Carter Albrecht (1973-2007)
|ROCK AND ROLL DAYS: Albrecht was no saint. But to many in the local music scene, he was close enough. photography by Hal Samples
I couldn’t sleep that night. I have a trick I use when that happens, and it’s a little bit silly, but it works. Instead of counting sheep, I count Dallas Mavericks. Beginning with No. 0 (Mark Strickland), I name a player, past or present, who has worn that number while with the team. As in: No. 00, Eric Montross; No. 1, Greg Buckner; No. 2, Alex English; and so on. That night, panic set in as I reached No. 70 (Dennis Rodman). I was still wide awake.
Around 4 am, I gave it another shot: No. 3, Travis Best; No. 4, Cherokee Parks; No. 5, Jason Kidd. Right around the same time, a mile or so away, at the back door of a house in Little Forest Hills, my friend was dead. The home belonged to a neighbor of his girlfriend. My friend had been shot once in the head while trying to kick in the door, for reasons still unknown. I didn’t hear the sirens. I was finally asleep.
For the next few days, I spent long stretches of time reading about a man I knew, but whose name I couldn’t place: Jeffrey Carter Albrecht. In the pages of the Dallas Morning News
, the New York Times
, Entertainment Weekly
, and USA Today
, and on more websites than I could possibly keep track of, there it was, this name I vaguely recognized. Jeffrey Carter Albrecht.
It was my friend’s full name, and it was jarring to see it in print that way, given the treatment of the killer and the killed. It was just as strange when the e-mails from New York and elsewhere started filling up my in-box, wondering if I knew “Jeff Albrecht.”
I didn’t know Jeff. I knew Carter.
But Jeffrey Carter Albrecht is the one who made his way out into the national press, a cruel irony because Carter was the one who deserved it and, obviously, for very different reasons. Jeffrey Carter Albrecht ended up there because of the way he died and because of his job (one of many) playing keyboards for Edie Brickell & New Bohemians. Beyond just the name, none of that sounded like the man I knew for almost a decade.
I knew he played with New Bohemians, but it wasn’t the first band—or second, or third—that came to mind when I thought of Carter. And the violence of his death didn’t square with the man I knew either. I said it over and over on September 3, and I’ll repeat it now: if Carter wasn’t the last person I could imagine ending up in that situation, he would have been among the final few.
So, again: I didn’t know Jeffrey Carter Albrecht. I knew Carter. He’s the one who should have been making headlines.
Those stories should have said this: Carter spent the bulk of his 34 years making music, sometimes with a guitar, more often with a piano or organ (he had a piano performance degree from SMU), occasionally even with a saxophone, and always very, very well. Besides for Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, he was a sideman and session player for a number of bands and musicians, including Sorta, Charlie Sexton, Salim Nourallah, and the Limes.
But it was as a frontman where Carter really shined, because only then could he play his own songs, instead of adding his considerable talents to others’ compositions. As the leader of Sparrows, he released two albums (2002’s Rock and Roll Days
and 2004’s Snowflakes
) whose songs synthesized elements of rock, country, blues, soul, punk, and singer-songwriter balladry into cohesive wholes.
Since Sparrows broke up in January 2005, besides maintaining a busy dance card as a sideman, Carter had been working on a solo disc. Even in its roughest stages of completion, it was deemed the best thing he had ever done. That was no small praise for a man who, in 2003, was named Musician of the Year and Best Songwriter by the Dallas Observer
Around the same time Sparrows was winding down, Carter developed severe problems with his voice. A virus had caused some paralysis of his vocal chords. Doctors told him he might not be able to sing again. Had he remained the pianist he trained to be, the prognosis wouldn’t have been life altering. Anyone who had seen him cradle a smoky bar in the palm of his hand (belting out covers of the Guess Who or, even better, local soul legend Bobby Patterson) without the aid of keys or strings knew otherwise.
Carter did, however, sing again. He was on the verge of making a career-defining statement that just so happened to be part of a career-rescuing comeback, the kind of arc that earns musicians lengthy magazine profiles and sounds like the outline for a pretty decent movie.
Beyond a good angle, his solo album would have brought the national attention everyone who ever laid eyes and ears on him knew he deserved. Instead, Jeffrey Carter Albrecht stole that attention. But the reason why I, and many others, will miss him isn’t the career that was cut short. It was the life.
