Life Lessons with Bill Carter

By Lauren Tingle

He describes himself as semi-retired, but Bill Carter hasn’t quit working since he graduated high school. At one point during NLN’s hour-and-a-half interview at Bill’s Lebanon, Tennessee, home, he admitted he’d happily work for Home Depot if he couldn’t find work doing what he loved. But with Bill’s resume — which lists some of the most significant organizations in politics and entertainment — it’s hard to imagine this sharp lawyer ever clocking in at a warehouse wearing a bright orange vest and a nametag.

Here are some of Bill’s greatest hits from his incredible career, which is documented in his 2006 autobiography Get Carter:

  • Three days after completing training with the U.S. Secret Service, Bill was at the head of the gravesite as the casket carrying the late President John F. Kennedy was lowered into the earth at Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Shortly after JFK’s funeral, Bill was assigned to security detail for Lee Harvey Oswald’s family.
  • He interviewed Lee’s assassin Jack Ruby, who shot Lee on live TV.
  • Bill helped resolve The Rolling Stones’ immigration issues after they were banned from ever appearing in America following the riots that broke out on their 1972 tour.
  • In 1977, Bill saved Keith Richards from a life behind bars after Mounties busted Keith at Toronto’s Harbor Castle Hotel with 22 grams of heroin, which was enough smack to charge Keith with possession and intent to distribute.
  • As the Stones’ trusted lawyer, Bill survived a standoff with reggae legend Peter Tosh and a gang of squatters while trying to recover Keith’s vacation home in Jamaica.
  • Bill negotiated the recovery of Steve McQueen’s body from Mexico over the phone–and within six hours.
  • He helped launch the legendary careers of Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire.
  • Lonestar, Rodney Crowell, Carlene Carter, Ralph Emery and the late Waylon Jennings have all sought his counsel.

NLN visited Bill to get to know the faithful man behind the lawyer and discuss the power of grace, destiny and following the heart.

Was there anything in your childhood in Rector, Arkansas, that predisposed you to a life of adventure?
Nothing. My parents were not educated. They could read and write, but they were laborers. They barely made enough money, and when you graduated from high school, you had to leave home because they could no longer afford to support you. When I finished high school, I was just 17, and I was on my own.

I ended up in the Air Force. When I got out of the Air Force, I had the G.I. bill. I wasn’t sure about what I should do. So, I enrolled in Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I really didn’t intend to stay. I just thought I could get out of the Air Force 90 days early if I enrolled. I wasn’t really sure that’s what I wanted to do.

When I got to SMU in 1961, all the students — this was before blue jeans and long hair — all the guys were driving BMWs, and they were wearing slacks and sport coats. I was so intimidated by this rich school. I [thought to myself], “This is not for me.” So, I ended up enrolling in the University of Arkansas’ law school for no reason whatsoever. There was never any plan about my life.

My brother Richard wanted to take a civil service exam. He was looking for a job. He said, “Why don’t you ride down with me to Dallas to take that test?” I had nothing else to do so I rode down there with him. We were sitting in the waiting room. I guess I was 23? And this woman came out — she had kind of a firm and mean streak in her. She said, “Richard, Okay… “And she looked at me, “Are you taking the test?” I said, “No. I don’t want a government job.” She said, “Well, just sit here then and do nothing! But it’d be a good experience if you took the test. It might be good for you.” I was so intimidated by her I got up and took the test.

I went to law school a little over a year and I ran out of money. So, I took a job with State Farm Insurance Company. [They paid] $450 a month and gave me a car. I thought, “God! That’s great!”

[One day], I received a phone call. The guy [on the other line] said, “This is Leroy Letteer with the United States Secret Service. Are you looking for a job?” I said, “Well yeah, but how the hell did you know?” He said, “Well, I took your name from the Dallas civil service roster.” They were looking for agents, and they went to the civil service roster to do a profile check. [I] was six-foot tall, 195 pounds and perfect for what they were looking for. He interviewed me. I took the job. And Bingo! The next thing I know, I’m in Washington, DC, in training and working at the White House. So, it’s really kind of hard to believe. But that’s how I got there, and that’s how everything’s happened in my life.

That’s unbelievable that one lady’s intimidation changed your path.
The truth is, I’ve had a strong faith all my life, and I believe that angels have guided my life. There’s no other explanation for it.

How many professional challenges have you faced where you had to pray or stay strong in important decision-making?
When I was thinking about leaving the Secret Service, I went to the then Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. I had gone to law school with his son. When Kennedy came to Arkansas, the Secret Service asked me to coordinate security with the governor because I knew him so well.

