Jimmy Carter, A Rock and Roll President Offers a Lingering Lesson About Hope, Humanity and Musical Empowerment

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Jimmy Carter, A Rock and Roll President presents a vivid and insightful portrait of America’s 39th president, and though the focus was intended to be on Carter’s love of music of all varieties and his special relationship with those musicians who came to call him a friend, it’s ultimately more expansive than the title implies. It presents an overall picture of Carter’s career in general and those four short years he spent occupying the Oval Office. What emerges is a portrait of a good, decent and compassionate man — a personality type many people would appreciate serving at the highest rungs of government these days.

Ah, but we digress.  As the title tells us, Jimmy Carter, A Rock and Roll President, Jimmy Carter was likely the most savvy fan and follower of music — not only of Rock and Roll, but of all styles and genres — to ever occupy the White House. He loved all music and musicians, and the testimony shared in this excellent documentary attests to that. Aside from Carter himself — still looking engaged and enthused at the age of 93 when he was interviewed — there are cameos from Bob Dylan, Bono, Garth Brooks, Rolling Stones’ Jann Werner and Hunter S. Thompson, Trisha Yearwood, Roseann Cash, Andrew Young, Paul Simon, Madeleine Albright, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, the late Gregg Allman, and — if you’re keeping count— any number of others as well. The comments are complementary of course, both deserved and expected, but the lingering impression that the viewer is left with is just how gracious, wise, reverent and human Jimmy Carter was and still remains.

Don’t be surprised if a tear of gratitude doesn’t emerge while watching…

Of course, Carter doesn’t hesitate to give credit to the musicians for his own rewards and wellbeing as well. He frequently quoted Bob Dylan, who he obviously adores. (The feeling is mutual, by the way.) He recalls that during the Iranian hostage crisis, he’d retreat to his study and listen to Willie Nelson to sooth his thoughts.

He also offers a humorous aside about when Willie smoked pot in the White House. Carter claims it was a member of the White House staff that shared the joint, but Carter’s son Chip admits he was the culprit, and his dad knew but didn’t give him up.

Gregg Allman and Carter exchange memories of the time the Allman were invited to the president’s home for a reception. The band arrived late just as the last people were leaving. Carter had already shed his formalwear and was wearing torn jeans sans shirt and shoes when the Allmans arrived. Greg Allman mistook him for a bum but once he realized who it was, they began sharing a bottle of bourbon.

Indeed, Carter was criticized for not turning his back on Gregg Allman after the musician was forced to testify after a drug bust that involved Allman and serval of his friends. “People didn’t like it, but I didn’t care,” the President insists.

Indeed, he felt a debt to the Allman Brothers in particular. “They helped put me in the White House by raising money for me when I didn’t have any money,” Carter maintains.

In one of the lighter sequences of the film, Carter and Allman give their memories of the time when the Allman were invited to the president’s home for a reception. The band arrived late, just as the last guests were leaving. Carter had already shed his formalwear and was wearing torn jeans sans shirt and shoes when the Allmans arrived. Greg Allman mistook him for a bum ,but once he realized who it was, they shared a bottle of bourbon.

An Everyman indeed.

Happily, there is an ample amount of concert footage, most of it taken from Carter’s time in the White House and clips culled from the campaign trail. The Allman dominate those scenes of course, but those vintage clips that find Carter with his sleeves rolled up, mingling at a picnic, fundraiser or White House gala show a man who always had a broad smile on his face relishing the opportunity to immerse himself in the music, whether it was rock, gospel, classical, jazz, soul, or any other form of exuberant expression.

That connection manifested itself in another unlikely way as well. During the Democratic Presidential Primary, Carter was touting the Allman Brother as his primary allies in the music world while his opponent, Jerry Brown, had the Eagles out on the road with him. It was a battle of the bands, both duking it out on a national arena. Yet to his credit, Carter was able to bring people together from both sides of the divide. Even John Wayne and the late Charlie Daniels, both diehard Republicans, are shown giving kudos to Carter.

“Music is something that binds people together,” Carter says at one point, and indeed that’s a lesson well learned, but also a sentiment that seems to sustain so many people today.

The comments about Carter also resonate, today more than ever. “It was time for someone with great integrity and dignity to take this office,” someone says. Carter himself said this while on the campaign trail in the wake of Watergate: “We’ve been hurt and disillusioned. A wall has gone up between the government and the people. It’s time for truth and healing.”

