Twelve-year-old guitar prodigy eyes a bigger stage

Twelve-year-old guitar prodigy eyes a bigger stage
June 2, 2009
Michael Barrett
Gaston Gazette

The closest most kids come to strumming six strings these days is through playing the wildly popular video game, "Guitar Hero."

You'll have to forgive 12-year-old Michael Carter. He prefers to grind a legitimate ax.

"Guitar is just my whole life," the energetic pre-teen said recently, during a jam session at his home near Crowders Mountain. "Music, when I'm playing it, it just courses through my veins. I have fun."

Just two-and-a-half years into playing the iconic instrument, the Southwest Middle School sixth-grader has shown skills that some people take five times as long to learn, such as the ability to tune a guitar by ear. He's auditioned for the television show "America's Got Talent." He's been given several chances to play in public. And his prodigy-like ability has his parents dreaming of him carving out a career as a musician.

Longtime blues aficionados Michael and Sheila Carter talk about their son's passion with a mixture of wonder and excitement.

"He just has a natural ear for playing," said his father, 55, who has been playing guitar for 32 years. "It took me 30 years to learn to play, really. He just has an understanding that I never had at that age."

Michael has been around music all his life, listening to his father tool around on the guitar and harmonica. But his first legitimate attempt at playing the instrument came just two and a half years ago, when Carter bought his son a cheap electric starter model for Christmas.

What he did that December morning convinced his parents that he had something special.

"I showed him chords G, C and D ... basic country chords," said Carter. "Within an hour, he could go from one chord to another smooth.

"Then I just sat down and played songs with him. He watched what I did."

He has since advanced to a shiny Les Paul, which evokes memories of Jimi Hendrix, since Michael also plays left-handed.

One of Michael's first recollections of being captivated by the guitar came several years ago, when he heard the intro solo to the Guns N' Roses ballad, "Sweet Child O' Mine."

"I cranked up the radio," he said.

Since then, his mom and dad's influences have settled in. He lives and breathes blues music, and lists his favorite guitar players as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ted Nugent and Eric Clapton. Making music is his way of expressing himself.

"It's his release," said Michael's father. "It's his joy and his escape ... good feelings and bad feelings."

When he launches into the blues classic, "Cold Shot," with a fedora atop his head, Michael leans back like Stevie Ray himself, whipping his right hand up and down the guitar's neck and contorting his face to the soulful chord changes. He hopes to one day lead the musical style's return to the mainstream.

"Blues is coming back strong," he proclaims.

Earlier this year, Michael had a chance to play with the Contagious Blues Band in Clover, S.C. In May, he was invited to play a set for patrons at the Gashouse Grill in Gastonia. He also filmed a segment for a public access television show in Charlotte last month.

His mother, the president of the fledgling Gaston Blues Society, said she and her husband hope to find a more seasoned guitar player who will take Michael under wing and bring out his full potential. They've only begun trying to market him, and get his name out to more people.

"Our dream for Michael is for him to be happy in his music, to support him 100 percent, and to help him make a living doing it," said Sheila Carter. "We want things for him we never had the opportunity to have."

You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826.
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