By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
You can excuse fiddler Jason Carter for waiting 25 years between solo albums. During that time, the 49-year-old Ashland, Kentucky, native has fiddled for the bluegrass juggernaut that is the Del McCoury Band, which has earned a bushel of Grammies and coveted IBMA Awards, while touring with the Grammy-winning spin-off the Travelin’ McCourys. He’s also contributed to albums by Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs, Charlie Daniels, Asleep at the Wheel, and many others. The Covid lockdown took him off the road and proved to be a blessing in disguise. “I think the pandemic had a lot to do with me having the time to think about recording,” says Carter, who switched from guitar to fiddle as a teen, so he could fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the Del McCoury Band. His new solo album is Lowdown Hoedown. “I have wanted to do another solo record for many years, and I just didn’t take the time to do it.”
Jason Carter, fiddle, and guests
So he called in a few friends: Lowdown Hoedown (Fiddleman Records) features an all-star band that includes dobro master Jerry Douglas and such special guests as Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Dierks Bentley, Aiofe O’Donovan, Billy Strings, Sarah Jarosz, and Jon Fishman.
Strings caught up with Carter shortly before he launched his 2023 solo tour.
Tell me a bit about the recording process on this project.
I was very fortunate to have some of my heroes record with me on this record. Some of these tunes were learned in the studio or with limited rehearsal time going in. But that’s a great thing about having the best musicians in the world recording with you—they can get a great track really fast. The band for the first session was Cody Kilby on guitar, Dennis Crouch on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, and Russ Carson on banjo. Some of the personnel for the core band changed for the other sessions: Tim O’Brien played mandolin on a couple songs, Marty Stuart played mandolin on a couple songs, David Grier played guitar on a couple songs, Scott Vestal and Danny Barnes played banjo. And I also had the Travelin’ McCourys track a couple of songs, too. A lot of the stuff was cut live with minimal overdubs, although when we were cutting the tracks, I played and sang into the same microphone, so I went back and re-sang and replayed a lot of the stuff because the engineer could get better tone by recording the fiddle and vocals one at a time. Most of the guest vocalists that sang harmony on this came in later and overdubbed their parts. Billy Strings came in and sang on “The Six O’clock Train and a Girl with Green Eyes.” Cody Kilby played guitar on the track, and I did not want to replace him, but I also wanted to use Billy on guitar, so Billy played all the backup guitar on this track. So being a fan of guitar players, I was really pleased that this track ended up with two of my favorite guitar players on it.
What were your goals in making this recording?
My goal was just to make the best record that I could make. I was surprised when I started asking people to be a part of it and they all said yes. I tried to have a good variety of songs. I did a couple of bluegrass standards. “Midnight Flyer” is one that was done by the Eagles and the Osborne Brothers, but I remember my dad’s band playing this song when I was a very young kid. “Highway 52” is another traditional bluegrass song I remember from a Dave Evans record that I listened to as a kid. This one was kind of special to me because Highway 52 was really close to my hometown, and it mentions a lot of the cities that were close to where I grew up. I had my friend Joe Mullins, who is from that same area, come in and sing harmony with me on this one. I used to jam some with Joe years ago, back when I still lived in Kentucky, so I thought it was fitting to have him on this song. One thing I learned from being with the Del McCoury Band is not to be afraid to step outside of the box. So also, on this record, I recorded songs by the Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby, and John Hartford. I also chose songs from other songwriters here in Nashville: Shawn Camp, Jamie Hartford, David Grier.
How did you go about selecting collaborators?
I just tried to get my favorite players and singers into the studio. I was lucky that the scheduling worked out, and everyone was able to do it. A lot of these people I’ve met or worked with throughout my career. I met [Phish drummer] Jonathan Fishman when the Del McCoury Band played with Phish in Oswego, New York. Jonathan also sat in with the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys on occasion. I always loved playing with him. He sets a great groove and is very easy to play with. I’m grateful to have him play on the record.