Some 35 years later, those sentiments are still worth sharing.
Purchase tickets to watch the film virtually here: https://www.jimmycartermovie.com/

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American Songwriter talks to Mary Wharton, director, Jimmy Carter, Rock and Roll President:

AS: Did you or your team know Jimmy Carter personally?

Mary Wharton: We did not know President Carter personally before making this film. But Chris Farrell, the film’s producer, had met a couple of gentlemen from Atlanta who had worked for Carter — Tom Beard and Peter Conlon, who are both interviewed in the film. Beard and Conlon first told Chris about Carter’s friendships with Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan back in 2017 and when Chris heard their stories, he recognized the makings of a great film in those stories and brought me into the picture. We developed a treatment ,and Tom Beard and Peter Conlon helped us to get our proposal to President Carter and his team at the Carter Center. We didn’t meet the President until we shot the first interview with him.

Where did Carter’s fondness for music derive from early on, and why do you think he was so attracted to this new generation of musicians?

Carter was drawn to music at an early age, and he was an obsessive collector of classical and jazz records all through his Navy days. He was a very sophisticated music aficionado by the time his son Chip introduced him to the music of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and other folk/rock artists, and that music fit right into his collection alongside the Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin records that he played all the time. I think he appreciated the smart and political lyrics of this new generation and liked what they had to say in their music.

Why did the musicians trust him and feel like they had found a sympathetic soul?

One of the common themes of Carter’s campaign speeches was his promise to never tell a lie to the American people. Coming out of the Watergate era, this resonated with the new generation of musicians who might have had a certain distrust of “show biz” and the establishment world of traditional politicians. The great songwriter Harlan Howard once said that all you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth, and Bono later co-opted the line to talk about Rock and Roll. Songwriters have always been looking for the truth, and I think that Carter’s truth-telling was a big part of why those musicians connected with him.

Do you have any idea what was on Carter’s everyday playlist?

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. He says that he listens to a lot of Willie Nelson records, along with 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. It speaks to the wide range of music that he listens to on a regular basis.

Why do you think that love of music propelled Carter to a higher plateau? What did it instill in him?

I believe that music is the closest thing that we humans will ever get to touching the divine. Music reaches something deep and elemental inside all of us. How many times has listening to a live music performance felt like going to church? That happens to me all the time, and I’m not just talking about Gospel music. I think that secular music can also bring about a spiritual experience.

President Carter is a deeply spiritual man and his connection to music, as surprising as it may be, began to make a lot more sense to me when I looked at it with this idea of spirituality in mind. I think that Carter’s love of music stems, at least in part, from his upbringing in the church where he has sung gospel songs for his entire life, but I also see a connection between his faith, his love for humanity and his love of the music of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen and those artists who were so great at distilling the universal human experience into a song.

Other presidents claimed to have loved music — JFK, Obama etc. — so what was it that elevated Carter in this arena?

Carter was just a really astute listener, and he always impressed the musicians he met with the depth of his knowledge of their work, as Bob Dylan describes in the film. You can see in the archival clips that he is always singing along with the performers, and that he’s always been much more than just a casual listener. He clearly has spent a lot of time listening to music and has a very deep and sincere appreciation for the work.

How did you go about collecting this archival footage and arranging the interviews?

It was a lot of work!! 

What inspired you to do the project in the first place?

The film’s producer, Chris Farrell, and I are old friends. We had been looking around for a project to do together for a while when he came across this musical story about Carter and he asked me if I wanted to work with him on a documentary about it. From the beginning, Chris wanted to make a film that was entertaining and fun, but that would also highlight Carter’s leadership and moral character.  He has often said that he was inspired by the 2016 election to do something and I felt like this project was something of a personal mission for him to help remind America about what we stand for as a country. Jimmy Carter really does embody the great American values of truth and justice, and it was inspiring to learn about his work and the choices that he made. He was an inspiring character to study. But without Chris’ commitment and single-minded dedication to this film, it would never have happened -– and that, in turn, was very inspiring to me.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just that I hope that Jimmy Carter is right, when he says at the end of the movie that music has the power to bring our country back together, “even after a divisive era of our constantly changing history.”  Amen to that! And thanks to President Carter, I remain full of hope.

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