From Mandolin Cafe
Joe Carr Interview
By Dan Miller
March 24, 2013 - 3:15 pm
Mel Bay author and South Plains College faculty member Joe Carr
Some artists influence the world in grand and obvious ways, from the stage with ovations and thunderous accolades and applause. Others do it more quietly, from behind the scenes, changing the musical world with more subtlety, one student with one book at a time, strategically and with a well thought-out sequential set of tips.
Such is the case with author/educator Joe Carr. With nearly one hundred titles to his name from publishing powerhouse Mel Bay, the prolific multi-instrumentalist has penned instructional materials in both print and video that have prodded tens of thousands of beginning and intermediate musicians down the path of aesthetic enjoyment and musical literacy on mandolin, guitar, banjo, and ukulele. He's covered the folk styles of bluegrass, country, swing, and gospel, for young, old, and everybody in between. With his catalog, it's unlikely anyone reading this hasn't worked out of or at least seen one of his books.
A performing career that has spanned nearly five decades, the Texan has taught at South Plains College in Levelland since 1984, and cut his teeth in the geographical hotbed of Texas Swing, touring and playing with Country Gazette and Roanoke in the 70s and 80s. He also edited the now defunct Mandolin Sessions webzine which remains in archive on the Mel Bay Publishing website.
Whether you've seen him on stage or not, the chance is very likely you or someone in your musical circle has been influenced by Joe Carr.
— Ted Eschliman
Writer/Music Industry Consultant
As a performer, recording artist, teacher, author, writer, camp director and all around great guy, Joe Carr has touched the lives of many bluegrass musicians. As Professor of Music at South Plains College for nearly thirty years he has helped educate hundreds of dedicated bluegrass musicians, including now famous professional players like Mike Bub and Ron Block. As an author he has helped teach and inspire a countless number of musicians with instructional titles for guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, ukulele, and dulcimer, available through Mel Bay Publications.
Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas, by Joe Carr and Alan Munde. Click to purchase.
He has also been a regular contributor to Flatpicking Guitar Magazine since 1996 and also writes for Mandolin Magazine. As the director of Camp Bluegrass for the past twenty-eight years he has provided a learning environment where students can emerge themselves in a solid week of instruction, jamming, and performance. As a performer and recording artist he has been on stage and in the studio with the Texas band Roanoke, the legendary Country Gazette, and his long-time musical partner, banjo great, Alan Munde. As if that wasn't enough, Joe and Alan Munde also wrote a book titled Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas, and they wrote and performed a two-man musical comedy play called Two Swell Guys from Texas. Does this guy ever sleep?
While Joe's list of accomplishments is impressive and inspiring, what is even more impressive is that Joe has done it all while living and working with the physical limitations of multiple sclerosis (MS). Joe was diagnosed with the disease in 2003, however, he had been noticing a slow but steady decline in muscle strength and coordination for about ten years prior to the diagnosis. In 2005 Joe wrote an excellent article for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine titled "Working with Physical Limitations." The article outlines how Joe has coped with the loss of strength and coordination and has inspired many musicians working with some form of physical limitation. In the article's conclusion, Joe says, "The bottom line here is that there is lots of great music to be made even if you do have physical limitations." Despite his physical limitations, Joe continues to teach and inspire bluegrass musicians, young and old.
Play Like A Legend Book/CD Set Bill Monroe Tunes & Songs for Mandolin, by Joe Carr. Click to purchase.
Joe Carr began his career in music by learning to play the guitar at the age of 13. It was 1964 and folk music was popular, so Joe decided that he wanted to learn how to play that style of music on the guitar. The first song he learned how to play was "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore." His interest in folk music eventually led him to discover old-time music and bluegrass. Joe said, "I went to the listening room in the Dallas Public Library and found a recording of the New Lost City Ramblers playing live at the Newport Folk Festival. That was the first time I heard a mandolin. On the back of the album it mentioned bluegrass music. A few weeks later I found a Bill Monroe compilation album on the Harmony label. I remember that I didn't like the singing because it was so alien to me. I had no background to prepare me for it. But the album had two instrumentals that I fell in love with-"Bluegrass Breakdown" and "Bluegrass Stomp." I really liked the sound of the mandolin and shortly after that I bought my first mandolin."
