Nashville Cats: Salute to Jerry Carrigan

February 29, 2009
Jerry Carrigan vividly remembers his first major Nashville session, after having made a name for himself as part of the primary rhythm section at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Surrounded by A-team players—Ray Edenton on acoustic guitar, Grady Martin on electric guitar, Bob Moore on bass, and either Floyd Cramer or Pig Robbins on piano—Carrigan was told to play a shuffle.

“I had these little brushes taped up about that wide,” he said, raising his hand and positioning thumb and index finger about an inch apart. Carrigan mimicked playing a shuffle as if holding sticks in his hands, making a “ta-tap-ta-do, ta-tap-ta-do” sound with his voice. “Bob Moore was on bass, and they’d nail that tempo down so tight, you weren’t going anywhere. So we finished and listened to the playback, and I thought, ‘This is the worst sounding thing I’ve ever done. I’m not even with them.’

Carrigan admitted to the musicians he was off. Edenton showed him how to relax the beat a bit, and they tried it again. “But this time my brushes were so tight, it wasn’t blending in enough,” he said. Mort Thomasson, the recording engineer on the session, walked out and said, “Let me see your brushes.” Thomasson peeled off the tape and fanned the brushes out “like a peacock’s tail,” the drummer said. That worked better, but Carrigan left knowing he needed to raise his game if he was going to make it among the outstanding Music Row musicians—with their quick-study versatility and range—who comprised the Nashville A-team in the mid-1960s.

Through first-hand examination of the playing of top Nashville drummer Buddy Harman, and through his own talent and tenacity, Carrigan persevered to become a first-call drummer on Nashville sessions and one of country music’s most prolific and important session players from the 1960s to the 1990s. Carrigan’s drum work can be heard on such classic hits as Bobby Bare’s “Marie Laveau,” Waylon Jennings’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Middle Aged Crazy,” Jerry Reed’s “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” Ray Stevens’s “Everything Is Beautiful,” and Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie,” among scores of others.

“When I got here, these guys taught me to play—again,” Carrigan said with a laugh. “They were great to me. If I’d have been one of them, I don’t know that I would have been quite as receptive to a little punk from Muscle Shoals coming up here to show them how great he is.”

Carrigan was honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the city’s role as the home of country music and one of the world’s leading recording centers. Interviewed by museum curator Bill Lloyd, Carrigan traced his wide-ranging musical development in a ninety-minute program before an enthusiastic audience in the museum’s Ford Theater. Among those in attendance were several former honorees of the Nashville Cats series, including guitarist and producer Jerry Kennedy, bassist Bob Moore, pianist Pig Robbins, fiddler Buddy Spicher, and guitarist Reggie Young. Songwriters Wayne Carson and Dan Penn also showed up to help honor their old friend.

Born in 1943 in Florence, Alabama, Carrigan played drums from a young age, first recording in Nashville at age thirteen before forming bands in high school. He grew up listening to 1950s R&B, including Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard, and Larry Williams. He also was a fan of country songs—he cited Hank Garland’s instrumental “Sugarfoot Rag” as a vinyl 45-rpm that he “wore out.” As a drummer, his influences included Harman (“He was on about everything I listened to,” Carringan said) and New Orleans great Earl Palmer.

At the urging of his parents, Carrigan began college, even playing drums for the opening act for the Beatles in their first American concert, in February 1964 in Washington, D.C. But he left his studies after two years to concentrate on music, after his mother received some advice from a college dean that aided the decision. “Mrs. Carrigan, seems Jerry is not interested in his studies, but he’s very interested in music and girls,” the dean said. “I suggest you let him have that.

Carrigan’s reputation achieved national recognition as part of the well-regarded Muscle Shoals rhythm section, which included bassist Norbert Putnam and keyboardist David Briggs. They formed the first of the important session groups in Muscle Shoals, working at Fame Studios, the title of which was an acronym, “Florence, Alabama, Music Enterprises.” Carrigan played on a long list of hit R&B, pop, and rock sessions before he relocated to Nashville. The program included several audio examples of Carrigan’s early work, including Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” Jimmy Hughes’s “Steal Way,” and Tommy Roe’s “Everybody.

“R&B was all I knew how to do then,” Carrigan says. Later in the program, he added, “To me, country music is very much akin to R&B music.”

In Nashville, Carrigan brought an R&B feel to the country sessions. His first Music Row recordings included Warner Mack’s “The Bridge Washed Out” and Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam.” He also recalls a few special early experiences, including the first of many recording sessions with Jerry Lee Lewis. “He looked at me and said, ‘Can you rock, killer?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Get out there, we’ll find out.’ He started out on his own, and it was so fast, and I didn’t know if I could catch a breath, let alone a beat. I played it through, and he looked back at me again and said, ‘You’ll do, killer.’”

He told of other encounters with legends, including work on an Elvis Presley album in the early 1970s. Presley treated the players well, Carrigan said, but told of how the large entourage around him could be difficult and overly protective. He recalled seeing a tall cup of dill pickles in the studio and reaching down to grab one, only to be stopped by one of Presley’s crew. “Those are Elvis’s pickles!” the guy barked. Carrigan commented that he didn’t think Presley would mind if he had one, but the fellow again refused, with more of an edge this time.

So Carrigan found Presley and asked him to come into the room. “This man tells me I can’t have one of these pickles,” Carrigan recalled saying. Presley responded, “Is that right? You give him that whole thing of pickles and go get me some more if I ask you to.”

The drummer also told stories about the inventive ways producers and musicians approached recording in Nashville. For the session on George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” for instance, producer Billy Sherrill told Carrigan he couldn’t use his sticks or brushes. “You can play the drums with anything else: pencils, hands, anything, but no drumsticks,” Carrigan remembered Sherrill saying. “So I played on that cut with my hands.

Carrigan also underscored why so many top session players prefer studio work to touring live. “Once you’ve played with these guys, you don’t want to go out there and play with another group of guys,” he said. “One you’ve played with the best, you don’t want to do anything else.”

Over the years, Carrigan has toured occasionally, playing with John Denver, Charlie McCoy, Johnny Rivers, Ronny and the Daytonas, and Porter Wagoner. He showed off the belt he was wearing, a gift from Wagoner. “I had Nudie make up a little something for you,” Wagoner told him when giving him the belt. “I liked to have had a heart attack. I’ve had it for years and years. I wear it when I play sometimes, but I haven’t worn it in quite a while.”

Carrigan moved back to Florence in 1995. The Alabama native remains close to the A-team players, and he singled out Bob and Kittra Moore for recently helping him revive his career. Carrigan recently toured Denmark and Sweden with a group of all-star players that included Moore. The drummer is also featured in an upcoming book, Sticks and Skins, about top drummers across all genres of music.

—Michael McCall