Oh, one of my other dream gigs that never happened was that I wanted to play guitar with the band Hot Rize, so I’ve always been a fan of [guitarist and mandolinist] Tim O’Brien. When I started thinking about who to get on this record, Tim was one of my first calls. Tim is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a huge influence on me. It was an honor to get to sing and play with him. I’ve been lucky to be on some shows or tours or recordings with Vince Gill and Marty Stuart and most of the people on this record. I was blown away that these people would make time to record with me. In addition, the Del McCoury Band did several shows with Crooked Still years ago, and that’s where I met [vocalist] Aoife O’Donovan. Their album Still Crooked was on constant rotation in my house for years and I think Aoife was the perfect choice to sing harmony on “Good Things Happen.” I’ve been friends with Dierks Bentley since the mid-’90s, and I wanted to find a song that we could do together, and this Danny Barnes song “Hoedown for My Lowdown Rowdy Ways” seemed perfect. This is the only song on the record that features another lead vocalist. And it was kind of hard for me to find a song that I thought would suit myself and Dierks, because our voices are in the same register. So, I thought the best option was to split the verses. I like how it turned out. We played a lot of music together in the mid-to-late ’90s, and I’m so happy that we were able to do it again on this record.
At the time I was recording this album I was listening to a record by Bronwyn Keith-Hynes called Fiddler’s Pastime a lot, and it had a song called “Last Train” on it that was sung by Sarah Jarosz. I really loved that track, and I needed a harmony singer for the song “Dust Bowl Dream,” so I called Sarah. This could be the highlight of the record for me. I think Sarah absolutely nailed the vocal part on this. She sang it beautifully.
Obviously, I wanted to sing a duet with Del McCoury. He is probably my biggest musical influence. This is my 30th year in the Del McCoury Band and I’ve always sung in the trios with Del, but this is the first time I’ve done a duet with him. So, this song is extremely special to me. Not to mention the all-star band on this track, too: Marty Stuart, David Grier, Jerry Douglas, Dennis Crouch, and Scott Vestal.
The last song I had to finish was “The Six O’Clock Train and a Girl with Green Eyes,” and I wasn’t sure who to ask to sing on this at first. The song is in a low register, and I wound up calling Billy Strings and sent him the track. He called me back and said, “Yeah, man, that’s definitely in my range—I’ll come do it!” And, boy, did he ever! He was another one that just came in and nailed it. He also played some great back-up guitar on this track. It was a great day in the studio to say the least.
There’s a lot of fierce fiddling on the album. How do you approach a classic song like “Kissimmee Kid”?
This was my tribute to Vassar Clements, and I hope I did it justice. I had heard several versions of Vassar playing this song. I was needing a fast instrumental for the record, and to me this was the obvious choice. Vassar has been a huge influence on possibly anyone who’s ever tried to play fiddle. I was very lucky to get to play a few shows with Vassar and do some twin fiddling. So, I thought it was fitting that I did a Vassar tribute.
What are some of the other fiddle-oriented tracks of which you are most proud on the album?
I would think “Queen of the Nashville Night.” When we were working on it, David Grier said, “Hey, man, why don’t you keep playing at the end of the song like Vassar used to do on those Hartford records?” So that’s why I played such a long solo on the end of that song. I also like how it broke down to just me and David at the end.
The most rock-oriented track, “Bird Song,” is a nod to the Grateful Dead…
Hey, a few years ago, we started doing some Grateful Dead tribute shows with the Travelin’ McCourys called the Grateful Ball. This is one of the songs that I sang on those shows. I think a lot of those Grateful Dead songs lend themselves to being played on bluegrass instruments and are great for some extended solos, so I was glad to be able to feature that on the album.
Got any tips for aspiring fiddlers?
Play as much as possible, and make sure you’re having fun doing it! Listen to as much music as you possibly can. There are so many great musicians out there to draw from. Don’t give up on your dreams. I’m living proof that it just might happen.
What Jason Carter Plays
Since 2001, Carter has played a German fiddle made by Ernst Kreusler, which he got from former Del McCoury Band fiddle player Tad Marks. He uses an Otto A. Hoyer bow.