Carolyn Wonderland has never forgotten where she came from. On her new album Peace Meal (Bismeaux), she brings the hard-won lessons of her own blessed life together with stories from some of the world’s best-known and most beloved songwriters (Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Robert Hunter, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson) to create a musical menu of sustaining, satisfying songs that offers musical food for thought to her growing legions of fans.
Produced by a stellar cast of Grammy Award winners including long-time supporter and inspiration, Ray Benson (a nine-time Grammy winner who produced Carolyn’s 2008 breakthrough album Miss Understood), two-time Grammy winner Larry Campbell (the force behind The Band drummer Levon Helm and his recent comeback) and founding Monkee, Michael Nesmith. The album was recorded at Benson’s Bismeaux Studios in Austin and also at Helm’s studio in Woodstock, NY.
Internationally heralded as one of the best vocalists in her adopted hometown of Austin (which is saying something!), Wonderland has also been highly touted as a guitar goddess and is quickly making a name for herself in her highly competitive neighborhood and far beyond.
What makes Wonderland’s story so compelling, however, is the string of obstacles she had to overcome to get where she is today.
“When you're happy, you dance. When things get under your skin, find a pen.” -Carolyn Wonderland
Often mentioned in the same sentences as Texas legends Janis Joplin and Steve Ray Vaughan (references that leave the modest Wonderland “floored, humbled and thrilled”), Wonderland also shares with these lost legends the legacy of a bumpy road to fame. Growing up in Houston, the young Wonderland put aside her dolls in favor of a guitar and spent hours each day doing what her heart hungered for. Wonderland desperately wanted to make it in music, but found it difficult in Texas’ overstuffed scene. Taking such Houston influences as Little Screamin’ Kenny (who she cites as one of her favorite songwriters) and Doug Sahm with her, Wonderland headed to Austin, the heart of the American music world, and soon found herself flat broke and literally living in a van by the river.
After months of scratching and clawing and taking any gig she could, Wonderland began to rise above the thick twangy crowd and make a name for herself. Playing solo and with her group the Imperial Monkeys, Wonderland soon found herself in ever-better company, playing alongside and for the likes of Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel) and Bob Dylan. Hit albums began to roll off her fingers and Wonderland was invited to appear on such television shows as Austin City Limits, Time of Your Life and Homicide.
“Come on in, the water's fine. If it gets too deep, I'll throw you a line.”
- Carolyn Wonderland, “Usurper”
Recently married to famed funnyman A. Whitney Brown, Wonderland’s life has taken a number of turns for the better. Even so, Peace Meal ponders the darker issues of life. The opening track (“What Good Can Drinkin’ Do”) is a rarely heard Joplin composition. One would think that Carolyn might have been tempted to cover Janis earlier, considering the many comparisons she has politely deflected throughout her career. But as Carolyn reasons, “Growing up in Texas, young girls learn to only sing Janis’ songs in private.” It wasn’t until the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame asked her to perform in a Joplin tribute event in 2009 that Carolyn got comfortable with the idea.
Having seen what loneliness and war can do to the bodies and souls of her fellow men and women, Wonderland is a tireless advocate for the homeless and for peace. Peace Meal is her latest testimony to their struggle and her latest call of action and hope. Newly penned tracks dazzle, such as “Victory of Flying” and “St. Marks”, the latter of which Carolyn calls “my first honest Love (with a capital ”L”) song.” Carolyn dug up another gem, “Golden Stairs” from Vince Welnick and Robert Hunter (Carolyn and Vince were both in Jerry Lightfoot’s band in Houston for a time), and with the help of Larry Campbell on pedal steel, unleashes an epic vocal performance. Additional highlights include Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning,” the Robert Johnson / Elmore James classic “Dust My Broom” (produced by Michael Nesmith), and a pair of tracks performed in tribute to Little Screamin’ Kenny “I Can Tell” and “Two Trains.”