Joe's first mandolin was a very cheap Mexican model that he purchased for ten dollars when he was fifteen years old. He said, "I later took the tailpiece off and found the original price tag. The original sale price was two dollars. You couldn't play past the fifth fret without it being out of tune." Because he could not find any instructional material for bluegrass mandolin, Joe started learning how to play by ear. He said, "At first I didn't think that I had a good ear. But it slowly improved." One of the first songs that he tried to tackle was "Bluegrass Stomp." Eventually he found some mandolin tab in Sing Out Magazine and later bought Jack Tottle's mandolin book from Oak Publications. He said, "At first the tab was a mystery to me. The first tune I learned out of that book was "Woody's Rag." After I got that one down, the others became easier."
Joe Carr's best selling School of Mandolin series from Mel Bay. Click to purchase.
When asked about his early mandolin influences, Joe said, "I had not met anyone that I could learn from, but I was always scanning the bargain bins in the record stores for bluegrass recordings. I found one by Wade Ray and Country Fiddlers that had some great mandolin playing. The album didn't list who was playing the mandolin, but I found out years later that it was Jethro Burns on mandolin and Sonny Osborne on banjo. I learned all of the mandolin solos off of that record."
Throughout his high school years Joe worked on his guitar, mandolin, and banjo playing on his own. He said that he would have liked to have had the opportunity to play with other people, however, he did not know many people who were playing bluegrass in Dallas at the time. That situation changed when he entered North Texas State University, in Denton, Texas, in the fall of 1969. One of the first people he ran into in Denton was Dan Huckabee. Dan was a guitar and Dobro player who Joe says, "Knew more about bluegrass than I did." Dan had been to a few bluegrass festivals and had a collection of bluegrass albums. The two aspiring musicians formed a trio with Dan playing guitar or Dobro, Joe playing guitar or mandolin, and any one of a number of friends playing bass. One of those bass players was Gregg Kennedy, who would play bass with Bill Monroe in 1973-74.
In 1973 Joe met a "long-haired kid" playing banjo at a bluegrass festival in McKinney, Texas. That kid was Gerald Jones, who joined Dan and Joe, again with various bass players, to form a band called The Bluegrass Road Apples, which would later become known as Roanoke. This band, with Mike Anderson on bass, would stay together until about 1977. They recorded an album together, opened for Townes Van Zandt for a week-long gig at The Rubaiyat in Dallas, and played at a variety of Texas venues and festivals. They also each entered contests and did well at events from Kerrville, Texas, to Hugo, Oklahoma.
L-R: Dan Huckabee, Gerald Jones, Mike Anderson, Joe Carr.
A couple of other musical highlights from those years include seeing a number of great professional bands play. Joe attended the Walnut Valley Festival in 1972 and saw the Country Gazette and New Grass Revival perform. It was there that Joe first became enamored with Sam Bush's mandolin playing. Later, in about 1974, Joe and some friends took a bluegrass road trip to Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky. In Nashville they visited Gruhn's Guitars and were able to explore the instrument collection there. When they went to Louisville they were able to see a Bluegrass Alliance reunion show featuring Lonnie Pierce (fiddle), Sam Bush (mandolin), Tony Rice (guitar), Curtis Burch (Dobro) and Ebo Walker (bass). Joe taped the show that night and got a "treasure trove" of mandolin solos. He said, "I stole from that material for years."
When Joe and friends went to Lexington they were able to see another impressive show at the Holiday Inn with J. D. Crowe and the New South featuring J. D. on banjo, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, and Bobby Sloane on bass. This was the band that performed on the legendry "Rounder 0044" recording. Seeing the Bluegrass Alliance reunion and J. D. Crowe and the New South in the same week in the mid-1970s would have been not only inspiring, but life changing for any young bluegrass enthusiast.
Joe Carr's best selling Mandolin Chords DVD from Mel Bay. Click to purchase.