So, I went to him and I asked him, “I’m thinking about leaving the Secret Service and going back to law school. What would your advice be?” And he said, “Well, first I don’t know why you would ask my advice because I can’t possibly know what would be good for you in your life. My advice is, don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to your parents. Don’t listen to your college professors. But here’s what I do: When I face a major decision in my life, I go back to Huntsville,” his hometown, “I go out in the woods. I sit on a log. I pray and ask God to give me the proper guidance to make the decision that I need to make.” Now this is just one man’s opinion, but he said, “When God created your soul, he gave you all the answers to any question you will ever have in your entire life. They’re all right here [in your heart]. You have to ask yourself. You don’t ask someone else because they can’t know what the answers are that God has presented to you.”

I went home to Rector and sat under a pecan tree in the backyard, prayed and made the decision to leave the Secret Service. Now, I assumed that was the right decision for me. Every major decision I’ve had in my life, I’ve made the same way. It’s funny — there have been a few times that I’ve made the wrong decision and I knew I was making it.

What were your first impressions of President Kennedy?
When I was in that training course, they were grooming me for the White House. If you were selected for that, you were in school during the day and worked shifts at the White House [various] nights of the week. The first time I actually met him, I was on duty in the hallway and he came out of his office with one of the senior White House agents. They were walking down the hallway and as he passed me, he turned around, stuck out his hand, and said, “Bill, I’m Jack Kennedy.” He loved to do this — throw you off guard — it would kind of disarm you.

First it shocked me that he would pay attention to me, who was just a kid from Arkansas. And he said, “I’m Jack Kennedy… How are things down in Arkansas?” And he turned and walked away. As he walked about six feet, he turned around and looked back and smiled. His charm was overwhelming. It was a natural thing with him.

When he was killed, I was just devastated. I was just getting to know him and feel comfortable. And I didn’t want to go to the White House. I loved criminal work. But I was destined for the White House. I kind of accepted that. As long as Kennedy was president, then the White House wouldn’t be so bad. I could deal with it. But [his assassination] was a setback for an entire generation of young Americans like me because we built our whole hope of the future on Kennedy.

How did you get into country music?
I was in New York with the Stones in ’73. They had been barred from coming to the country. So, I was in New York and Washington all the time. I met some CBS executives in New York — now I didn’t know a damn thing about the music business — I’m dealing with an issue on the Rolling Stones, and it had nothing to do with music! CBS said, “We need somebody like you. We’ve got this artist in country music. Her dad is an idiot, and we have this manager in Las Vegas that’s just as bad. We don’t know how to deal with them, and we need to get you involved.” I remember telling the Stones’ manager Peter Rudge, “Peter, I don’t know anything about the damn music business!” He said, “Hell. Don’t worry about it. Go ahead, do it and I’ll help you. Whatever you need, I can teach you.”

This 14-year-old girl Tanya Tucker — she’d had “Delta Dawn” and “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” — both I think [went] number-one. She was on fire! And so, I’m back in my office in Little Rock, and I get a phone call from her father, Beau Tucker. He said, “I want to meet with you and see if you can help us.” And I said, “Fine! Come to Little Rock.” My office was on the ground floor, the front was glass and the receptionist sat out front. [When the Tuckers arrived], she ran back to my office, and said, “You need to come out front.” This old Chrysler station wagon pulled into the parking space, and it had everything they owned tied on top of it. It looked like the Clampetts’ in The Beverly Hillbillies. There was Beau, Juanita his wife, his son Donald, his daughter LaCosta, LaCosta’s husband and Tanya, who was a little girl.

They came in, and I said, “How long are you staying?” He said, “Oh, we’re staying. We’ve moved here. We thought we’d just stay with you until we could find a place.” I thought, “Oh my God!” So I told my partner Kathy Woods, “They just finished Watergate Apartments across the street. Call [them] and see if there’s an apartment. If you get the apartment, then call furniture rental and get furniture in it.”

So, I took the Tuckers to lunch after we had a meeting. By the time I got back, Kathy had this apartment set up and they moved in. They stayed there until after Tanya was 18 because I couldn’t negotiate with CBS. I didn’t know what the value of Tanya’s services and contract were. But Beau and her then manager said, “She’s on fire, and we got a bad deal. Do you want to renegotiate and get a better deal?” CBS finally offered $50,000 and maybe a little bump in a royalty.

I flew out to Los Angeles with congressman Willbur Mills for a Democratic fundraiser at the home of Lou Wasserman, who was the chairman of Universal Pictures. He was the biggest guy in the movie business, and I remembered that MCA Records was a part of Universal. [Lou arranged] a meeting with MCA president Mike Maitland to see if he’d be interested in Tanya Tucker. He offered me $2.5 million and a huge royalty. I went to CBS and they said, “No. $50,000. That’s the final deal.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I just got a $2.5 million offer for her.” And they said, “Well, that’s fine. In two more years, you can take that. But your contract here was for three years, and you’re not going anywhere. Period.”

