(Photo: Fred with his daughter and award winning country star Deanne Carter)
Carter grew up with the heavy musical influences of jazz, country & western, hymns, and blues. His first instrument was the mandolin which he began playing at the age of 3. He later learned to play fiddle as well. While in the Air Force in his late teens, he was the band leader for the USO variety show entertaining troops across Europe. His bunkmate during the tour was the MC and fellow serviceman Larry Hagman who went on to television fame. After leaving the Air Force, Carter attended Centenary Music College on scholarship as a violist despite the fact he could not read music but instead had to memorize all of his orchestral pieces.
After leaving Centenary, Carter began his professional career in the 1950s, his first partner in music was another Franklin Parish native, Allen “Puddler” Harris. He started taking up guitar seriously and got his first taste of fame playing in the house band of the popular Louisiana Hayride radio program, which led to a gig with Roy Orbison during the late ’50s when Orbison was signed to famed Memphis label Sun Records. Carter became part of his band and moving to Hollywood with Roy. Later, he worked with Orbison in Nashville on the Monument Sessions notably heard on Dream Baby as the opening guitar.
He subsequently worked with Dale Hawkins of “Suzie Q” song fame, and then joined Dale’s cousin Ronnie Hawkins whose group The Hawks later became The Band, (sans Hawkins). He played a key role in the career of Ronnie Hawkins, serving as his lead guitarist from 1959 to 1960 and mentoring his eventual replacement, a young Toronto, Ontario guitarist named Robbie Robertson. During this busy and formative time, Carter also toured and became lifelong friends with Conway Twitty.
Carter’s career as a musician began at the birth of rock’n’roll, and over the next four decades he branched off into songwriting, production and label management.
In the early 1960s, Carter settled into the Nashville session scene. He quickly earned a place as part of Nashville’s famous A Team. His discography for the next 3 decades is extensive and wide ranging: Carter played guitar and mandolin for two of Joan Baez’s albums in the late 1960s. He then worked on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Notably, Carter provide numerous memorable guitar performances including five guitar parts for “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (the iconic opening riff is Carter’s creation), “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal” by John Anderson, “I’ve Always Been Crazy” and “Whistlers and Jugglers” by Waylon Jennings. He also played guitar and bass on the Bob Dylan albums “Self Portrait”, “Nashville Skyline” , “John Wesley Harding” and on the Connie Francis hit single, “The Wedding Cake”. During this time Carter was also a member of the supergroup Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, composed of Levon Helm, Booker T. Jones, Dr. John, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and the Saturday Night Live horns.
Carter owned Nugget Records in Goodlettsville, TN for many years. Songs such a Jesse Colter’s “I’m Not Lisa” were originally recorded at Nugget. Willie Nelson famously recut his famed Phases and Stages album with Fred at Nugget after Willie expressed dissatisfaction with the first version of the album cut in Muscle Shoals, AL.
Production credits for Carter include Levon Helm’s American Son album on MCA Records, and Bobby Bridger’s “Heal in the Wisdom”. He also helped Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker land their first record deals.
Carter was a member of the band Levon Helm and The RCO All-Stars. This band was composed of Levon Helm, Carter, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, and the NBC Saturday Night Live horns.
Although Carter recorded with top country stars such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson, it could be argued that his biggest contribution was being a crucial member of the group of Nashville session players that enabled artists such as Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen to record some of their most memorable music there.
Carter was a complete guitarist. He was accomplished as both a flat picker and fingerpicker and could play any genre fluently. Carter was widely recognized as being the “earthiest” player in Nashville with an ability to add subtle flavor to any recording. He is known for distinctive fills with both soulful and playful colorations. He also had small roles in several films including The Adventures of Huck Finn starring Elijah Wood.
He died of a stroke on July 17, 2010 in Nashville at the age of 76.