It might have been that first, massive heart attack in 2003, or maybe it was the second one seven years later, or the third, just six weeks ago.
TC Carr says he got the message.
“I’m trying to enjoy things,” the 68-year-old musician shrugs. “Absolutely, I‘m here for a reason. I don’t know what it is. But I’m looking.”
Carr has been a fixture on St. Petersburg stages for more than 40 years. His virtuosic harmonica playing, which can trill like a bird in springtime, honk like a freighter or roar with the ferocity of a hurricane, has provided the defining edge for a dozen of the most popular blues, rock and Americana bands to play the bay area circuit.
Everybody knows TC. These days, TC is struggling to know himself.
Always, in the front of his mind, is the memory of his son Dylan, who was born with a defective heart and suffered from physical and learning disabilities all his life.
In 2013, TC and Dylan, 24, had just taken to the St. Augustine surf for an afternoon of boogie boarding. A wave drove TC downward and his neck crunched into the sand.
“Basically, I drowned,” Carr says. “I had no vitals. They dragged me up on the beach. I was grey.”
Paramedics thought his neck was broken. “I had to fight really hard for my life, but I came back.”
Six months later, Dylan – who had discovered his dad in the water that day, and had dragged him onto the beach with no thoughts of his own physical limitations – died.
“He wasn’t supposed to lift over 10 or 15 pounds because of his heart problems,” Carr says softly. “And, possibly because of that, he passed away. So I had to deal with that.”
That, Carr says, was the most awful of awful times for him and Eileen, his wife, Dylan’s mom. “He wasn’t supposed to live three days, and we had him for 24 years,” he says. “He was a gift.”
Carrying so much baggage for long has caused him to change his priorities. He dotes on his granddaughter, Autumn, whose father is TC and Eileen’s son Casey, 31. “I’m going to travel some,” Carr says. “I’m going to play music, but I’m not going to kill myself. It’s a different world.”
His lungs – strengthened from four hardwired decades of blowing the blues harp – helped him get through the round of pneumonia that followed that most recent coronary episode. And so harmonica – his lifelong friend and closest ally – has become a life raft and a saving grace.
“I always liked it because it was very physical,” he explains. “You completely surrounded the instrument. It’s like the human voice. You are part of it, your mouth, your jaw, your hands are all the instrument.”
William Thomas Carr was born in Tampa – both parents’ families had lived in the bay area for decades – and grew up in Gulfport. He was always known as Tom Carr, in the St. Pete Boychoir, and as the pitcher on his city league baseball team, until people just started calling him “TC.” He liked to fish, and had a little outboard tied up at the Gulfport marina.
The tow-headed youngster was shy, and when classical piano lessons (at his mother’s insistence) didn’t work out, he sought out a different musical instrument, one he could bring up to his face and hide behind. “I found a voice where I could say things through the harmonica that I couldn’t say any other way,” he reveals. “I fell in love with it and I never put it down.”
It was the late 1960s, and players like Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield were taking the electrified blues harmonica to lofty new musical heights. And when Carr discovered the source material, the likes of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter, he was stunned. He played and practiced until his lips bled.
“I listened to anything and everything with harmonica,” he says, “which is how I developed my style. I didn’t copy people particularly, but I’d go to the record store and buy anything with harmonica, and I’d study it.
“Down in Gulfport, there was a whole contingent of guys who were blues fanatics. And of course in the rock ‘n’ roll crossover of Johnny Winter and those guys. Johnny was big.”
The early Allman Brothers Band turned his head, too. “They took the blues and said things, and did things, their own way. And that really influenced me greatly.”
From his parents’ record collection, he heard and absorbed country music, and was drawn to the delicate phrasing of harmonica player Charlie McCoy, who seemed to be on everybody’s records.
And it was that strain of music that made Tom Carr’s playing a little different – a little more melodic and thoughtful, perhaps – than that of all the other hardline blues blowers.
“I didn’t try to be, and I can’t be, anything like those blues guys,” he says. “So it appealed to be my own thing, whoever that is. Some guys copy Little Walter exactly, and that’s great – it’s hard to do – but it doesn’t appeal to me to sound just like those guys. I want to be me.”
The “outlaw country” movement of the mid ‘70s – a mix of rock and blues with humor and more rural sensibilities -along with the swift ascendancy of Jimmy Buffett, whose music wasn’t bluesy but was harmonica-heavy, gave Carr more outlets to express himself.
“The minute you hear him play, there’s something about it that’s different from anybody you’ve ever heard,” says singer and guitarist Pete Merrigan, who’s been one of Carr’s closest musical cohorts for four decades. “It’s just the quality of sound that comes out when he plays.”
Carr, believes Merrigan, brings “that wow factor. There’s a million guys that do what I do, go out and play some songs and entertain, but it doesn’t snap anybody’s head around the way TC’s playing does.”
In the mid 1970s, Carr joined Merrigan in the Mad Beach Band (that’s short for “Madeira,” of course), and they’ve played together – with a changing lineup of musicians – on again, and off again, for decades. The re-re-united Mad Beach Band recently sold out a CD release party/concert at the Hideaway Cafe, just weeks after TC had been released from the hospital. “He was pulling out licks that none of us had ever heard before,” recalls Merrigan. “Just when you think he can’t get any better, he’s starting his solos with these rapid-fire machine gun licks that just turned our heads around.”
Similarly, Carr has been a cornerstone of Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys – again, with many of the best musicians in the bay area – for almost as long.
He toured and recorded with several national acts, including Melanie and Mama’s Pride, and “struck out on his own” in the ‘90s, fronting the Shooters, TC Carr and the Catch and – in recent years – TC Carr & Bolts of Blue.
“He’s the musician least concerned about money than anybody I know,” Merrigan observes. “And it’s not because he’s got money. It’s not like he’s a rich guy. But he just doesn’t want the money aspect to interfere with the music at all.”
That’s pretty much true, says Carr. “I was never pursuing becoming a quote-unquote star famous person. That never appealed to me much. It was sort of like a necessary evil. I played the game, but I really didn’t want to, and after a while, I just wanted to stay home. So I did.
“I thought ‘If I’m not having fun, why do it?’ I could make about the same money at home as I did on the road, and not kill myself. And not leave my family.”
When Dylan was young, TC was a stay-at-home dad, so Eileen could work during the day and qualify for much-needed health insurance. He gigged nights, while his wife stayed at home with the boys.
He took a few daytime jobs eventually – working in building maintenance, and as a boat-engine repairman. For four years, he was facilities manager at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
Times have changed. Dylan is gone, and TC’s own health problems are continually cause for concern.
The only constant, always somewhere in the room, with a voice too loud to ignore, has been music.
His focus, Carr says, has become much more spiritual and centered. He’s trying to take better care of himself.
He’s been writing songs, for the first time in years, at a fever pitch. “I used to think,” he muses, “that I wasn’t any good, or I can’t be a songwriter, I have nothing to say and anything I have to say isn’t very good, anyway. Well, that may be true, but I’ve come to this conclusion: There’s a bird on the wire, singing their ass off all day long. Why? Because they’re supposed to. They have something to say.
“If I have something I need to say, or if I feel it, I’m not in denial any more. This is supposed to come out.”
This story originally appeared in, and the copyright is owned by, the St. Pete Catalyst.