Bill Carter – Unknown Legend

We all know songwriters like Bill Carter, but none are perhaps as successfully incognito as the masterful Austin based lyricist and songwriter.  Over 200 artists have seen their names go into the regular jukebox rotation from Carter’s songs including Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Palmer,The Counting Crows, Storyville, Omar and The Howlers, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ruth Brown, John Anderson, and Waylon Jennings.

Carter and songwriting partner Ruth Ellsworth will inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame this March, and Bill was recently the subject of "An Art In Context" documentary on PBS Austin where everyone from Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan) to Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) spoke of his influence.

(due Jan.15th) is Carter’s first proper full-length as a solo artist, and the first single "Anything Made of Paper" is one of two tracks in Peter Jackson’s documentary about the West Memphis 3.. Carter became involved with the West Memphis 3 through Johnny Depp, with whom he was in a band in the 90s (‘P’). "Anything Made of Paper" was written as a gift for Damien Echols of the ‘West Memphis 3,’ who was only able to receive objects "made of paper" while in prison.  

The rest of Unknown is a resounding collection of hard-nosed rock and blues arrangements with a country sensibility and features Carter on ten instruments, including bongos, bass. Carter’s voice is that of a true troubadour, one who speaks it like he’s lived it, making the listener wonder – what if he kept some of his familiar songs for himself?  “Crossfire” might not have been blessed with the live potency of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, however Carter deserves to be up there with international song-writing royalty.  Unknown and "Anything Made of Paper" stands to serve as a harbinger for "better late than never" national acclaim for this unknown legend.

Can you share with our readers how Unknown came together and why you decided to keep these songs for your own?

I started recording these songs about two years ago, and decided it was a pretty good all around representation of the various styles I write in, so I thought, may as well float it out there and see what happens.  I also played a lot of different instruments on the songs, arranged, and produced the CD, so it’s a description of who I am and where I come from musically.

Anything Made of Paper” has already received significant press and praise- how did the case of the West Memphis Three impact you as songwriter?

The West Memphis Three case was such an obvious case of injustice from the beginning.  Upon watching the original "Paradise Lost" film, my wife, Ruth, Johnny [Depp] and I felt compelled to take whatever measures possible to help the wrongly accused and ultimately convicted young men.  Ruth got the ball rolling by communicating with Lorri Davis (Damien Echols’ wife).  Then Johnny, with his commitment to helping anyone he can in dire need and his stature, was able to bring more awareness to this hideous circumstance.  When we met Lorri Davis, and she told us Damien could only have "Anything Made Of Paper" on death row, I immediately said, "that is what we will give to you and Damien, a song."  Ruth and I proceeded to write "Anything Made Of Paper" that very day and night.

You’ve collaborated with Johnny Depp – what would you say his greatest strengths as a musician are and what has he taught you about performing and song-craft?

Johnny Depp is a great friend – My wife and I are the Godparents of his children.  Johnny originally started out as a guitar player in rock bands before his acting career flourished and he still plays guitar great.  We have worked together a lot – he plays on the ‘West of Memphis’ soundtrack versions of "Anything Made Of Paper" and "Road To Nowhere" (Ozzy Osbourne).  I have been writing songs and performing for a long time, and Johnny is always a great inspiration.  When we are recording or playing live he always has valuable ideas to consider and we have a great time working together.  He is a true musician in every sense of the word.

Despite having written some very well known songs and being highly regarded amongst your peers and those in the Austin scene, how would you explain that you are somewhat under-appreciated outside of Austin?

I think a lot of people may not know my name outside of Texas because for a long time I chose to just write for other artists.  The majority of people don’t know (or care) where a song comes from so the artist who recorded the song would get just about all of the attention.  Other than touring a bit with Stevie Ray Vaughan, I focused on writing songs and only really performed in Austin and around Texas.

It was said by one of your peers –“There’s always a new Bill Carter [song], there’s always something new he can throw on the table” – how do you go about always coming up with something new?

I am inspired to write by everything I experience; the weather, an odd conversation, a weird observation about someone, something that’s happening around me, and books I’ve read spark songs.  Other music always penetrates my soul, especially the past masters who created the American roots blues, country, jazz, bluegrass and R&B.  Writing is so cerebral that discipline is a major factor in delving deep into the cosmic consciousness and extracting some form of original substance.  It’s not as easy as it looks!

How do you feel about the fact that songwriting itself isn’t as lucrative as it once was due to royalties declining and industry changing dramatically since you started?

The fact that royalties are no longer as abundant because of the self contained structure of the business is fine with me. I’ll just work harder, put out my own records, and go out and perform more often.  I would encourage all artists [musicians, writers, painters] to get up and go to work every day, even if that means in your one room hotel, because you get out what you put in, no excuses!  I attempt to write something every single day.

You said, "You never know where a song will wind up” – where is the most rewarding place one of your songs has ended up?

The most rewarding place for one of my songs to show up is on a record, anyone’s record, famous or not.  To inspire another artist to be so moved by your work that they want to be part of it is the ultimate tip of the hat.

Being in the industry for so long, you’ve seen it all – what do you see as the big difference in the musical climate today verse when you first started?

There is a much larger variety of musical genres nowadays.  When I started everything was American roots based.  Now sounds are different and vocals especially are much more electronically affected.

Of all the songs that you have written – which song are you most proud of?

I guess the song of mine that I’m still most endeared to is "Why I Get Up" because it was my first song recorded by another artist.   It not only sold well, but it let me know I could write songs that could be recognized by other major artists, and that now it was up to me.  I had proved to myself I could do this for real and possibly make a living doing it.

For more information please check out

Arts in Context: Bill Carter and the Blame from KLRU-TV on Vimeo.

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