In about 1976 the Roanoke band got a job playing shows in a restaurant chain called Chelsy Street Pub, which had locations in shopping malls in Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Albuquerque. The band would rotate and spend about a month in each location playing for $1200 a week. Although they were essentially a four-piece bluegrass band, they also played tunes made popular by performers like John Denver, Jerry Jeff Walker, and the Eagles in addition to bluegrass standards. Joe said, "We played bluegrass, but we also played whatever was popular at the time." While with Roanoke Joe said he played guitar about half the time and mandolin the other half. When Dan played Dobro, Joe played the guitar. When Joe played mandolin, Dan played the guitar.
After playing the Chelsy Street Pub gigs for about a year, the band moved on to play in a couple of other restaurant chains, Railhead and Steak & Ale. The new restaurants paid better, but they also wanted a different kind of music. Cowboy dance music was popular at the time and so the restaurant was looking for a honky tonk country band instead of a bluegrass band. Dan Huckabee and Gerald Jones left the band at about that time. Joe and Mike Anderson stayed on while adding fiddle, electric guitar, and drums to the band and started playing country dance music.
Joe's stay with the country dance band didn't last too long, however, because by 1978 Joe and Mike Anderson were asked to join Alan Munde and Roland White in Country Gazette. Joe had met Alan Munde through mutual friend Slim Richey, the owner of Ridge Runner Records. Roanoke had recorded and released an album with Slim's label and so had Alan Munde. In about 1978 Ridge Runner was working on a fiddle album with fiddler Dave Ferguson, who was a member of Country Gazette along with Alan Munde on banjo, Roland White on guitar, and Roger Bush on bass. Country Gazette was called into the studio to play on Dave's fiddle record, and so was Roanoke. Roanoke had been playing with Dave prior to his joining Country Gazette and thus they were more familiar with some of his tunes. So, it was in Slim Richey's studio during the making of Dave Ferguson's fiddle album that Joe Carr and Alan Munde first met.
L-R: Byron Berline, Alan Munde, Joe Carr and Roland White.
After Joe joined Country Gazette, he played mostly guitar, however, he did play the mandolin on a few tunes. He stayed with that band from 1978 through 1983. While he mainly focused on his guitar playing during those years, performing with a guy like Roland White on the mandolin had a strong influence on Joe. When asked what he learned from Roland during those years, Joe said that he did not learn things directly, however, standing next to Roland night after night on stage eventually had a great deal of influence on his mandolin playing. Joe said, "When I started to teach students and play in student bands at South Plains College in 1984, I noticed that all of my solos were much like what Roland would play. Before I joined Country Gazette I was a fiddle tune style mandolin player, but suddenly my solos were more Monroe-based in the Roland White style. When I would close my eyes and think about a solo, it was a Roland-style solo that I was hearing."
Joe Carr's best selling School of Mandolin, Bluegrass Soloing from Mel Bay. Click to purchase.
One of the many highlights of Joe's time in Country Gazette was at the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival in 1979 when he got to "be Clarence White." At the festival three of the original members of the Kentucky Colonels were in attendance. The festival promoter thought it would be a great idea to have an impromptu Kentucky Colonels reunion show. Joe was asked to play the guitar, and thus fill in for the deceased Clarence White. The band that day included Roland White on mandolin, Billy Ray Latham on banjo, Roger Bush on bass, Byron Berline on fiddle, and Joe on guitar. Joe wrote an article for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine about his experience. The article was titled, "I was Clarence White for 45 Minutes."
In 1984 Joe was hired to teach in the commercial music program at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. Along with teaching guitar, mandolin, and some fiddle, he was hired as "the bluegrass specialist." South Plains College is a two-year community college located 30 miles west of Lubbock. They offer a typical full range of community college courses and in 1975 added guitar lessons that included folk and country style guitar. That class evolved into a commercial music program. Many of the students involved in those classes liked to play bluegrass and so the school made bluegrass a part of the course of study. At that point students could get an associate's degree in commercial music and chose to specialize in bluegrass. Alan Munde came to work at the school two years after Joe started. At that time Joe and Alan began performing as a duo and collaborating on a number of music related projects. Alan has since retired, but Joe continues to teach at the school to this day.
