When you think about Jimmy Carter, rock ’n’ roll might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the 39th President of the United States is a big music fan, has used it as a way to connect with voters, and is personal friends with several musicians, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bono.
From Willie Nelson smoking pot on the White House roof to Gregg Allman mistaking Carter for a shirtless “bum” during their first introduction, below are just a few of the stories from Jimmy Carter’s friendships with some of rock music’s most recognizable names.
While Carter was serving as Georgia governor, his adult sons were living with him and regularly played Bob Dylan music in the mansion’s halls. Carter had already been a Dylan fan, and he and his sons grew closer together through his music, according to the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.
In 1974, the Carter family attended a Dylan concert in Atlanta and invited the iconoclastic musician to the governor’s mansion for a post-concert party. Carter described Dylan as “painfully timid,” and even Dylan said he initially felt “uneasy.” But the two eventually bonded, particularly during a private conversation about Carter’s Christian faith.
“When I first met Jimmy, the first thing he did was quote my songs back to me,” Dylan said in the documentary. “It was the first time that I realized my songs had reached into, basically, the establishment world. … He put my mind at ease by not talking down to me and showing me that he had a sincere appreciation of the songs that I’d written.”
Carter’s well-known friendship with legendary country singer Willie Nelson gained a level of notoriety when Nelson wrote in his 1988 autobiography that he smoked a marijuana cigarette (a “big fat Austin torpedo,” in Nelson’s words) with a White House servant on the roof of the presidential residence.
In Rock & Roll President, Carter set the record straight: Nelson didn’t smoke with a White House servant. He smoked with Carter’s son Chip. “We just kept going up ’til we got to the roof, where we leaned against the flagpole at the top of the place and lit one up,” Chip told the Los Angeles Times.
Carter and Nelson have remained friends for decades, and when Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, he invited Nelson to perform in Europe during the ceremony. In Rock & Roll President, Nelson described it as “one of the greatest moments of my life, because I knew it was one of the greatest moments in his.”
The Allman Brothers were invited to the 1974 post-concert reception Carter hosted for Bob Dylan, but Gregg Allman didn’t arrive at the governor’s mansion until the other guests had already left. He was waved through the gates anyway, and as he approached he saw a man standing on the porch, wearing a worn and ragged pair of jeans, without a shirt or shoes.
“I thought, ‘Who’s this bum they’re letting hang out at the governor’s mansion?’” Allman said, according to Kai Bird’s book The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter. “But dadgum! It was him!” The two shared some scotch together, before Carter surprised Allman by saying “Gregory—can I call you Gregory?—I’m going to be President.”
Carter had little national name recognition or mainstream political support during his long-shot primary campaign in 1976, but the Allman Brothers helped bring attention to him through benefit concerts. “The Allman Brothers helped put me in the White House by raising money when I didn’t have any,” Carter said in Rock & Roll President.
Jimmy Carter’s other musician friends
- U2 frontman Bono won the We Are Family Foundation’s Humanitarian Award in 2016, but he spent much of his acceptance speech heaping praise on Jimmy Carter, who was also being honored that night. Bono praised Carter’s religious faith and commitment to peace, adding: “This was the first world leader I ever heard who knew the words to all the songs that were my generation’s telegraph.”
- Jimmy Buffett had offered to help Carter during his 1976 presidential race, and when Carter’s Oregon campaign events attracted few attendees, he asked Buffet to help him draw some crowds. The “Margaritaville” singer played a show for him in Portland, according to Rock & Roll President. “They didn’t have a sound system big enough for the band, so a couple of us got out acoustic guitars, [and] we probably drew 15,000 people out there,” Buffett said.
- Paul Simon is one of Carter’s favorite musicians, and Carter invited him to perform at his presidential inauguration in 1977, according to the documentary. “I’d like to dedicate this song to Jimmy Carter in the hope that perhaps a time of righteousness and dignity may now be upon us,” Simon said before performing “American Tune,” a song he originally wrote about his despair over Richard Nixon’s presidential election.
- Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, visited the White House during Carter’s presidential term. “We always claimed that she was my cousin,” Carter joked in Rock & Roll President about June, due to her maiden name.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.