Of all the notable guitar slingers in Guitar Town, Tim Carroll is a rarity: He got his professional start as a punk rocker. While still in his teens, Carroll was asked to join the pioneering Indiana punk-rock outfit The Gizmos, whose sonic assault got them banned from almost every venue at which they appeared. After loudly wearing out their welcome in the Hoosier State, the band moved from Bloomington to the Big Apple in 1980 and became part of that city’s thriving punk scene. The Gizmos gigged regularly in New York City over the next year, including three memorable appearances at the legendary punk club CBGB, but with no record deal in the offing, the band broke up near the end of 1981. Carroll took a short break from music, then moved in a different direction, ultimately pursuing his own brand of heartland rock. But to this day, the spit and fire of punk rock inform his sound and his playing. “It’s part of this energy I’m able to get across,” he says.
“There are very few [guitarists] around that when I watch them play I think, ‘This person has a great deal of punk rock influence in what they’re doing,’” Carroll adds.
If you happen to stop by The 5 Spot on any Friday evening during happy hour, you can hear punk’s influence on Carroll’s guitar work, as he and his band perform 2 1/2 hours of nonstop rock ’n’ roll. He plays with a nasty swagger; his raw, biting tone and controlled feedback echo his punk beginnings.
Carroll remembers when he first fell in love with guitar. He was about 7, and had never been around a real guitar before.
“My dad came home from work one day and he had an acoustic guitar with him,” he recalls. “When I walked in the house, I saw this guitar and sort of raked my fingers across it, and I just thought it was magic. Since that moment, I’ve been hooked on guitar.”
His first electric was a Teisco, which he played in a couple of bands in high school. Over the years, he has used a variety of axes, mostly Stratocasters and Les Pauls. His current favorite is a Les Paul. When he first arrived in Nashville, Carroll was playing a Telecaster, which he still owns.
When asked about his early influences, he immediately says The Beatles. “I never knew who was playing what. Now we know even Paul McCartney played some of those leads. At the time, we probably thought it was all George Harrison, but it was him and John [Lennon], and Paul.”
Carroll also found inspiration in the playing of hard-rock heavyweights like Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Ace Frehley and Ronnie Montrose, as well as punk six-string aces like Steve Jones and Johnny Ramone, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s three-guitar attack of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King.
“Jimi Hendrix was also [an influence], except he was so over-the-top good and so experimental, it was hard to learn from him,” Carroll says. “But it was inspiring.”
Carroll’s love affair with the guitar has taken him a long way since the day his father brought home that acoustic. After The Gizmos broke up, he was living in Hoboken, N.J., and began playing with a friend at a hole-in-the-wall country bar there, just to have a musical outlet. That led him to form the pioneering NYC roots-rock group The Blue Chieftains, Diesel Only recording artists who had a two-year, weekly residency in the early ’90s at the Continental club in the East Village. It was in The Blue Chieftains that Carroll began to get recognized for his songwriting. In 1993, he moved to Music City, where he was instantly celebrated for having one of his songs — the whimsically wishful “If I Could” — recorded by songwriter extraordinaire John Prine. Carroll was part of the Lower Broad revival in the mid to late ’90s, regularly performing his roots-rock material upstairs at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Like a number of other acts working downtown in those days, he landed a major-label recording contract, signing with Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
Since then, Carroll has released a series of full-length albums of original material on indie labels, and is set to release another — Pure As Coal — early next year on Lamon Records, with the first single, “Don’t Make Nothin’ in the USA,” dropping in September. The new recordings showcase his superb guitar work — he plays both acoustic and electric rhythm guitars, as well as electric lead. Like his well-regarded songwriting, Carroll’s axe work reflects his wide musical travels, which have taken him from Indiana to the Big Apple to Music City, from CBGB to Tootsie’s, from Syd to Merle — just like the heroine in his classic Blue Chieftains single, “Punk Rockin’ Honky Tonk Girl.”