Her previous album, 2008’s Miss Understood (Bismeaux), and the tireless touring that accompanied it brought Wonderland into the ears, minds, and hearts of millions. From appearances on PBS’s ACL to top slots at major festivals around the world (including Amsterdam’s Wonder Jam, which she humbly takes credit for inspiring), Wonderland spent every ounce of energy in her towering 5’4” frame to bring her music and spirit to the masses. The album quickly reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Blues chart and Wonderland’s live shows left a trail of screaming fans in its wake.
“That lick! You know the one... From Elmore James to Hound Dog Taylor and everyone thereafter, everyone hits the same notes, yet nobody plays it the same.” -Carolyn Wonderland on the track “Dust My Broom”
From classic Blues licks to gospel crooning and her famous whistling to peace anthems, Wonderland gathers all her friends and inspirations and pulls out all the stops to give music fans all they can handle. For those who hunger for good music, Peace Meal is just what you need!
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Kevin Hopkins (US)
Rick Booth (International)
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Cole El-Saleh - keyboards
Rob Hooper - Drums
Peace Meal 2011
Fireside Songs for the Soul 2010
Miss Understood 2008
Bloodless Revolution 2003
Alcohol and Salvation 2001
Bursting With Flavor 1997
Play With Matches 1995
Truck Stop Favorites, Vol. 2 1993
Groove Milk 1991
These Songs Must Be Experienced Live (Jan. 2012)
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"Carolyn Wonderland has an undeniable charisma, and her guitar playing in simply extraordinary, whic..."Carolyn Wonderland has an undeniable charisma, and her guitar playing in simply extraordinary, which begs for these songs to be experienced live. Vocally, she has a sweet holler that imbibes everything here with feeling, warmth and energy." - Ian Rildes
Greatest Southern Blues Voice of All Time (Sept. 2011)
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"With the greatest Southern blues voice of all time, part whiskey, part wolf-mother in heat, she was..."With the greatest Southern blues voice of all time, part whiskey, part wolf-mother in heat, she wasted no time laying waste to the crowd with some of the stinging-est nastiest guitar of the weekend." - William Michael Smith
Incendiary Guitar Work and Stunning Vocals (Dec. 2011)
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"Wonderland’s guitar work is incendiary and belly level satisfying, but it’s her stunning vocals tha..."Wonderland’s guitar work is incendiary and belly level satisfying, but it’s her stunning vocals that are the star here – a thrilling real woman’s voice filled with a lot of living and the acute knowledge that one needs to sin to get saved. It’s the kinda voice that could whisper things to a man that would make him do just about anything to fulfill her wishes." - Dennis
Peace Meal CD Review (Dec. 2011)
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"Wonderland’s chops are strongly melodic, and she doesn’t get bogged down in riff-based noodling; it..."Wonderland’s chops are strongly melodic, and she doesn’t get bogged down in riff-based noodling; it’s some of the most musical playing I’ve heard in a long time, and some of the hottest, too." - Gayla Drake Paul
Live Concert Review (Oct. 2011)
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"There’s one word for Carolyn Wonderland’s show last night at Joe’s Pub: Tasty. When a guitarist tru..."There’s one word for Carolyn Wonderland’s show last night at Joe’s Pub: Tasty. When a guitarist truly lives and loves what they do, it shows, and it was shining like a beacon during Wonderland’s performance. To say that her live show is better than the record is no exaggeration. And her tone … hell yeah! With minimal accompaniment from Rob Hooper on drums and Cole El-Saleh on keys/bass keys, Wonderland showed her prowess on guitar, lap steel and (surprise!) trumpet. From down-and-dirty blues to a New Orleans romp to a slow and easy guitar wail-fest, Wonderland just slayed. Her vocal chops were right on as well -- a growl, a sweet little twitter or, a heartfelt wail slid like butter from her lips. " - Laura B. Whitmore
Carolyn Wonderland Churns Out a Keeper (Sept. 2011)
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Carolyn Wonderland churns out a keeper judging by this Janis- and Stevie Ray-inspired artist's new P...Carolyn Wonderland churns out a keeper judging by this Janis- and Stevie Ray-inspired artist's new Peace Meal.
