The waitress at Hyde Park Bar & Grill says she likes Bill Carter’s big silver skull ring. It’s from the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Carter says. “The first one. It was made for my friend, but he wanted one with a yellow bandanna and ruby eyes, so he gave this one to me.” The waitress pauses for a long second, then starts taking our orders.
Maybe she figured out that Carter’s friend was Johnny Depp. She saw Carter’s new CD on the table and perhaps needed that pause to put together, yeah, that’s right, there’s this singer-songwriter dude in town whose best friend just so happens to be the guy who cashes the checks for Captain Jack Sparrow.
Or maybe she just wondered what that ring would look like with a yellow bandanna and ruby eyes.
We order, she goes, and we get to talking about “Unknown,” a brilliantly sprawling new album that even those familiar with Carter’s resume- which includes writing “Crossfire” for Stevie Ray Vaughan and “Why Get Up” for the Fabulous Thunderbirds with wife Ruth Ellsworth- should be knocked on their asses by.
Don’t worry, we also talked about his 20-year best buddyship with the actor who’s not only the highest-paid, but among the most respected in the business. Bill and Ruth aren’t just aquaintances of Depp- they’re the godparents of his two children with French actress Vanessa Paradis. Depp owns five houses at the end of Sweetzer Avenue in Hollywood and one is for the Carters when they visit. J.D. keeps a house in the cul-de-sac for Patti Smith, too, and, of course there’s one for Keith Richards to use at his disposal.
One day Richards stopped by and had a few words with 10-year-old Jack Depp. Told the kid the secret of life was to cherish your friends, “school and everything else is bollocks,” he said. After the rock legend left, Daddy Depp came over to young Jack with a big smile on his face. “You’ll remember that for the rest of your life,” Johnny told Jack, then walked away. “What?” Jack said to Ruth. “I couldn’t understand a word (Richards) was saying.”
OK, enough “Access Hollywood” for now. A great song trumps everything else in entertainment, and “Unknown,” which got it’s name from a gravestone in a Civil War cemetery near Driftwood, needs two hands to carry them all.
Recorded at James Stevens’ EAR studio, built as a replica of Abbey Road, with a control room looking down, the album presents the 63-year-old Carter as a one-man Traveling Wilburys, starting with Bob Dylan and moving his way through George Harrison’s spiritual pop and the guitar crunch and deadpan observations of Tom Petty. Add the sweeping emotionalism of Bruce Springsteen and you’re ashamed of yourself for thinking that Carter was just a real nice guy with a “skill set” instead of prodigious talent. The 14 songs of “Unknown,” which will soon carry the imprint of Depp’s Infinitum Nihil label after a soft release in January, each maintain a unique character, like a book of short stories.
Though it’s in the unsexy 5th slot, the album’s centerpiece is “Final Sacrifice,” a haunting number that Carter says was inspired by the idea of Julian Lennon turning out the lights and listening to his father’s music, the Beatles. It’s about being overcome with emotion by all the beauty and sadness that has come before, but also accepting it as part of the journey.
The pragmatic Oak Hill troubadour, who hasn’t toured in many years because it wouldn’t make financial sense, is rarin’ to hit the road with “Unknown.” His level of intrique in Austin, where wife Ellsworth is also notable as a chef and clothing designer, is about that of a Threadgill’s chicken fried steak. He’s just always been around- when he wasn’t off to London, Paris or the Bahamas with Depp. Songs like lead single “Fire In the Wire,” with the creepiest video on YouTube, are screaming to get out of town and to propel their creator from from the shadow of moviemaking royalty. J.D. does contribute slide guitar to West Memphis 3 ode “Anything Made of Paper,” which was recorded at Depp’s studio, but everything else on “Unknown” was recorded in Austin, with the vocals, drums and acoustic guitar all laid down in one three-hour session.
