He got his first guitar on Christmas Eve 1980. Never having had a lesson in his life, Carl Wagoner is entirely self-taught, but considers himself a “hack.”
Anyone who’s seen him wail on his Fender Stratocaster knows he’s just the opposite. He’s a master at getting every patron in the bar on his or her feet with a sound that’s a perfect mix of blues, rock, a little funk and all heart. He spotted that first guitar in a JCPenney catalog and begged his mom for it. She, of course, assumed it would end up in the closet, barely touched.
But Carl never put it down.
In the backyard of Key West’s Hemingway House, at 17 years old, Wagoner played for the first time in front of an audience, noting he was “scared sh*tless, but loved every minute of it.” He’s been playing professionally full-time since 1998. The career shift came after 10 years working at the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, where he eventually “failed a piss test.” He says he had to play to eat and feed the kids, but he quickly realized it’s what he should have been doing all along.
Wagoner has two sons; Carl Jr., 29, and Corey, 28, and he’s been with wife, Erin, for almost 22 years. Talking about his longtime love, he says “Erin’s a trip; she’s my rock, my best pal. She holds it all together, she really does.” And together the two of them make up one of Key West’s most beloved couples.
His first band was the Double Bucci with Chris Case and they used to jam at Boston Billy’s, where the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon now sits and where Wagoner has a standing gig four nights a week. His current band, Caffeine Carl and the Buzz, has played together for nearly 20 years and is a Key West staple. He got his nickname from a musician he played with in the late ’90s by the name of Steve Mello. “He named me that because of my hyperactivity and stutter.” It clearly stuck.
When he talks about being on stage, Wagoner touches on his speech impediment, noting that the stage is the only place he can sing or talk all night long without a single stammer. He attributes this to the stage being his total comfort zone.
Carl will be a year sober on Dec. 13. He and Erin decided to do it together, as they do most things in life. “I got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” In the beginning, he said, it was difficult, but he noticed the more he played without the booze, the more focused he became. “It used to be the beginning of the night I was on fire and by the end of it, I started to go down. We recorded ourselves and I could hear everything start to go downhill with the alcohol. I thought I was better and better, but I was not.”
Still practicing every single day, he says with his newfound sobriety he loves it again, really loves it, and sometimes spends his whole day off in the bedroom playing and getting lost in the magic of the music.
Carl Wagoner truly is a musical magician, mesmerizing audiences and lighting a fire inside their soul, his presence is unmatched and his talent is truly rare.
At 53 years old, Wagoner has been in Key West his entire life. As I wrapped up our interview, I asked if he had anything to add. In his signature voice, he said loudly, as if on stage, “I love you, Key West — and I ain’t ever leaving.”
*Catch Caffeine Carl and the Buzz at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at Rick’s downstairs with George Chapman from 8 p.m. to midnight on Tuesdays.
Full name/Nickname: Carl Hilton Wagoner/ “Caffeine Carl” and “Goober.”
My life motto is… turn it up!
Key West is special to me because … of the people and the wonderful year-round weather.
My bucket list includes … playing Red Rock amphitheater.
My idea of perfect happiness is … having my family all together.
I most dislike … knowing that someone I love is hurting. And olives, I despise them.
I could not live without … music, my guitars and Cuban coffee.
My musical mentors include … Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix — he’s the god.
The song I absolutely will not play is … I’ll play anything for cash.
My all-time favorite song to play is … “Soulshine” by Warren Haynes.
The one instrument I wish I could play but can’t is … saxophone.
My advice for someone wanting to play professionally is … Go to college! Nah, just play from the heart.
On my days off I … grocery shop, grill, swim and play a lot of guitar.
My friends and family would describe me as … loyal.
I can never refuse … Key lime pie.
An occasion in which I would lie would be … to keep a loved one out of harm’s way.
If I weren’t a musician I would be a … meteorologist.
My rock star/musical alter ego is … Mel Tillis. Ha.
My autobiography would be called … “Caffeine Carl: Salt water and Stratocasters.”
When I go, I will go … LOUDLY.