A Full-Meal Deal (Sept. 2011)
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"Wonderland can perform enough vocal gymnastics to scare an American Idol contestant and play enough..."Wonderland can perform enough vocal gymnastics to scare an American Idol contestant and play enough hot licks to make guitar freaks weep with joy. But everything she and her band do serves the songs. That makes for a full-meal deal." - Jim Beal Jr.
Miss Understood CD Review (May 2008)
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Let's hear it for Carolyn Wonderland BY MARGARET MOSER "It's the famous story, that I was out at...Let's hear it for Carolyn Wonderland
BY MARGARET MOSER
"It's the famous story, that I was out at the Backyard, hangin' with Dylan," booms Ray Benson jovially from his cell phone. "He goes: 'Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She's something else!'
"Those were his exact words. 'She stuck out. She should be nationwide! What's she doing?'
"'Playing shitty clubs in Texas,' I told him.
"So I called her up in Houston and said, 'Dylan wants to see you.'
"She drove 100 miles an hour here, and when he got off stage at the Backyard, he invited her down, and they jammed. That was a great little bit of hype."
As leader of the world's premier Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, Benson knows music but admits that when it came to Carolyn Wonderland, he was an odd guest at the tea party.
"I love what you do," he pitched her. "I'm not known as a rock & roller, but I know this music, and I know what to do with you."
Wonderland couldn't refuse Benson's godfatherly offer. She'd grown up the child of a singer in a band and began playing her mother's vintage Martin guitar when other girls were dressing dolls. She'd gone from being the teenage toast of her hometown Houston to sleeping in her van in Austin amid heaps of critical acclaim for fine recordings Alcohol & Salvation, Bloodless Revolution, and most recently, Miss Understood ("SXSW Platters," March 14).
The music-industry path ran through a dense, black rabbit hole, and Carolyn Wonderland's promise sometimes reflected darkly through Austin's looking glass. Maybe it needed viewing from another angle.
Imperial Monkey Business
Carolyn Wonderland, 36, sits in Maudie's on South Lamar with chips and hot sauce and Chalupas Compuestas on the way. The turquoise of the eatery's porch frames her wine-colored mane, much bolder than the soft brown eyes above a dappling of pale brown freckles. She gazes off with a Cheshire grin at a Downtown skyline changing nearly as rapidly as her life.
"My pawpaw was a real good whistler," she offers. "Whenever The Andy Griffith Show came on, it would be a three-part whistle harmony. The problem is you can't look at anyone because you'll laugh, and if you laugh, you can't whistle. I close my eyes."
Along with the guitar and the multitude of other instruments she learned to play – trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, lap steel – Wonderland's ability to whistle remains most unusual. Whistling is a uniquely vocal art seldom invoked in modern music, yet it's among the most spectacular talents the human voice possesses.
"My grandfather could call birds. After he passed, I tried to imitate bird sounds, see if I could get them to come near me. Toward the last part of my stay in Houston, there was a birdcall I didn't recognize. I started giggling because I realized it was a mockingbird imitating a car alarm. It was so strange, so urban."
Wonderland whistles the alarm to illustrate the scenario, and her note-perfect performance causes a customer at a nearby table to check the parking lot for his car.
That vocal proficiency was well-established in the singer's midteens, landing her gigs at Fitzgerald's by age 15. She absorbed Houston influences like Little Screamin' Kenny and soaked up the Mad Hatter of Texas music, Doug Sahm. The Lone Star State was as credible and fertile a proving ground for blues in the 1980s as existed, especially in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, and Lou Ann Barton all in their prime. By the following decade, Austin's blues luster thinned, but Houston, always a bastion of soul and R&B, boasted the Imperial Monkeys with the effervescent Carolyn Wonderland as ruler of the jungle.
