Things are falling apart, but Joe Carr is still smiling.
His plan to perform a simple guitar set at the Thursday Farmers’ Market out in front of the The Shop on Perry Street started to go awry when the rain came. When it was just sprinkling, Carr didn’t even hesitate to set up his jury-rigged amp/stereo system outside.
But now that rain is coming down in sheets, his white-tarp-covered booth is leaking and his speakers are crackling.
But at no point — even when the rain has soaked his jacket, when customers stop looking his way and start scurrying to their cars with bagfuls of spring produce — does the 58-year-old musician even consider packing up and heading home.
He says he’ll play acoustic before he gives up. He’ll move inside the coffee shop. He’s playing tonight, come hell or high water.
When he gets the chance to play his music these days, Joe Carr seizes the opportunity. It’s why he prefers playing alone, usually on a downtown street corner and most often in front of the shopping centers on Spokane’s South Hill. He can’t wait on another band member. He can’t wait for a venue to book him. He has no music online because he doesn’t use computers or email (“I’m not too good at that stuff,” he says). He’s a free agent. A rambling man.
Or maybe he’ll stand and play in the rain because there’s so much Joe Carr can’t do anymore. A bad heart has slowed him down, keeping him from the wayward musician’s life he lived for so long. Those days of hitchhiking and playing spontaneous tavern gigs are a thing of the past — just stories he tells now to whoever wants to listen.
It’s those stories that make people love Joe Carr. If they stop and listen to his wailing blues guitar solos, his boogie-woogie tracks and acoustic covers of his favorite ’60s and ’70s songs, it’s almost sure that he’ll tell them a story.
Carr, with combed-back gray hair that ends in curls at his earlobes, is like a cool beatnik grandpa with a million tall tales to tell. They’re yarns that even he can’t prove are true.
Like the time he won The Gong Show back in the late ’70s with a harmonica routine that got the judges out of their seats and dancing on the studio floor.
Or the time he walked into a South Carolina blues club, challenged the all-black bar to “play the blues with me if they think they can!” and walked out with new friends and no broken bones.
Or the time he was driving through cotton fields and stopped his car to play a duet with an old man he saw sitting on a creaky wooden porch.
Or when he wrote a jingle for a famous radio station.
Or the time he was sought out by Jimi Hendrix’s record label.
Or when he played with Buddy Guy and Wet Willie.
The way Carr looks when he tells those stories takes you to another time and place — it’s proof enough that what he says is true. His eyes light up when he talks about meeting Gong Show host Chuck Barris, and the anticipation he felt waiting for the bright orange curtain to go up. His tone quiets when he talks about seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd play live just days before a plane crash claimed three of the band’s members. His face drops when he talks about all the times he was on the edge of being something big.
“I wanted to be [famous]. I think everybody does if they play music,” he says. “And I had a couple chances. But I messed them up.”
But it’s not about fame or fortune anymore — hasn’t been for a long time. Today, he plays on the street to make people happy. When they dance, or sing along, or just smile as they pass by with arms full of groceries, that’s what keeps Carr going.
“The music I play, it’s hard to not get up and dance to it,” he says. “I’ve had wedding parties downtown, school graduations — they’ll come by in herds, dressed to the 10s. … Next thing you know they’re all dancing with each other! And I say, ‘That’s what it’s about! That’s right! That’s what it’s about.’”
Right now, Carr’s only indulgence is his music — and even then, he’ll overindulge.
“I’ll [play] for 10 hours straight, and I forget to eat lunch!” he says, pointing to his friend and assistant Lisa, who looks at him with her lips pursed tightly. “She has to make me eat lunch.”
“He’s very compulsive when it comes to music. Impulsive and compulsive,” she says. “Sometimes I do call myself the cloud on his parade, because you can’t have too much sunshine because you’ll wilt. Some clouds is good.”
Today at the market, faced with his fair share of clouds, Carr just laughs. He loves this too much to let a little rainy weather get him down.
As he leans forward into his guitar during a solo, the sagging roof of his booth gives way on one side, letting loose a torrent of rainwater that hits the ground with a splash. Carr opens his eyes wide, looking up from his guitar. “We havin’ fun yet?!” he says to anyone within earshot.
And he never misses a beat.
Joe Carr • Sun, June 30, from noon-6 pm • Albertson’s • 3010 E. 57th Ave. • Donations only