I had Beau give me all his files, and I took the CBS contract signed by Tanya, who was just 13 when she signed it. A 13-year-old can’t enter into any contract. So, I went down to file a petition with the local court to appoint Beau Tucker her guardian. Then I petitioned the court to invalidate all her contracts that she had entered into. And the court ruled they were null and void. CBS was helpless. They [counter-offered] $500,000. I told them, “No dice.”

We wanted to be at CBS because Billy Sherrill was producing Tanya. She loved Billy. But CBS wouldn’t budge. Mike flew to Little Rock and signed [a new contract with MCA] in my office. So, CBS hated me. They sent her to me, and they expected me to roll over for a $50,000 deal. They made a serious mistake. So, anyway, that’s how I got into the country music business.

Since Billy Sherrill couldn’t produce her, I hired Jerry Crutchfield. I had heard, “Please, Come to Boston,” on the radio. That was so progressive for country music. The production of that Dave Loggins hit was out of sight! [Tanya’s] biggest records have been with Jerry. She was 19 then and had several million dollars in the bank. She’d been under court supervision, and Beau couldn’t spend it without court approval. I sent her off to Nashville with a fat bank account. I like Tanya. I talk to her occasionally still.

The loopholes you find with Tanya being only 13, nullifying her contract, are fascinating.
I told law students at Washington University that education is just a small part of being a good lawyer. You’ve got to have more than that diploma. It doesn’t matter if it came from Harvard, Yale or wherever. You’ve got to know people. You’ve got to know the kind of people you’re going to represent, who are poor people. If a client comes to a lawyer, they’re in some sort of miserable situation. They’ve either had a bad accident or they had a death in their family, financial stress, going broke, or estate problems or family disputes. So you need to know those people. Volunteer.

I think the most blessed thing that happened to me was being born of poor parents in Rector, Arkansas. I remember Johnny Cash [would get asked], “What was it like growing up in Dyess, Arkansas?” He said, “I loved it! I didn’t know I was poor. I hunted and fished all the time. I was happy as I could be.” So, when you’re there, you don’t know what it’s like to be rich. But you’ve got a family who loves you and neighbors who are kind to you and help you. It helps develop the right kind of character.

The sad thing is, that doesn’t exist anymore. The culture has changed in my hometown. Nobody helps anybody anymore. Army General George Barker and I started the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation to help disadvantaged kids. When I grew up there, everyone in town was willing to come and help me and encourage me. No one cares today. Fifty seven-percent of the students attending my school are from single parent homes. There are no fathers there.

There was not a single divorce in town when I was in high school. But it was a perfect environment for me because all of us buddies would hang out and we bonded. All those buddies still get together — the ones that are still living.

That doesn’t exist today. I’ve been at a restaurant and have seen a mother, father and two children sitting at a table for dinner texting on their cell phones — not even talking to each other. There were such bonding and friendships when I grew up. I have two grandchildren. I wonder about their communication skills with friends and society. So, I think it’s very important that a young person today coming out of law school needs to get out and do some community work or go into the bad side of town and meet people.

What do you hope your legacy is?
My children. I just sent Reba [McEntire] a note telling her that her dad Clark, who just passed away, his legacy is Reba and her siblings. The kids have all turned out great. And what more could Clark ever ask for than to leave behind five wonderful children who are all successful? That’s a tribute to him and to their mother Jackie.

I’ve constantly apologized to both my daughters for the neglect when they were growing up. I used to say, “Don’t marry a man who’s between 25 and 40 because he’s struggling to survive and establish himself.” They’re not necessarily great fathers or husbands [they’re] gone all the time, working and trying to provide. They say I don’t need to apologize but I do. I do feel guilty. It’s nice when the family is secure income-wise where a father can spend more time with the children.

I tell you, it’s tough. You get out of college, and it’s a struggle just to survive. It takes a long time before you reach that level of security where you can feel confident, spending more time with the family. That’s a regret I have. But the kids are doing fine.

What motivates you to keep working?
That’s all I know. I don’t have any hobbies. I got that from my dad. When I was very young, I felt resentment toward my parents for being poor and for what they didn’t do for me. As I matured, I realized what they did do for me. The thing that my dad gave me — that I’m eternally grateful for — he taught me how to work. I liked to work. I worked all my life. I’ve never been unemployed.

I feel comfortable in any job. I’ve never had a job I didn’t like. I was an undertaker for 18 months. The only way I could stand that was I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’d never seen a dead body before and suddenly I’m dealing with them. I convinced myself that the best way to deal with this is to do a great job of it. Convince yourself you enjoy what you’re doing. They begged me to stay and train to become a professional. No thanks! But you know what, I learned so much dealing with people in a time of their crisis and their loss. It was quite an experience. I’m grateful I had that opportunity.”

Get Carter is available through Fine’s Creek Publishing wherever books are sold. Those interested in supporting the RHS Helping Hands Foundation may donate directly via