A few years back, Roman Carter was touring with his brother Albert in Tokyo. As the Alabama-born blues singer tells it, “I was in a little nightclub, and they had some guy there playing the drums, saying he was Roman Carter, playing my music. I told my brother, ‘What the heck is this?’
“Someone told the guy who we really were, and they conned me into playing. My brother started the intro to ‘Southern Country Boy’, one of my hits, and once I started singing, the crowd went, ‘My God! This is the real guys!’”
As the Carter Brothers, Albert, Jerry and Roman Carter enjoyed a string of rhythm & blues hits in the 1960s, including “Southern Country Boy”, released in 1965 on Shreveport’s Jewel label. As befit sharecropping siblings who in 1949 had pulled up stakes from Garland, Alabama, and settled in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, “Southern Country Boy” reached #21 on the R&B chart, and remains perhaps the Carter Brothers’ best-known recording.
Later in the ’60s, Roman cut some singles for Jewel under his own name, but November 6 sees the release — on the revived Bong Load label — of the 69-year-old’s first solo full-length. Titled Never Slow Down, the collection was conceived by Tom Rothrock, a Los Angeles producer whose resume includes work with Beck and Mississippi hill-country singer R.L. Burnside.
Never Slow Down started as a series of tracks Rothrock had put together for a projected solo record. Rothrock had met Roman ten years ago. “I did some R.L. Burnside tracks that have yet to be released that Roman did some singing on,” he says. “I started making tracks that became what’s on this new record. I wanted to work on lyrics and vocals, and thought I’d ask a few different people to contribute. The first person I contacted was Roman.”
“He had did a little stuff with a couple guys, little bits of stuff with different songs,” Carter recalls. “He called me over and told me he got some tracks, and he’d like me to check it out. And, once I came over and heard them, I thought, ‘These are some of the best tracks that I had ever worked on.’”
With funky, hip-hop-flavored beats, touches of dobro and slide guitar, and guest vocals from rapper MC Random and neo-folkie Johnny Irion, Never Slow Down modernizes blues in an unpretentious way. Some tracks have an improvisational, free-floating quality, while “Just A Little Too Fast” honors the tradition of bawdy songs about fine young women. Carter and Irion bat around lines such as, “Workin’ that thing like a cash machine/From Tokyo city back to Palm Springs/Another photo op, a magazine cover with a glossy shot.”
“I showed Johnny a picture of a pinup model and said, ‘This is what [the song] is about,’” Rothrock laughs. “When he looked at what we’d scrawled down for lyrics, and we did a first pass at it, he said, ‘I can’t sing this — my wife is gonna throw me out of the house!’”
That’s the blues. And for Roman Carter, who has been singing them for over a half-century and who continues to tour with his brother Albert (Jerry Carter died in 2003), the tension between the secular and religious is a familiar companion. “I still sing in my church [Pacoima's Greater Missionary Baptist] right now, and I’ve been a member now for 56 years, the same church. Blues has been my forte for all my life, since I was 6 or 7 years old.”