In the span of a few minutes, any day now, Tim Carroll might write a song that makes him a star in Nashville.
He's that close.
On Monday night, Carroll played guitar onstage at Nashville's fabled Ryman Auditorium alongside his singer-wife Elizabeth Cook as she opened for country legend Merle Haggard. Critics love Carroll's solo albums, though record-label issues have limited the availability of those CDs primarily to the Internet. His picture graced the cover of Billboard magazine.
Folk great John Prine recorded Carroll's "If I Could, I Would." Two of Carroll's original tunes appeared on soundtracks of major movies "Election" (which stars Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (with Kirsten Dunst). And he and Cook perform regularly at the Grand Ole Opry.
As his bio on allmusic.com puts it, "In a just world, every A&R man in America would be offering Carroll a sweetheart deal. But in the meantime, he'll just have to settle for being one of the best and brightest rockers to come down the pike in quite a while."
Maybe Carroll's unique, genre-twisting sound is the cause.
"I think he may be one of the first to come up with that honky-tonk/punk kind of sound, at least in this town," said Paul Slivka, who plays bass in Carroll's three-piece Nashville band.
Its source can be traced back to afternoons more than 30 years ago, when he wandered the western Vigo County countryside on horseback, curiously following the sound of a nearby 1960s rock 'n' roll garage band.
"I'd be riding my horse and hear these hippies playing music," Carroll recalled by telephone from his home in Nashville. "And it was so cool."
From West T to Music City
The path from that moment of enlightenment to opening up for Merle Haggard on Monday winds from Carroll seeing his first punk-rock band as a West Vigo High School student, to his joining Bloomington punk band The Gizmos while at Indiana University, through his eight years of work on Wall Street, to his return to music and his discovery of a new interest in songwriting with the cult-favored bar band the Blue Chieftans in New York City, and then to his bold move to Nashville.
Each step added spice to an interesting brew of sound.
There's some of that teenage fascination, as well as a Haggard-like sensibility in Carroll's songs. They're full of his catchy melodies, clever lyrics and rowdy, rock-the-bar guitar. Comparisons don't really fit his music. But try to imagine The Clash playing George Jones, and you'll at least be getting close.
"It kind of has the energy of punk music, but also has the country base and is in a country format," Slivka explains.
The label used most is "alt-country." But the latter half of that phrase, "country," at least in current standards, might be misleading, too.
"The country [music] I like is mainly old country music," Carroll says. "Even though I'm influenced by this old country music, I'm not writing about old things. I'm writing about things that have gone on in my life."
Carroll has a contract to compose songs for Big Yellow Dog Music, whose writers have generated No. 1 country hits for Brooks and Dunn, and Toby Keith, as well as rock-oriented tunes for artists such as Mindy Smith.
"Tim's music is just like a raw rock 'n' roll," said Whit Jeffords of Big Yellow Dog. "But he always has a quirky lyric that catches your ear. It's definitely outside of the box from what goes on here in Nashville."
Take Carroll's "Punk Rockin' Honky Tonk Girl" for example. It dates back to his days with the Blue Chieftans in the Big Apple, but was updated and included on his "Not For Sale" album.
"It'd be another
thing if she hated country twang,
That "Not For Sale"
album originally was to be released in 1998 on Sire Records,
then a major label that had given Madonna, the Talking Heads
and the Ramones their starts.
He called out to Oregon, where his parents, Bill and Annagrace Carroll now live, and told them the news. The Carrolls, married 56 years, were initially worried when Tim left grad school and Wall Street for Nashville, but now like to see him enjoying his work there. Tim often quizzes his dad, who ran a trucking terminal for a living, about business decisions. And when Tim told him about the Sire record deal, "He said, 'Well, that's good. But I'm just glad you're happy.'"
Twists of the business
Unfortunately, Sire, preoccupied with unrelated problems, never released his album, originally titled "Good Rock From Bad."
So Tim bootlegged it, and now it's a popular item on www.milesofmusic.com. He also changed its name to "Not For Sale," just in case the folks at Sire challenged his attempt to market it himself. "If they ever came after me, I'd say, 'Hey, it says right on the cover - Not For Sale,'" Carroll says, slyly.
Since then, he's released two more albums - "Free Again" in 2001 and "Always Tomorrow" in 2002 - on smaller, independent labels.
That big break may come at an unsuspecting moment for Carroll, perhaps when a major artist takes a liking to one of his songs and records it.
"I think that's how it's going to happen," he says.
There's plenty to choose from. As Slivka says, "Tim's very prolific. He's writing all the time. He is like the king of writing just really simple, good songs."
His "Find a Way to Win" wound up on the "Election" soundtrack in 1999. That same year, "A Girl That's Hip" turned up on the "Drop Dead Gorgeous" soundtrack. Carroll still gets money from sales of those two CDs and DVDs.
Two more of his songs - "Every Kind of Music But Country" and "Beam Me Up Scotty Moore" - were turned into Muzak (elevator music), something Carroll didn't even realize until royalty checks started showing up in his mail about five years ago.
Nowadays, Carroll stays busy writing songs, playing and singing around the world alongside Elizabeth (whom he wed a year and a half ago), and performing with his trio.
He's trimmed his slate of gigs with his band at Nashville clubs such as The 5-Spot and the Radio Cafe from three nights a week to one, because "now that I'm married, Elizabeth probably doesn't want me out in bars all night."
And those Grand Ole Opry appearances - which now total more than 200 - were a bit unnerving at first. Carroll found himself standing next to Garth Brooks once.
He's also gotten to know another country legend, Bill Anderson. It's pretty heady stuff for a guy who grew up two miles east of the Illinois border, got turned onto The Beatles by his big sister (who went to see their concert in Indianapolis), and played his first gig in front of his Concannon Junior High School classmates.
When Carroll and his wife play the Opry, Tim wears a suit and Elizabeth dresses up "all sparkly."
"It's one of those few places where you can't overdress," he says. "You've got Porter Waggoner and Little Jimmy Dickens walking around, looking sharp."
In his true punk-country wit, though, Carroll jokingly insists he's always looking over his shoulder there. "I always thought they were going to throw me out. Like they were going to say, 'Wait a minute. Who's this guy? Get him out of here,'" he says, cracking up.
To the contrary, though, he says people there have treated the two of them wonderfully, especially the veterans. Those people don't have overblown egos, Carroll explains. "The older people aren't like that, because they've been through the ups and downs," he says.
A wonderful thing
Carroll has been through a few ups and downs, too. But he considers his Nashville career "a wonderful thing." The 1977 West Vigo graduate is now 45 years old. "People say I'm a young-looking 45," he quips. "I can't believe it myself."
Elizabeth, a sweet-voiced, blonde singer with a Southern accent, loves singing his "If I Could, I Would."
"It is brilliantly simple," she says. "It makes fun out of the drudgery and disappointments of our everyday lives."
"Elizabeth and I keep thinking that 'If I Could' or another one I've written is going to catch on here," Tim says.
That song, one of his most covered by other artists, just flowed out in one burst of inspiration. "It taught me to trust my instincts, because I wrote that song in just a few minutes, and all the words just came right out of my head," Carroll remembers, "and it wound up perfect."
It's a little bit West Terre Haute, a little bit New York, a little bit Nashville, and all Tim Carroll.
"Now if I could,
then I would, make money doin' something that I love,
Mark Bennett can be reached by telephone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org