Carter says he had a crazy writing spurt about two years ago, as he was visited by
a series of songs that took him places he’s always wanted to go. Songs of deep connection just pouring through him. Songs that reminded him of why he left his home in Washington state in 1976 and moved to Austin to try and make his own kind of Dylan. Sometimes the muse shows up with suitcases.
“I called up (drummer) Dony Wynn and we went into the studio one day, just the two of us, and recorded 23 songs, in one take, one after the other,” says Carter. Wynn had never heard any of the songs before. “Bill would play just a little bit, just to show me how the song went,” says Wynn, the longtime Robert Palmer
drummer, who settled in Austin in 2006. “I thought we were making demos, which really took the pressure off. We were having fun.” Stripped to their heart and mind essence, the songs were set for later embellishments of bass, electric guitar, keyboards, percussion and a stray trombone. But the core of “Unknown” is formed by the tracks recorded when Wynn didn’t know the songs and Carter was just singing like he does at home to the dogs.
“During playback I was thinking, “’hmm, something happened here today,’” says Wynn, who knows a thing about studio magic. The Louisiana native was laying down tracks in the Bahamas on Palmer’s groundbreaking 1980 synth-pop LP “Clues,” when the band in the studio next door enlisted Wynn for a percussion army. That was Brian Eno and Talking Heads making “Remain In Light.”
From Z’Tejas to Letterman’s couch
In the past two decades, when Carter spent more time hanging around movie sets than recording studios, he’s seen the music industry change as drastically as baseball if they ran the bases backwards. With the means of production and distribution cheaper now than what a band 20 years ago may have spent on 2-inch tape alone are making recordings than ever before. And it’s all as free as you want it to be.
But Carter, a direct descendant of the first family of country music, still loves the old way of doing things. “I have such a brotherhood or a kinship with guys my age still out there playing music for no other reason except to make the best music possible,” he says over a plate of grilled salmon and green beans. Nobody’s buying records anymore? So what?
A “health nut” who once seriously considered opening a small fitness center after training with Depp on the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies, Carter drinks his coffee black because the restaurant is out of skim. The interview takes place a couple weeks after Carter made his network debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and he’s still giddy high from about the experience. The original idea was that Depp would sit in on guitar, but wouldn’t be advertised. “When Dave heard about it,” says Carter, “he had another idea on how it could go. He loves Johnny, so he said, ‘How about if we have Johnny as a guest and then they bring me out on the couch, which is pretty unheard of for the musical guest, and then we do go out and play one. Johnny could talk about ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and I could promote my album. We’d have the whole show.”
But Depp wasn’t sure, Carter says. “He didn’t want to take attention away from my big break.” Aside from the short life of P, their band with Gibby Haynes that burned through a quarter million dollars of Capitol’s money in 1993, Depp and Carter’s public creative pursuits have been kept pretty separate. “Ruth and I have never imposed on Johnny,” Carter says. “That’s why we’re still best friends. So I told him ‘I don’t want to do anything to ruin our friendship. That’s more important than playing on a TV show.”
Apparently, that’s what Depp wanted to hear. It was on. Letterman’s idea. But since the show doesn’t pay expenses, Carter couldn’t afford to bring his Austin band, the Blame, and would have to use Paul Schaffer and company for back-up. Not so fast, Kemosabe. Depp had the plane and the L.A. guys who played on “Anything Made of Paper,” so they all flew in on Air Sparrow and Depp put ‘em up at the Waldorf Astoria.
This is not an article about how to become good friends with Johnny Depp, but I will say that the key is that he approaches you the first time. Bill Carter and the Blame were playing their Tuesday night residency to the usual small crowd in late ’92 when, after the set, blues fan Depp, in town filming “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” with Leonardo DiCaprio, came up and told Bill how much he dug it. Especially hearing those Stevie Ray songs like “Willie the Wimp” and “Crossfire” straight from the source. Rule number one: have your own thing going on.
And then you forget that your new famous friend is famous. Ellsworth Carter says the reason the couple gets on so well with Depp is that they’ve always treated him as just another guy with a different job. I know, that’s the tough part.
