Rock & Roll Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Inaugurations & Live Music’s Return To The White House

Jimmy Carter Willie Nelson
(Image courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

The Man From Plains & The Red Headed Stranger: President Carter and longtime friend and musical inspiration, Willie Nelson backstage at the Merriwether Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD in 1980, an image featured in the new documentary “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President.”

As a dismal 2020 literally bled into 2021, unnecessary divisions, abhorrent violence and unfathomable loss of life unleashed havoc never before seen on our nation.  On Jan. 20, a new presidential administration was sworn in and hopefully with it greater unity, purpose and leadership in what are still incredibly perilous times for our country facing enormous economic, health and social challenges.

No citizen or business is immune from the impact of shifting political winds. The policies a president brings to office have enormous consequences on so many aspects of our lives and prosperity, whether tax policy, FTC approvals, consent decrees, prime interest rates, FEMA grants, EPA or OSHA regulations, minimum wage and in myriad other ways. Today, with so many in our industry facing dire circumstances, the government’s impact is even greater with aid packages like the $15 billion Save Our Stages Act,  Paycheck Protection Program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the RESTART Act that many in our industry are calling for,  can help mitigate the damage.

And, not insignificantly, the presidency impacts the country’s arts and culture in both policies and funding terms and, perhaps most importantly, the tone it sets for the nation. This is made abundantly clear in the fantastic new CNN documentary “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” which chronicles how one of U.S. history’s most underrated and overlooked presidents put America’s incredible music heritage front and center in his life, presidential campaign and the one term he served in the White House set a high bar for what music could be for any Presidency.

The story of how this humble peanut farmer and former Navy officer from Plains, Ga., hitched his star to popular music, helping to  propel him to the presidency, is incredible. Seeing performances snippets and/or interviews with rock stars that included The Allman Brothers Band’s Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavell, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and June Carter (who may be related to the president) is exhilarating. As are appearances by Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, Herbie Hancock, Muddy Waters, Chick Corea, Sarah Vaughn, Loretta Lynn and Capricorn Records’ Phil Walden.

The film frames  the Democratic primary battle between Carter and his rival, California Gov. Jerry Brown, (a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam”), as a battle with the West Coast’s formidable Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. But they are no match for the “Man From Plains” and his expansive rock star supporters who help him lock up the vote with help in part from Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner.

To hear President Carter sing “Salt Peanuts” on the South Lawn with Gillespie and his all-star band made of fire (Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Ron Carter, George Benson and Tony Williams) is mind-blowing (if stilted), as is watching him discuss his friendship with Allman whose band, he said, “put [him] in the White House.” Perhaps more wild is President Carter’s confession that one of his sons smoked weed with Willie Nelson in the White House.  

Carter is adamantly eclectic and passionate in his love for music, which included rock (especially Dylan, whose lyrics he cites), country music (he and Nelson were tight), jazz (he hosted the first White House Jazz Festival), gospel (he knew all the hymns and sang them with equal vigor in white and Black churches) and classical (Arthur Rubenstein among others performed at the White House). It wasn’t an act of political expediency, it was genuine and the artists knew it and returned the favor by raising funds and giving support. It also providing Carter with a vernacular that allowed him to cut through social strata and partisan divides – something so desperately needed today.

Ronald Reagan, Merle Haggard
(Bettmann/Getty Images)

President Ronald Reagan, when he was Governor of California, with Merle Haggard at his ranch near Santa Barbara in 1972

Much of that divide, as we know, is a construct that serves few if any. And music, at its best, especially live performance, is a good place to start in bringing people of every political stripe and demographic together in that continuing and often elusive pursuit of happiness. Presidents on both sides of the aisle have brought their music proclivities to the executive branch. In 1974, Nixon went to the Grand Ole Opry and sang “Happy Birthday” to his wife Pat, got a yo-yo lesson from fiddle great Roy Acuff and closed it out playing piano on “God Bless America,” becoming the only president to ever perform at the Opry.  

Though Ronald Reagan brought deep cuts to arts funding, he also brought music to the White House, including the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Jessye Norman, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. He even brought Dave Brubeck to Moscow when he visited Soviet President Gorbachev in 1988.

Clinton took playing music to another level with his sax, which he used to great effect on the campaign trail and on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Once in office, he too had  a constant stream of artists (check out Bowie in the Oval Office). His “Concert of the Century,” supporting music education, brought together a powerful lineup that included Gloria Estefan, Al Green, Garth Brooks, B.B. King, John Fogerty, Lenny Kravitz, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton.

