Inside the mind of Nashville's co-writer to the stars

Tom Carter. (Photo: Shelley Mays/The Tennessean)

 

Nate Rau , nrau@tennessean.com Published 10:02 a.m. CT Feb. 3, 2017 | Updated 21 hours ago

 

Some country star’s tour bus will be rolling through Kansas, or South Carolina or wherever, and they'll come and find him to pour their hearts out. Carter is the co-writer for the autobiographies of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Ralph Emery and others.

His books have topped various best sellers list and his career has given him life experiences that very few others could claim.

To achieve the most honest, compelling work, Carter embeds himself with the artists whose autobiographies he puts to paper. He travels with them on extended tours and shadows them in the recording studio.

And that work means waiting days, sometimes weeks, for the artist to open up.

“I told every one of them, ‘I know you’re busy. You have many people pulling on you. But we will not write this book by appointment,’” Carter said. “So I said, ‘If you do this book we will write it on your times.’ If you rely on appointment, they’ll always cancel the appointment.

“So, I’d go out (on tour with them) and ride on the band bus. Then they’d do a show and it’d go great, and next thing you know it’s 3 o’clock and they can’t sleep, so they’d call the band bus. And the whole convoy stops. So I get out of the bunk on the band bus, put my clothes on, walk back to the celebrity’s bus and usually because the hour’s late and the miles are long and no one is pulling on them and I’m in this tiny cubicle going down the road at 75-miles an hour, that’s when their inhibitions drop.”

Carter’s career is a sort of Music City archetype - young man moves to Nashville searching for artistic fame, risking everything to pursue a career out of pure passion for the music. Only, unlike the typical Nashville success story, Carter didn’t come here to be a country artist or a songwriter, he came to Nashville to tell the stories of the city’s biggest stars. His books are the time capsules for Nashville’s music industry.

Carter’s own life story parallels the artists he wrote about in another way – it was full of sharp pitfalls due to his battles with substance abuse. Carter has been sober for 11 years and his career is on the brink of a renaissance. His first novel will be available in book stores on Feb. 7. A life lessons book Carter wrote with country star Jason Aldean will also be available later this year.

The art of writing autobiographies, Carter says, is about capturing the voice of the artist as they spill their guts about their stories and their art. But the job also means getting them to tell the truth in the first place. It’s a skill Carter has mastered over a 40-year career that began as a music writer for the Tulsa World newspaper and then took him to the parking lot behind WSM, the iconic country radio station.

Carter, who had just co-written his first book for Milsap, had been writing Emery letters for months asking if he could help write his autobiography. Emery, who hosted his own radio and television shows, declined for months before finally relenting, and that book hit The New York Times best seller list for 26 weeks and then was printed for multiple editions and in paperback.

“I climbed over a fence out there at the old Nashville Now parking lot,” Carter said. “And I knew where he parked his car… I had to go out there six times badgering him saying, ‘I know you can write a book, I know it’ll be a hit,’  before he finally said yes.”

Co-writing Emery’s book took Carter’s career full circle since, as with millions of other people, it was WSM that got him interested in country music in the first place.

“Turning the dial, I found this faraway late-night clear channel station called WSM in Nashville, Tennessee,” said Carter, who grew up in Moline, Ill. “And Ralph Emery was the disc jockey and he would have celebrities on there like Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash. They’d be right there in the studio, and they’d play guitar or piano, and I thought it was so fascinating.

“My dad would tell me to turn off that radio and go to sleep and I wouldn’t. I’d put it under my cover and I’d put my ear on the radio of this little speaker of this electric table radio.”

After Emery’s autobiography was a smashing commercial success. It opened doors for Carter to lucrative advances to co-write the books of various other country stars.

Usually the challenge was Carter convincing the stars to put on the record the most interesting anecdotes from their lives, since he knew the more intimate the book the better it would sell. But most stars wanted to keep the details of their private lives off the record  – with the exception of Jones.

Nashville author Tom Carter stands in his Bellevue home office with some of autobiographies that he has written of the years, including Reba, George Jones.  (Photo: Shelley Mays)

“I always thought if George Jones would tell it all, it’d be a blockbuster,” Carter said, adding it took four years to convince Jones to write his autobiography. “He made no bones about it. He thought he suffered brain damage from alcohol and drug use. He said, ‘I want you to talk to everybody starting with my childhood. Go out to Texas in the big thicket and talk to people who knew me, talk to my sister and brother-in-law, then walk through the steps of my life. When you get to Nashville, everybody in Nashville will want to tell stories on me.’

“That’s exactly what happened. I interviewed 75 people, everyone wanted to be a part of this book. So his deal was, ‘I don’t remember anything, but if you talk to these people and bring it back to me, it’ll draw my memory. And no matter what they say, if it’s the truth, I’ll put it in that book.’ There are passages where the pages are so hot they want to leap from your hand.”

Carter said his time on the road with the stars exposed him to drugs and alcohol, and although he never used while he was working on a project, he developed addiction that temporarily sidetracked his career. He’s been sober now for 11 years, and appears poised for another successful sales run. The project with Aldean will be released in 2017 as well.

And this week, Carter’s first novel, “Nashville: Music and Murder,” which tells the tale of a group of people who are mysteriously trying to murder a country music star, will be released. The fictitious story draws on Carter’s life experiences and his behind-the-scenes insight into how iconic country stars live.

“I think it’s a pretty good yarn. It was a change to tell my own story, but I have to say I am proud of how it came out,” Carter said.

Reach Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 and nrau@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.

About Tom Carter

*Former reporter for the Tulsa World

*Began co-writing autobiographies in 1989

*Six times appeared on the New York Times best-seller list and two times on the USA Today list

*Two books were turned into primetime television specials

*First novel publishes this week and will be available on www.amazon.com and www.authortomcarter.com

*A life lessons book with Jason Aldean is due out in 2017