobby Hicks [of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Porter Wagoner’s band] was one of the greatest backup players ever. Everything he did complemented the singer, and that really hit home with me. I also listened a lot to Chubby Wise, who had the best tone I’ve ever heard. He could get more out of one string or even one note than anybody.
“Later, when I heard Benny Martin, my outlook changed because I’d never heard anybody play sliding double stops like that. I still pattern my playing after his.”
Before long, Carter, who’d spent six months in vocational school studying to be a draftsman after earning his high-school degree, was playing well enough to drop out and join the Goins Brothers, a seasoned and very traditional bluegrass family band. For six months he toured with them, from Missouri to the Northeast, and might have stuck with them longer, if not for a fateful stop in Nashville.
In February 1992, backstage at the annual Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America award show, Carter was approached by acclaimed fiddler Tad Marks, who told him that he had just given notice to his bandleader that he was quitting the gig. Since the gig happened to be with McCoury, Carter knew exactly what had to be done.
“I made a beeline to Del,” he chuckles. “And I announced that I really wanted to play with his band.”
Much to Carter’s surprise, McCoury wound up agreeing with him and invited him into the group. In fact, McCoury seemed a little surprised, too: “I auditioned a lot of guys,” the bandleader remembers. “Some of them had been playing a long time. Actually, all of them were better than Jason, at that stage. But even though Jason hadn’t developed that much, I heard something in his playing, a feeling for the blues, that the older guys didn’t have. That’s something you can’t teach. Also, I’d had accomplished fiddle players in the band who just couldn’t grasp how to play a melody in a song, but Jason got that right away, as soon as he came in. And even at that young age, when he played a break in a tune, he jumped right in and cut it all to pieces.
“He had that attitude, and that suited me just fine.”
Carter’s playing has advanced rapidly since then, to the point that he cut a solo album on the Rounder label—On the Move, released in 1997—and he has spread his smooth, melodic sound around on projects for artists ranging from comic Jeff Foxworthy to country-rocker Steve Earle. He’s changed his instrument since joining the band, trading the Hopf violin that his father had bought him for an Ernst Kreusler, which he plays with a Seifert bow that Stuart Duncan gave him more than a decade ago.
One thing stays the same, though. “I really like my gig,” he insists. “Playing with Del was my dream. It’s still my first priority. I don’t have any plans to give it up.”