During the movie shoot, Depp would be Gilbert Grape, a good-looking kid taking care off an obese mother and a mentally-challenged brother while trying to live his own life in the slivers of space inbetween. Off-set, he’d hang with Bill and Ruth and talk about music and art and books. Depp would also have screeching parties at his Sixth Street penthouse with castmates Juliette Lewis and Crispin Glover, as well as new Austin friends like Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers. That couldn’t happen today, because not only has “the Dirty Six” gotten crazier, but so has Depp’s career.
In 1993, when “Gilbert” was released to good reviews, yet tanked at the box office, Depp was known mainly as the rare teen idol TV actor (“21 Jump Street”) to make the creative leap to movie star with a pair of 1990 films- “Edward Scissorhands” and “Benny and Joon.” But his career was far from the hysteria that “Pirates” brought. Carter recalls the time he and Depp dropped into a Skagg’s Drugstore in town and the girl behind the counter said he looked like Johnny Depp. “Yeah, I get that a lot,” the actor said and paid for his things. That wouldn’t happen today.
“Maybe it’s because of some of the stuff with the paparazzi or whatever that I’ve seen with Johnny, but I love being unknown,” Carter says of the album’s title. “It’s freedom, man.”
Reborn on the Fourth of July
After “Gilbert Grape” wrapped, Depp needed a break from Hollywood so he moved in with the Carters in the Granada Hills subdivision of Oak Hill. “We just loved hanging out together,” says Carter. The songwriter and the actor also have Kentucky in common. Depp was born and raised there, as was Bill’s dad Cash Carter, a chief boatswain’s mate stationed in Washington state, who played bluegrass records every morning to wake up his three boys. Bill’s grandfather, William Henry Carter, whom he’s named after, was the first cousin of A.P. Carter of the Carter Family.
Bill Carter was headed for the baseball major leagues, he figured, until he heard a Bob Dylan song in the 9th grade and dropped the mitt so he could hold a guitar. After the Beatles changed everything when they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in Feb. ’64, Carter had a teenaged band in the fertile Pacific Northwest (home of the Sonics and Paul Revere and the Raiders) called the Chimes of Freedom. But then he got hooked on real country music, with fiddles and steel guitars. The stuff he had rejected growing up as his dad’s music, was actually deep inside him. Bill knew he had to get to Austin, the home of “progressive country,” and arrived just in time for the 1976 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic in Gonzales.
About a month later, Carter was playing an in-store with Jubal Clark at Inner Sanctum Records when he met a University of Texas English lit major from Oklahoma who wrote lyrics. Ruth Ellsworth and Carter have been partners in writing and living ever since, through times tough and flush.
In 1983, they were getting songs cut, but had to work at Xalapeno Charlie’s (now Polvo’s)- her waiting tables and him clearing them- to keep from starving. More than a month behind on their rent, they were threatened with eviction when the T-Birds recorded their song “Why Get Up.” Even more financially promising, General Mills had planned to use the song in a cereal commercial. “I kept telling the landlord that we had money coming in,” Carter says. On the day a check for $25,000 arrived from General Mills to put a hold on the song, the landlord called. “I want you out of there TODAY!” he yelled, to which Bill Carter replied, “No problem, man.” The Carters rented a big house in West Austin the next day.
Like Julian Lennon in the dark, the Carters can reflect on times both good and bad with respectful appreciation. Bill has to laugh at the past 20 years, when he’d come home from months of private jets, yacht-lounging and five-star hotel suites to play happy hour sets at Uncle Billy’s. “Half the time, me and Ruth are living the life of working songwriters,” he says. “And half the time we’re living like billionaires.”
Unknown billionaires. What a life.
“Those dreams that lit up in the dark,” he sang on the 2011 song that gains perspective as Carter rekindles a career on hold. “Some are dead, most still live in your heart. All is right. What a life.”