In the Monkeys, she rattled cages everywhere she went and wore her crown with panache. A six-minute video clip of 20-year-old Carolyn and her band taking on Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me" in 1992 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKvz0Ez3uCg) is testament to her youthful confidence and swagger. Her vocal pyrotechnics in the first two minutes might well ensure her a finalist slot on American Idol today, but back then, it was all in a night's work. In a segment for a TV news show, the baby-faced singer sports bleached-blond hair dipped like a paintbrush in hot pink as she opines like a seasoned vet (www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ_fpepzM-M) and sings "Anyway."
The Monkeys didn't exactly play for peanuts and started copping top honors at the Houston Press Music Awards with cheeky blues-rock that churned country, surf, cumbia, jazz, and zydeco. Frontwoman and band caught the eye of two whose interest would change their lives.
"I was in Houston," recalls Susan Antone, "reading an article in the paper about her. I looked at her picture and said to Cliff, 'She's right for the club.' Nineteen years old with pink hair and playing the hell out of the guitar. We fell in love with her."
Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone's. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club's post-SRV stable of the early 1990s, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium.
Salvation, Revolution, and Understanding
Living in Austin renewed Carolyn Wonder-land's focus on her multiple talents, underlining luxurious vocals with fine guitar work, trumpet, and piano, as well as that remarkable ability to whistle on key. A series of each-better-than-the-next discs began with Alcohol & Salvation in 2003 ("songs about booze and God; records are a time capsule of what happened that year"). Her music played in television series such as Time of Your Life and Homicide.
Her circle of musician friends and admirers broadened to include not only Benson but the late Eddy Shaver, Shelley King, and yes, Bob Dylan, who likened her composition "Bloodless Revolution" to "a mystery movie theme." She began co-writing with locals Sarah Brown, Ruthie Foster, Cindy Cashdollar, and Guy Forsyth; sat in with Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard; recorded with Jerry Lightfoot; and toured with Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter. She also claims membership in the all-girl Sis Deville, the gospel-infused Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, and takes aw-shucks credit for inspiring Amsterdam's annual WonderJam.
"The evolution of life shocks me all the time," Wonderland confesses. "When I think back on the crazy and beautiful things that have happened, it blows my mind, because I don't think I've done anything to deserve all these things. I'm still learning how to be appreciative and not be a jerk."
Jerks don't involve themselves with or support the wide range of socially conscious acronym organizations she does. SIMS, HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), MPP (Marijuana Policy Project), NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), WAMM (Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana), and ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), as well as Farm Aid, Seattle Hempfest, Million Musicians March, Cindy Sheehan, SafePlace, Front Steps, Star of Hope, Casa Marianella, and food banks are all beneficiaries of Wonderland's talents. She's a traditional folkie, and her socially conscious politics are on view in her music: Houston NORML uses her biographical "Annie's Scarlet Letter" as its featured soundtrack for public-service announcements.
Many of those second-chance and helping-hand efforts support women, families, and the homeless. That latter substrata of society is one that strikes close to her activist heart.
"I don't consider that I was 'home-less'; I consider that I was 'van-full,'" chuckles Wonderland with black humor about her nearly two years without a street address. "In that situation, I never went hungry in this town. And we were on tour so much it wasn't that radical of a change. I booked us a whole lot on the road."
She also bartered with friends, taking care not to spend too long at any one place by trading out household chores, cooking, and tasks in exchange for laundry and shower privileges.
"It felt useful that way," she explains, her slender brows furrowing in emphasis. "I've realized a lot of material things aren't quite as necessary as I thought they were when I was a kid. I once had goals of playing music and working other jobs for money so I could do that, but there's no time. If you set out to do that, then you're no good to anyone else as an employee. Any straight job was always back-burnered, and that made me feel bad. Anywhere I worked, it was like, 'Sorry, you're second choice.'"