When asked how he got the job at the college, Joe said, "Gazette played there at the college in '83. We did a concert and a small workshop and then the Gazette played there in early '84 without me, after I had left, and essentially they went, "Where is that guy?" So, Alan called me within a week and said, "They are looking to expand their faculty and understand you are available, so why don't you give them a call." I was back in Dallas teaching lessons and sort of doing what I could to make a living off of the road. So I called them and wound up going to work for them in mid-'84."
There is no minimum requirement to gain admission to the commercial music program at South Plains and most of the study is individual. Students have private lessons with the teachers and also participate in ensembles. Many of the students are college-aged who study music along with the courses required to earn an associate's degree. However, some students are older and just come to the school to focus on the music program and so they will not take the core associates degree classes, but instead double up on the music classes.
Regarding the music program curriculum, Joe explains, "I take everyone in the class and work with them at their level, especially in the private lessons. In the band settings material is being selected, but hopefully it matches the five or six people you have there. It is always going to be a little challenging for a couple of the people and old hat for others because that is just the way skills go. But if we have six bands a semester, we will have what we as teachers think of as the 'beginning band, 'the 'intermediate band,' the 'advanced band,' etc. We don't really label them that way, but we do put people together that are of about equal ability.
A few select Joe Carr publications from Mel Bay.
"At the first of the semester everyone plays for the teaching staff and then we put them in bands that seem to work. Sometimes there will be more than one of a given instrument in a band just because that is the way it works out. But it is not any easier out in the real world to put a band together. The beauty of our situation is that we, the teachers, are the bosses. What I notice is that in the real world most bands don't have clear bosses. It is sort of a democratic agreement. What is beautiful for us and for the students is that if someone is singing sharp as a tenor singer, or if the rhythm guitar playing is way off, I can, as the teacher, say, 'Your rhythm guitar playing is way off.' And they won't pack up their instrument and go home and quit the band. It works out pretty nicely that way."
Reading Standard Music Notation for Mandolin & Fiddle, by Joe Carr. Click to purchase.
In addition to the bluegrass ensembles, Joe started a Bob Wills style Western swing band at the school back in 1987. This year that band will celebrate their 25th anniversary with a special concert event. Joe anticipates 180 former students coming back for this reunion. Through the years Joe has played a variety of instruments in this band, whatever was needed to fill out the band after his students had selected their instrument. It is in this band that he first started playing a solid body 5-string electric mandolin and studying the style of Tiny Moore.
Two aspects of learning music that Joe likes to emphasize on guitar and mandolin are correct alternating pick direction and ear training. When asked if he starts beginning students with ear training right away, Joe said, "I like the students to have first played and had success with my transcriptions first. I suggest that they begin transcribing on their own when they have developed a good major scale, but I like them to develop it the fun way, not just by rote." Once a student reaches an advanced level, Joe will require them to transcribe material in order to develop their ear. He said, "I have most of it already transcribed, but for ear training, I want them to do it on their own."
Since being diagnosed with MS in 2003, Joe has continued teaching. His physical strength and coordination have continued to deteriorate, but he says, "I have been lucky because the nature of my MS is a slow progression. So, I'm able to make adjustments." Joe still teaches a full curriculum of classes at the college and continues to produce instructional books for Mel Bay Publications.
When it comes to all aspects of working in the world of bluegrass music, Joe Carr has "been there and done that." His overall philosophy is that music should be fun. Those who have attended Camp Bluegrass, held each July at South Plains College for the past 27 years, can attest to the fact that Joe makes an atmosphere of fun a big priority. People come to Camp Bluegrass to relax and have a good time and Joe and his entire staff facilitates a very fun, relaxed, and low pressure learning experience. At the conclusion of his article about physical limitations in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Joe said, "I promise you there is a ten year old out there somewhere that can play everything you can play and twice as fast! But you have a lot to offer. Remember why you started playing in the first place. Accommodate a little, learn a new tune or two and have fun!" Great advice!
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