(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There’s an unusual new book coming out of Nashville. It’s by a man who has been involved for decades in country music, rock music, gospel music and governmental politics and has some pretty tall tales to spin. And all of them are true.
The book is Get Carter: Backstage in History from JFK’s Assassination to the Rolling Stones (Fine’s Creek Publishing). It was written by Bill Carter (with Judi Turner).
Carter is a longtime Nashville lawyer, manager, advisor and solver of major problems. In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that he is also a longtime friend who has represented me in the past. Although I’ve been urging him for years to write his life story, I stand to gain nothing financially from the publication of his memoir. I just think it’s a fascinating story.
That said, let me tell you a little about Carter. A small-town boy from Rector, Ark., he later discovered himself in law and politics and later in music. In Arkansas, he would also learn the realities of life from such strong Arkansas political figures as Wilbur Mills.
After serving in the Air Force and going to college and then law school, Carter entered the U.S. Secret Service and served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was one of the Secret Service agents who served on the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas immediately following the Kennedy assassination, and he interviewed Lee Harvey’s widow Marina Oswald, as well as Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, among many other subjects.
After leaving the Secret Service, he went back to practicing law in Arkansas and sort of accidentally ended up starting to do legal work for the Rolling Stones. Through those contacts, he ended up managing teenaged budding country star Tanya Tucker and getting her on the cover of Rolling Stone — as the first country star on the cover of magazine. Over the years since then, he has guided the careers of Reba McEntire, Rodney Crowell and Lonestar, among others.
He was also key to leading the Rolling Stones to their massive U.S. touring success going back to the early 1970s when the band couldn’t get into the U.S. because the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to grant them visas. The government cited past drug offenses and supposedly inciting riots and civil disobedience during their 1972 U.S. tour. The real reason? Congressman Mills, then the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, told Carter in private that the Nixon administration feared that the Stones could foment a revolution among the young people in America. This was at the same time that the Nixon administration was trying to deport John Lennon, for the same — although unstated — reason.
Through much wile and guile, Carter got the Stones into the U.S. As legal and security advisor in guiding the Stones on their first stadium and arena tour, he also kept them out of jail when police departments in several U.S. cities tried to bust them. Along the way, he wrote the book on how to successfully plan, manage and execute a massive rock stadium tour. He based it precisely on the strategies of a presidential tour: of how to move a United States president safely around the country with precise advance work and security measures, of getting the president in front of large audiences and then whisked out of town in a hurry.
Carter also kept Keith Richards from going away to prison for a long time in Canada when Richards was busted there. And that’s quite a tale in itself.
In one of Carter’s most talked-about escapades, he spirited actor Steve McQueen’s body out of Mexico. When McQueen was suffering through the last stages of lung cancer, he went to Mexico to try last-ditch experimental therapy. He died in Juarez, and certain local officials there held the body for huge ransom money. Carter had been friends with both McQueen and his manager for years, and when the manager called to ask for help, Carter swung into action.
For years, the story of Carter busting McQueen’s body out of Mexico has grown to be legend and practically had him parachuting into Mexico armed to the teeth, grabbing the body and shooting his way over the border. The reality of it — as he says now — is a little different. I won’t give his story away — and it is a good story — but I will say that it was the brilliant work of one solitary individual sitting at his telephone in his office in Little Rock, Ark. Carter accomplished this over the phone in the space of two hours — directing and manipulating the movements and actions of many people in two countries, with crucial pinpoint timing. An international chess match like no other. And this was before the cell phone and the Internet. All it took was iron balls. And a damned good Rolodex.