Benson admires Wonderland's frankness in not making music her second choice.
"Musicians need two things: They need time for their craft – to practice, write, play – and they have to be out there hustling. Nothing had happened with Dylan. He doesn't like people talking about his stuff, but you know what? Too bad, Bob. I told Carolyn: 'Don't worry about budget. If you need to go in, go in. If we find a great tune, we go in and do it.'
"My luxury is owning [Bismeaux Studios]. It's not a great way to make money, but it's a great way to make music.
"And Carolyn's got that unbelievable, incredible voice, one of the great voices of our time, and that's not an overstatement. You can talk of K.T. Tunstall and other new chick singers of the last couple of years, but she's got the range, the emotion. Comparisons to Janis [Joplin] are always there since she's rooted in blues and R&B, but it's still rock & roll, and like Janis, Carolyn can take it into country. She's also an incredible guitar player and a great person, so humble. The combination is disarming and totally real. That's magic."
It was magic in the studio, too, as Miss Understood came to life, a canny mix of Benson's production, Wonderland's compositions, and select covers of Terri Hendrix, J.J. Cale, and Rick Derringer that punched her sound up a notch. As soon as the album roared to life, it was clear the singer-songwriter-guitarist-whistler had delivered on her long-awaited promise.
"What a thrill it was to have the Miss Understood CD release at [Antone's]," Susan Antone effuses of that night. "She stood there with her long, red curled hair and still played the hell out of the guitar, tearing it up as fabulous as always. I felt compelled to go on stage and say how honored we were to have her there, because I know what Cliffy would say, 'Let's hear it for Carolyn Wonderland.'"
Nowhere but Texas
The check's been paid and plates swept off the table. A handful of tortilla chips lies in pieces in the basket, eyed by a rogue wren perched on the porch railing as Carolyn Wonderland rummages her purse for her keys. She's off like the White Rabbit, a little late to the Capitol, where Shelley King is being installed as state musician of Texas. Even though there's no gig tonight, every day is preparation for the next show.
The proclamation from Carolyn Wonderland Day last February is framed. The big tour begins this summer, with dates to the East Coast and New York, then west to Oregon and California. In November, she's off to Amsterdam for another WonderJam. The accolades for Miss Understood are still pouring in with the Houston Press issuing a plea for her return home, but in June she's taping a segment for Austin City Limits. That very gig sums up her love and affection for the capital city.
"Here, it's like total camaraderie: A musician might be in a punk band Friday and blues band Saturday and picking during the week. Music doesn't sound like this anywhere else in the world."
XL Cover Story, 6/08
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XL COVER STORY Musical adventures in Wonderland Guitar in hand, Carolyn Wonderland connects with a...XL COVER STORY
Musical adventures in Wonderland
Guitar in hand, Carolyn Wonderland connects with an honest, impassioned wildness of the heart
By Brad Buchholz
Thursday, June 05, 2008
When Carolyn Wonderland holds an electric guitar and feels the taut, steel strings against her fingers, she connects with a beautiful wildness. The shy inner child disappears, carried away on some gritty, good-time chooglin' blues train of positive musical energy. Wonderland concedes she feels something spiritual when she touches a guitar — a sensation like Reiki or the laying on of hands.
"I don't like giving it a name. But it's like becoming attuned to a study of feeling," Wonderland says softly, a little reluctantly, fearing she might be misunderstood. "Sometimes the best prayer that I have to offer on a given day is to share what I can play. ... There's an intention I put with it: May the 'spirit of good' go through what I do. Let the music be the vessel. Then get out of the way."
Wonderland feels the spirit in the best John Coltrane tradition. Have you had a chance to see her live? She's been singing and playing in Austin for more than 10 years now — drawing from the well of blues, rock, soul and gospel at places like the Saxon Pub, Antone's, Maria's Taco XPress, and yes, even at the Erwin Center, where she frequently jams with the University of Texas band during basketball games.