That said, it is almost impossible to remove music from my memories of him. I keep flashing back to a conversation we had at Sons of Hermann Hall one night a couple of years ago. I had wanted, for weeks, to tell Carter how beautiful I thought one of his songs was. “Am I Still Loaded” is one of those songs that hits you in the ears and the heart at the same time. Lyrically, musically, emotionally—in every way it is perfect, a six-minute epic driven home by his searing, soulful, soul-baring vocal performance. I had wanted to tell him all of this, but the moment was never right. The song deserved more than a struggle to be heard over the jukebox or the SMU kids at Barley House.
That night at Sons, I finally had a quiet moment alone with Carter, so I let him know how much “Am I Still Loaded” affected me. His eyes lit up when I finished my haltingly delivered mini-monologue, and he half-hugged me in appreciation. That was the song he was proudest of, he said, and he was delighted someone had recognized it. We talked for a few minutes more, and by the end, I felt like he had complimented me instead of the other way around.
That was often what it was like with Carter. You might start out with respect for his talent as a musician, but inevitably, who he was as a person is what really got you. I’m certainly not the only one who ever had a conversation like that with Carter. I’m sure all who knew him have a similar story. I heard quite a few of them in the days following his death.
The wake lasted pretty much all week. When word got out about what had happened, friends started showing up at the East Dallas apartment Carter shared with his friend and bandmate Danny Balis. The people there still didn’t know exactly what happened, but they’d pieced together this much: after a handful of drinks at Vickery Park, Carter and his girlfriend, Ryann Rathbone, drove to her home in Little Forest Hills. They got into an argument on the way there that turned violent when they arrived. Ryann managed to lock him out of the house. Somehow he ended up next door, banging and kicking at the back entrance. The neighbor fired once through the door, killing him instantly. (Soon we’d learn that Chantix, a smoking cessation drug both Carter and Ryann were taking, may have triggered his uncharacteristic mood swing. He’d told Balis about the “crazy, insane, almost horrific dreams” he had while on the drug. Drinking on top of that could not have helped. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating the matter.)
That night, even more people came out to Barley House. Some got onstage and told stories. Some, like Pleasant Grove’s Marcus Striplin and Budapest One’s Keith Killoren and Chad Stockslager, sang songs. The hugs never ended. The I-love-yous never stopped.
So it went every day and night until the memorial service five days later at Parkway Hills Baptist Church in Plano, the congregation his parents, Ken and Judy, belonged to. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Many of the guys there looked more than a little uncomfortable in thrown-together formalwear—not surprising, since the bulk of the crowd was fellow musicians or music industry professionals. Long-unworn ties were knotted unsurely. Jackets, found in the dark corners of their closets, hung strangely off their shoulders. Carter would have hated that he forced them into those outfits. Not just because of the occasion, or because they accessorized with fretted Kleenex and thousand-yard stares. He would have hated those sloppy coats and ties for pure aesthetic reasons. He was, as more than a few people noted, a slave of fashion.
He would have hated what happened there, though, more than what the mourners wore. After a touching audio-visual presentation, where recorded remembrances from friends and family provided a soundtrack to a slideshow of photos of Carter, ranging from serious to silly and all points between, one of his new songs, “Jesus Is Alive,” was cued up on the church’s fancy sound system. Three more untitled tracks followed, all from his unfinished solo record.
Carter would have cringed that his songs were debuted to an audience of 700 or so people before they were ready. Even if there was much more work to be done, you could hear he was onto something great. Something that didn’t leave his past behind exactly, but twisted it slightly, allowing listeners to hear him from a different angle. It was still Carter.
Reading those last four words, I feel like I haven’t done him justice. He was warm and generous, but he was also raucous and ribald. I’ve left out a huge part of his personality—his sense of humor. Few things were better than making Carter laugh, getting “that deep, rollicking, back-of-the-throat laugh that would make his body twist around,” as Shibboleth leader Don Cento describes it.
You never knew what would set him off. One night at the old Barley House, when it was still on Henderson Avenue, Carter came up to me and said he’d decided on a new name for his band. “Instead of Sparrows,” he said, eyes dancing, “we’re going to be called—The Finger.” Then he let loose with that giant, torso-contorting laugh.
The name tickled him so much. I barely had the heart to tell him that Ryan Adams had beaten him to it for one of his side projects. When I did, he laughed again. “Oh well,” he shrugged. “It’s still funny.”
I won’t remember Jeffrey Carter Albrecht and how he died. I’ll remember Carter and that great laugh. And I’ll miss it.
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