We have to go to the well. The rewards are great when we do. Dip down that bucket deep and find yourself some Carl Butler. A Tennessee boy born on June 2nd, 1924 to a long gone daddy and half American Indian mama who liked Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry records. His first guitar was a catalog bought Autry model that, historian Ronnie Pugh writes, he played for so many years he kept it together with glue. Presumably that was the guitar he played when he won his first talent contest at the age of twelve. Wouldn’t it be grand if we still did such things?
He went into the army in 1942 and served in North Africa and Italy and hauled a guitar along with him for his troubles. When he returned home he picked right back up playing. It’s as if there was never any other choice for him. It had to be music.
It would be years though before it paid off and when it did it was relatively brief. He finally got his one No. 1 hit with Don’t Let Me Cross Over in a duet with his wife Pearl in December of 1962. He would crack the top ten just one more time in 1964 and would be off the charts completely before the 1970s began.
It just doesn’t happen for everyone. Carl was hard straight-up country in the 40s and 50s. He was backed by fine session men and wrote and covered some fantastic honky tonk over the years. His voice was a beautiful dusty baritone with enough twang to sell it to the beer drinkers. It all should have worked.
These days he’s likely to be remembered as the guy who first sang with his wife the song that would later become a classic Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris duet, We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In the Morning, then for anything else. That’s why we go to the well. We go for these old guys who nobody pays much attention to anymore, but when that needle drops on their records and the steel guitars and fiddles kick in no amount of fame or money or lack thereof matters in the least. What we have here is pure and beautiful honkytonk music, sung by a guy who loved singing it and did it as well as any of his peers.
Carl died of a heart attack in September of 1992. His wife and singing partner had passed away a few years before. He didn’t have any money and the marker on his grave was paid for by a group of fans who had not forgotten the music he had given them. How good was Carl Butler? His casket was carried by George Jones, Carl Smith, Ricky Skaggs, and Marty Stuart.
Carl Butler, You Can’t Insure a House of Dreams, 1952
Carl Butler, No Trespassing, 1951
Carl Butler & the Webster Brothers, Watching the Clock Tick (the Hours Away), 1955
Carl & Pearl Butler, Don’t Let Me Cross Over, 1962
Carl & Peal Butler, We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In the Morning, 1968