There's a bit of Janis Joplin in Carolyn Wonderland. You can hear it in her soul-cry vocal style, see it in her let-it-all-loose, fronds-of-red-hair-flying stage essence. But there's some Bob Dylan in her, too, for she's one of the most socially and politically active voices in the local music scene. She's played for anti-war protesters in Crawford; headlined the "Million Musicians March for Peace" in Austin; and even managed to get herself arrested at a downtown anti-war demonstration in the first week of the Iraq war.
Wonderland is no diva. At the Saxon Pub, she'll hit the stage in blue jeans and a subtle blouse, topped by a zippered-cotton sweatshirt. She's 35, with no major record label ringing at her doorbell, struggling week to week to pay the rent. Yet Wonderland is quietly acknowledged as one of the most selfless and authentic musical souls in town. She's taping her first Austin City Limits segment tonight. Dylan himself has sought her out and struck up a friendship; they've jammed together several times.
"Carolyn is phenomenal," says Ray Benson, the front man of Austin's venerable swing ensemble Asleep at the Wheel and the producer of Wonderland's fine new album "Miss Understood." "When I see her on stage, I think of Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Janis Joplin, plus. I mean, I met Janis Joplin. I saw her play. Carolyn is a better singer than Janis. And she plays guitar. And she writes great songs. And she's not afraid to work her butt off on the road. ...
"I'm amazed that she wasn't recognized for her talent long ago. But sometimes the long road is the only way for truly original people."
The pull of music
Carolyn Wonderland has been her own woman for a long time. Growing up in West Houston, she'd sneak out of the house at the middle of the night and hang out in Montrose rock and blues dives. There was a sense of artistry in her escape. She'd tip-toe to her Volkswagen Rabbit and let it roll downhill for a hundred yards or so before turning the ignition and hitting the lights — so her parents wouldn't notice her leaving the house.
Wonderland's father, who was raised in Chile, would sometimes walk into Carolyn's room at night to find a note on the pillow explaining she'd skipped out to hear Screamin' Kenny and the Sidewinders in some smoky bar. Her parents grounded her, repeatedly. But Carolyn's mother, Kathy, a special-education teacher from Waco, knew all about the pull of music. She'd once played guitar and fronted a band of her own. Carolyn's grandmother, from Corsicana, had been a champion fiddler. There was no arguing with destiny.
In 1988 — when she was only 15 — Carolyn Wonderland was invited to step on stage and trade a few songs with the poet laureate of Texas singer-songwriters, the late Townes Van Zandt. She was in a joint called Locals, a man named Cat Daddy behind the bar, peeling white paint on the walls. It was after-hours, maybe three in the morning.
Wonderland had never heard of Van Zandt. But boy, she thought, those tunes do sound familiar. "Listen to this guy and his cover songs," she thought to herself, sitting next to him on stage. After Van Zandt played "Pancho and Lefty" — everyone in the bar singing along — Wonderland said she liked that song, that her mother used to sing that song, years ago, when her mom used to play the bars around Bellville.
"Why thank you," Van Zandt said. "That's one of my better tunes."
"You (flipping) liar," she said. "You didn't write that."
The man named Cat Daddy called out from behind from the bar.
"What do you think, Townes? Do we throw her out now?"
But Van Zandt just laughed kindly, then passed the guitar to the pink-haired girl beside him. "Play me another one of yours," he said to Wonderland.
