For much of the country music world, Jerry Carrigan’s drumming contributions from the late 1960s through the ’80s carried the same amount of weight that Hal Blaine’s innovations gave to pop and rock music. Carrigan, who died this past June 22 at the age of seventy-five, was a first-call session drummer in Nashville, working with the biggest names on some of their greatest hits: “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,”“Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys, “Everything Is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens, Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” and many others.
Like many studio musicians, Carrigan was a shadow figure to the world at large. But after he passed, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times each ran obituaries—and this fact alone speaks volumes in terms of his national reach.
Before Carrigan was recording with the likes of Elvis Presley and Kris Kristofferson, touring the world with John Denver, or playing on one country hit after another as a Nashville studio first-call, the Florence, Alabama, native helped lay the groundwork that would establish nearby Muscle Shoals as a musical hotbed in the ’60s and ’70s.
As a teenager, Carrigan joined pianist David Briggs and bassist Norbert Putnam to record Arthur Alexander’s 1962 pop hit “You Better Move On” under the guidance of producer Rick Hall at the legendary FAME studio. The Rolling Stones would go on to cover “You Better Move On,” and Alexander’s songs would catch the attention of the Beatles. This led to Carrigan and his Muscle Shoals cohorts serving as the backing band for opening acts Tommy Roe and the Righteous Brothers at the Beatles’ first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C., in 1964.
The following year, Carrigan, Briggs, and Putnam moved to Nashville, looking to take what they’d learned at Muscle Shoals and apply it to the burgeoning country scene in Music City. It was a steep learning curve on a couple fronts for the young drummer, as he told MD in a 1986 feature story. “So I moved, and David, Norbert, Herschel (Wigginton), and I got us an apartment over on 17th Avenue. Sharing an apartment—mistake number one. Four guys away from home, and it just did not happen there with all of us together. We all began to get a lot of work, so I was the rst one to move out and get my own place. They all followed. It was all my furniture in there, and I never did see it again.
“I had a lot of good people helping me,” Carrigan continued. “I didn’t know a thing about playing country. I had my brushes taped for a black [sic] sounding shu e, not a lazy triplet shu e, which is what country is. I quickly learned. Mort Thomason, the engineer, grabbed the brush out of my hand, ung it open, and spread it all apart. It looked like a peacock’s tail to me. He said, ‘Try that. It might work a little better.’ Okay, so that’s the way you do it.”
Once Carrigan got his domestic, shuffling, and brushing matters in order, his career began to blossom. He laid down the swampy grooves on classic songs that blurred the lines between R&B, country, and rock, such as Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man.” And in addition to the aforementioned country legends, Carrigan recorded with Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Chet Atkins. He also branched out of country to record with Henry Mancini, the Boston Pops, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lee Lewis, and J. J. Cale.
At the height of his success in Nashville, Carrington was typically doing twelve three-hour sessions per week. By the time he spoke with MD in 1986, he was still touring steadily with Denver. However, his studio work had slowed down, and this was something he had tried to come to terms with. “My work has slackened off from what it was,” he said, “but that comes from a number of things: More drummers have come into town, and there are a lot of very good ones. Going out with John Denver makes people think I’m unavailable, and this is a terrible thing to say, but some people would like me gone all the time.
“You do have peak years…. Then you kind of cool off, and someone who has come to town plays a little differently. [The artists are] going to want that. You’ve got to be able to understand that, accept that, and not take it as a put-down to yourself. That’s hard to do.”