Obituary: Wilf Carter

Paul Wadey
Tuesday 17 December 1996 00:02

Wilf Carter, aka Montana Slim, was one of the last surviving links with the early giants of country music. A native of Nova Scotia, he worked with Jimmie Rodgers and the legendary Carter Family, with Bradley Kincaid and Goebel Reeves, and became, over a 60-year career, a Canadian institution.

Montana Slim, the sobriquet by which Americans knew him, came courtesy of a radio lawyer named Becker. Carter was working for CBS at the time and when one day called into Becker's office was told that whilst the show was fine his name would have to go. Asked if he had ever been to Montana, he replied in the affirmative. "Well, you're long, tall and skinny, how about Montana Slim?" was the response, and it stuck.

Unusually for a country musician, Carter actually spent part of his early life as a cowboy. Whilst still in his teens he headed for Calgary, working the prairie farms before moving on and hoboing along the Canadian-Pacific railroad. He then became a bronc' buster in the rodeo before being hired by the Brewster Transport Co as an entertainer for its early "dude ranches". Whilst on the trail he would practise his yodelling technique in the canyons.

Carter had been fascinated by yodelling as a child. At the age of 12 he saw a performance by an entertainer known as "The Yodelling Fool" in a revue based on Uncle Tom's Cabin and was hooked. His later advocacy of the form would prove one of his most important legacies, influencing, among others, Slim Whitman and Riders in the Sky.

In 1933, whilst en route to New York where he was to join a liner as an on-board entertainer, Carter stopped off at Montreal to audition for RCA Victor. In a disused church on Lenoir Street, he cut the self-penned "My Swiss Mountain Lullaby" - its famous echo courtesy of an upturned bathtub - and "The Capture of Albert Johnson", a vivid retelling of the hunt for a mountie-killer.

On its release, "Lullaby" blossomed into the first major Canadian country hit and as a result in 1934 Carter cut a further 36 tracks for the label including the first song he ever wrote, "I Long For Old Wyoming", and the topical "The Life and Death of John Dillinger". By 1938 he had 120 sides to his credit.

By now a star on the CBS radio network, Carter's records began also to sell well internationally, particularly in Australia where his popularity proved pivotal to its fledgling country music industry. Several years later, he acknowledged this by cutting an album for RCA entilted Wilf Carter Sings The Songs of Australia.

A serious automobile accident on 30 April 1940 was to prove a major setback, the severity of his injuries necessitating a nine-year hiatus from touring. When he hit the road again, it was in the company of his daughters and he was gratified to find that he could still draw large crowds, at least in his homeland.

Carter recorded prolifically over the years and much of his work has been reissued on CD. With Victor until 1954, he spent five years at Decca under the Nashville recording pioneer Paul Cohen, before returning to the RCA fold and later still cutting a couple of albums for Starday.

The composer of some 500-plus songs including "There's a Love Knot in my Lariat" and "Bluebird On Your Window Sill", in 1971 he was elected to the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Honour, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and the Calgary Horseman's Hall of Fame. The last of these gave him particular pleasure, as did the chance twice to act as Grand Marshal of the famous Calgary Stampede. Although semi-retired, Wilf Carter continued to tour into the 1990s.

Wilf Arthur Charles Carter, singer, guitarist and songwriter: born Port Hilford, Nova Scotia 18 December 1904; married 1936 Bobbie Bryan (died 1989; two daughters); died Scottsdale, Arizona 5 December 1996.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in