George W. Bush  declared June 2001 Black Music Month and brought Lionel Hampton, Shirley Caesar, Bobby Jones, James Brown, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Harlem Jazz Museum Artists for a ceremony in the White House’s East Room.

Jay-Z and Beyonce
AFP via Getty Images

Beyonce and Jay Z pose after Beyonce performed the National Anthem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 21, 2013.

President Barack Obama’s 15-year age gap between himself and his predecessor, brought a more contemporary and expansive spin to the White House’s live performances, giving Jimmy Carter a good run for his music-loving self. The 44th president, in some ways, took the concept of mash-up to another level. He combining talented upstarts with legends. on expansively interpreted theme nights. A “Memphis Soul” night saw Alabama Shakes, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples, Justin Timberlake, Queen Latifah and Sam Moore; “Red White & Blues” featured Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Mick Jagger, Gary Clark, Jr. and Jeff Beck; and a Country tribute brought together Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Lauren Alaina and The Band Perry among others. And there was much more including a tribute to Stevie Wonder and a Fiesta Latina which were part of a PBS series “Performance at the White House” which, significantly, dates back to the Carter administration 1978.

The Trump White House may be lauded or derided for its policy accomplishments or failings, depending on where you fall within the political divide and how or if his policies helped your business, but in terms of music programming there was little, if any.  Besides the U.S. Marine Band, and appearances but not performances by Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, few performed. This despite many Commanders In Chief honoring and appreciating America’s phenomenal music heritage from whichever side of the political spectrum they fell on.

No less a figure than Bruce Springsteen pointed this out when he shared a poem by Elayne Griffin Baker in late October on his SiriuxXM show, “From My Home To Yours.”  “There’s no art in this White House. There’s no literature, no poetry, no music,” he read before posing a salient question: “Where did all the fun, the joy and the expression of love and happiness go?” It’s the answers to that question that cuts deep. “We used to be the country that did the ice bucket challenge. We have lost the cultural aspects of society that make America great. We have lost our mojo, our fun, our happiness, our cheering on of others. The shared experience of humanity that makes it all worth it. The challenges and the triumphs that we shared and celebrated. The unique can-do spirit that America has always been known for. We are lost. We have lost so much in so short a time.”

Field of Flags
Charles Reagan

The Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C> where Joseph Biden will be sworn in as 46th President of the United States filled in with 200,000 flags as part of a “Field of Flags” concept produced by C3 Presents..

Today, as the 46th president of the United States is sworn into office surrounded by 25,000 National Guards, we may be finally returning to something approaching normalcy, especially if seen through the all-inclusive lens of music performance.

Garth Brooks
(AFP via Getty Images)

Garth Brooks, who will perform at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, performing during President Obama’s inauguration celebrations on Jan. 18, 2009.

President-elect Biden’s inauguration kicked off Sunday night with a “We The People Celebration” featuring a range of artists that included the legendary Carole King performing “You’ve Got a Friend,” James Taylor singing “America, the Beautiful,” and Ben Harper unleashing a rapturous “With My Own Two Hands.” Fall Out Boy, whose highly-anticipated 2020 reunion tour was postponed, played the title cut from the 2014 album Centuries,” while the youngsters of AJR performed “Bummerland” and performed, too.

When Biden took the podium at the U.S. Capitol to be sworn in as President of the United States Jan. 20, Lady Gaga sang the National Anthem followed by performances from J.Lo and Garth Brooks, who was thankfully added to the nearly-spectatorless event (along with a 200,000 “Field of Flags” that C3 Presents produced). And that evening’s “Celebrating America,” a prime time inauguration special was when the big guns come out: Springsteen, Foo Fighters, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, Jon Bon Jovi and Ant Clemons all performed.

It’s a day that may finally do more to unify our country than any political debate, 24/7 news channel hosted by an outraged talking head or a leader who ignores the awesome power of music to unify. These events hopefully portend better days ahead that will soon bring us all together to again enjoy live performances.

Near the end of “Rock & Roll President,” Carter gives his eloquent take on the power of music that puts it on the higher plain it deserves and in a way that couldn’t be more appropriate for today. “In the future,” he says, “I think we’ll recognize that some of our religious beliefs, belief in the truth, belief in helping others and our faith in Democracy and freedom, those are the kinds of things that are similar to music that we can share. And it eventually will bring us together even after a divisive era of our constantly changing history.”