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The Rock & Roll President

A champion of Southern rock, Jimmy Carter earned the title long ago

Issue 121, Summer 2023

Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and Gregg Allman raise funds during a telethon, Feb. 2, 1976. © Jerome McClendon/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Before Bill Clinton wailed on a saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show or Barack Obama invited Stevie Wonder and Prince for a private show at the White House, Jimmy Carter stood in a field, hands on his hips, clad in a t-shirt promoting the Allman Brothers Band’s Win, Lose or Draw album.

It was July 1976, and Carter, feathered hair blowing in the wind, was gunning for the presidency. But there he was supporting a quintessential Southern rock band, one of his favorites, in front of the traveling national press corps.

Prior to a 1975 Allman Brothers benefit concert for Carter’s campaign, the presidential hopeful introduced the band to a crowd in Rhode Island by remarking, “Anybody who wants a president who doesn’t like music like this, and who doesn’t like people who make music like this, should just simply vote for another man.”

Carter unabashedly reveled in his love of rock & roll.

So much about this peanut farmer from teeny Plains, Georgia, was an anomaly from the start: Georgia had never produced a successful presidential candidate and the humble Carter had never held a national office, making him a mystery to much of the country.

Publicly embracing the sweet and sour songs of a group of long-haired Southern firebrands wasn’t a typical move for a politician. Nor was sporting a shirt typically worn by college frat boys while he answered questions about why he wanted the most powerful job in the land.

Maybe it wasn’t apparent at the time, but Carter was positioning himself as THE rock & roll president, the one history will remember as not only a connoisseur of the rock music of his home state, but also as a student of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, a devotee of Willie Nelson’s warble, an admirer of Aretha Franklin’s searing soul, and a scholar of Dizzy Gillespie’s mesmerizing bebop. (Gillespie would go on to perform at the first-ever White House Jazz Festival in 1978, after Carter won the presidency.)

That devotion to wholly American musical forms earned Carter the tag that followed him for decades and inspired the title of a 2020 documentary, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. In the film, Gregg Allman says, rather sheepishly, that “[the Allman Brothers] had a hand” in getting Carter elected. What an understatement. The Allman Brothers were so instrumental in aiding Carter’s presidential campaign that for decades after his brief White House tenure, the former president joyfully recounted their assistance.

At a 2016 ceremony to present Allman with an honorary doctorate at Mercer University in Macon, Carter was blunt about their relationship.

“Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers just about put me in the White House,” Carter said, as reported by the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. “They were the best fundraisers that we had. In those days, they would charge somebody $15 to come hear them play. And we were getting the whole $15 plus 15 more matching dollars! So we got $30 every time someone came to hear the Allman Brothers Band play.”

President Jimmy Carter backstage with the Allman Brothers Band and Don Johnson. Courtesy Chuck Leavell Archives

Today, visitors to the Big House Museum—the Macon home where the Allman Brothers lived in the early 1970s while they recorded at nearby Capricorn Records—will find scads of guitars, lyric sheets, and photos from an era of rock excess. Amid all of the artifacts and memorabilia is a note from Carter. Typed on campaign letterhead in 1975, the correspondence is addressed to Allman Brothers Band drummer Jaimoe. Carter comments on the band’s successful tour, adds that his campaign is going well, and closes with, “I need your advice and active support.” The candidate was savvy enough to know that a man with drumsticks who travels the country playing rock music would be the best conduit for a politician to feel the pulse of America and to understand what mattered to young voters. Who knows if Jaimoe corresponded with Carter from the road? But the Allman Brothers Band were guests at Carter’s Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., in January 1977. The relationship never wavered, even long after Carter left Washington and began what many have called the blueprint for what a successful and impactful post-presidency should look like. When Gregg Allman died in 2017, Carter, then ninety-three, attended the funeral with his son Chip. They arrived in a white passenger van, which whisked them to the back entrance of Snow’s Memorial Chapel, a cozy sanctuary in downtown Macon. Inside the funeral home, Carter embraced another one-time White House visitor with a deep tie to Allman—the singer’s ex-wife, Cher.

While the Allmans and Carter shared an everlasting mutual affection, the band wasn’t the only Southern mainstay to play at the White House. In 1978, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, they of soft-rock toe-tappers “Imaginary Lover” and “So Into You,” performed at a cookout on the South Lawn. Johnny Cash and his family visited frequently. And the story of Carter pal Willie Nelson smoking a joint on the roof of the White House with Carter’s son Chip is ingrained in presidential lore.

Carter’s affiliation with musicians was never about a photo opportunity or a cynical underground ploy to court voters, although he was a shrewd politician, a facet often obscured by his genuine, country-boy persona. His allegiance was born out of devotion to the art, an understanding of the philosophies of peace championed by Dylan in the late ’60s, and—crucially—an early-’70s introduction to Capricorn Records, the Macon recording capital for the Allmans, the Marshall Tucker Band, and other Southern musical luminaries. While Carter was running for governor a second time in 1970, after losing his first bid in 1966, Southern rock was in its infancy and the studio of Capricorn was considered by many to be its cradle. Carter, the Allmans, and others were small-town Southern men bringing their messages to the national stage. America took notice.

At the end of the Rock & Roll President documentary, Carter sits pensively in his home in Plains, circa 2018, while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” plays in the back- ground. It’s a fitting coda.

“Music,” he says, “is the best proof that people have one thing in common.”

The Rock & Roll President: A Playlist

Listen to the musicians Carter revered, including Aretha Franklin, who performed at his inauguration, and Willie Nelson, who he said he listened to while dealing with the Iran hostage crisis.

Melissa Ruggieri

Melissa Ruggieri is the national music writer at USA TODAY. She has written about every genre of music and attended more than 3,000 concerts during the past two decades. Previously, she was the music critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Richmond Times-Dispatch. Ruggieri and her husband reside in the Washington, D.C., area. She interviewed country music star Mickey Guyton for the OA’s Fall 2022 “Country Roots” music issue.