3 Music Moments That Turned Jimmy Carter Into the “Rock and Roll President”

Born October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter Jr., the 39th president of the United States (1977-1981), entered the White House during the heyday of outlaw country and Southern rock. Though Carter’s musical roots embraced more jazz, folk, and early rock, the former president developed a personal connection to The Allman Brothers Band, the late Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson—who once smoked pot with Carter’s son Chip on the White House roof—among others.

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“There are some people that didn’t like my being deeply involved with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and disreputable rock and rollers, but I didn’t care about that because I was doing what I really believed,” said Carter. “And the response from the followers of those musicians was much more influential than a few people that thought being associated with rock and roll and radical people was inappropriate for a president.”

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The former president’s love for and connection to Southern and country rock, in particular, was chronicled in the 2020 documentary, Jimmy Carter, A Rock and Roll President, which explored the music that influenced the former commander-in-chief, and the musical friendships he made along the way.

“Carter told us that two of his favorite artists were Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon, which is why he asked them to perform at his inaugural concert,” director Mary Wharton told American Songwriter in 2020. “He says that he listens to a lot of Willie Nelson records, along with [Bob] Dylan and the Allman Brothers, because he is friends with those guys. But he also had some very insightful things to say about the music of Leonard Cohen, and he’s a huge fan of the classical pianist Vladamir Horowitz as well as the free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor.”

She continued, “It speaks to the wide range of music that he listens to on a regular basis.”

Musicians were drawn to Carter’s “spirituality and authenticity,” according to Peter Conlon, a former Carter staffer, who went on to found Music Midtown Festival in Georgia. “He’s deeply soulful and open-minded. He doesn’t judge people. Wouldn’t that be nice, in the current political environment?” 

In a rare interview for the 2020 documentary, Bob Dylan shared his own perspective of Carter. “It’s impossible to define Jimmy,” said Dylan. “I think of him as a simple kind of man, like in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song [‘Simple Man’]. He takes his time, [and] doesn’t live too fast. Troubles come, but they will pass. Find the woman and find love, and don’t forget there’s always someone above.”

Dylan added, “There’s many sides to him. He’s a nuclear engineer and woodworking carpenter. He’s also a poet. He’s a dirt farmer. If you told me he’s a race car driver I wouldn’t even be surprised.”

In February of 2023, Carter, 99, decided to “spend his remaining time at home with his family” and receive hospice care over further medical intervention in his final days.

In honor of Carter’s lifelong embrace of music, and his legacy as the “rock and roll president,” here’s a look at three poignant musical moments from the former president’s life.

1. The Allman Brothers Band at Governor Carter’s Fundraiser (1975)

Carter had become friends with members of the Allman Brothers Band in the early ’70s, when he was the governor of Georgia, and the band would perform at many of Carter’s events. On November 25, 1975, the band hosted a concert fundraiser for Carter, who was running for president and played through an 18-song set.

Drinking through a bottle of J&B Scotch on the porch of the Governor’s Mansion with Carter one night, Gregg Allman remembers the then-governor telling him he was going to be president.

“We all thought, ‘Oh, really,'” said Chuck Leavell, Allman pianist throughout the 1970s. “We did some concerts for him. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a president from Georgia?’” When Carter eventually took office, the band was invited to some formal events. Leavell added, “We weren’t sure how to act.”

2. “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie (1978)

On June 18, 1978, Jimmy Carter held a White House Jazz Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival. Invitees included Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Katharine Handy Lewis (daughter of W. C. Handy) Handy Lewis, Jo Jones, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ron Carter, and Ornette Coleman, along with legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

When Gillespie got on stage Carter asked the band to play one of his favorites, “Salt Peanuts,” a song he and Kenny Clarke wrote in 1941 while playing with Ella Fitzgerald’s orchestra. Gillespie then put the president on the spot and said he would only play the song if Carter, a former peanut farmer in Georgia, would sing. The president obliged and sang the legume-loving song and its sole lyrics, salt peanuts, repeated in a quickened staccato.

Carter listened to jazz from a young age and called it the one music genre that could break through racial barriers.

“Jazz was not accepted at the beginning, I believe, because of an element of racism,” said Carter in 1978. “This form of art has done as much as anything to break down these barriers.” 

3. “Amazing Grace” with Willie Nelson (2012)

On June 16, 2012, Carter joined Willie Nelson during his concert at the Chastain Amphitheater in Atlanta, Georgia for a performance of “Amazing Grace.” The duo were also joined by Jamey Johnson. Carter’s wife Rosalynn, whom he married in 1946, also joined towards the end.

[RELATED: The Former “Wretch” Who Wrote the Classic Hymnal “Amazing Grace”]

Throughout the years, Carter would join Nelson on stage to sing the 18th-century hymnal and the Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell-penned classic “Georgia on My Mind.” During some of Nelson’s Georgia shows, Carter would get on stage and pretend to play the harmonica during “Georgia on My Mind,” which musician Mickey Raphael was actually covering.

A lifelong fan and friend of Nelson’s, Carter said his music also helped him during the later days of his administration. “I would play Willie Nelson music primarily,” said Carter, “so I could think about my problems and say a few prayers.”

Photo: Neil Hall-WPA Pool/Getty Images

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