Twenty years later, Wonderland sighs, then scolds herself, as she remembers the brass and certainty of her youth. She's self-effacing to a fault today, to the point of dismissing one of her best songs (the 2001 version of "Feed Me to the Lions") as "some clinkity-clink woe-is-me piano thing." Wonderland is clearly shy about her appearance, insecure about her talent in relation to her musical heroes, but that doesn't get in the way of her quick wit. ("I was born in Webster, between Houston and the water, where you have the most beautiful sunsets because of all the petrochemicals," she says. "It's a very cheap version of the northern lights.") Over a long, lunchtime conversation at Taco XPress, Wonderland riffs on subjects ranging from Joseph Campbell to world history to her long-held affinity for Herb Alpert. (Wonderland played the cornet as a child and still uses a trumpet in her live shows.) She tends to talk fast. Her laugh is a giggle with a lot of vibrato in it.
Wonderland's literary and historical frame of reference is impressive for a woman who dropped out of Langham Creek High School at 17 to pursue music full time, promising her father she'd go back to school if her life in the arts didn't turn out. "I always sang growing up, but I did not want to be a 'chick' singer," she says, fire in her eye, describing her beginnings in music. "I wanted to be the guitar player.
"I didn't wear makeup. I always wore big concert shirts. And at that age, I could have easily been a dude; it didn't matter. And I think that's why I played so well in the biker bars, too, because if anybody did think of me as a chick, they thought of me as a chubby kid sister. Nobody gave me any guff, and that was nice."
Wonderland moved to Austin in 1993, "maybe '94," and found a spiritual home at Antone's. She put out several independent records but didn't get the big break. While recording her CD "Alcohol and Salvation" in 2001, Wonderland lost her apartment lease when her landlord fell ill, and she decided to live out of her van for a while.
Two years later, she was still living in her van.
"I did not consider myself homeless," she says. "I prefer to say I was van-able. I figured why should I spend so much money on the rent when I could just be on the road anyhow." And at that time, she was playing 300 shows a year.
Wonderland brought a certain artistry to Van Life. Home base, a lot of nights, was the parking lot behind Ray and Shane Hennig's music store in South Austin. But every once in a while, she'd call ahead and make an appointment to park in a friend's driveway for a night or two. And then make another call, and move again. She'd volunteer to do laundry or clean house in exchange for a shower.
Some nights, Wonderland practiced a refined form of Dumpster diving at Whole Foods. "They're very good," she says with a smile. "A lot of cool grocery stores don't lock the Dumpsters. They put the good food on top. The trash is on the bottom. You got a pallet's worth of cardboard, then day old pastries, old oranges: It's totally edible." At any time, she could have called Houston and come home to her parents, but her pride was too strong. She didn't want to say, "You were right; I couldn't pull it off after all."
"I guess (in the end) the experience taught me to be a little less scared to be musically naked," she says. "As in: It's OK to show up and just do a gig with my guitar if that was all that would happen so I would get to eat each day. I came to realize: 'OK. I can do that. ... ' "
The call of peace
Wonderland's career in social and political activism began at Langham Creek High School in 1989. She helped organize a lunch-hour "walk-out" — students left campus, assembled across the street — to commemorate the bravery of the Chinese protesters who had risked their lives during the Tiananmen Square massacres.
"We didn't miss class," she says defensively. "We skipped a meal, together, and sat outside. That was it." Even so, young Carolyn Bradford — as she was known then — was suspended after the media showed up and brought attention to the event. (And yes, she says a little later, some kids did skip classes after the demonstration.) She soon dropped out of school, but not before making speeches on behalf of a more lenient dress code at district school board meetings in Katy and Spring Branch.
Twenty years later, Wonderland's passions still run deep. Her CD "Bloodless Revolution," released in 2004, is her most focused statement of social conscience — an album of songs addressing pollution, consumerism, poverty, violence and war in Iraq. "Welcome to my dream," she sings on the title cut, imagining a day in which we "opened up our eyes, threw blinders to the sides (and) for the first time in our lives acted out of love not fear."
Wonderland has paid a price for her pacifist sentiments while traveling on the road. She's been slapped and spit on, had a drink thrown in her face, received threatening e-mail. "There was one night in Louisiana," she says. "Our drummer wore his 'Arrest Cheney First' T-shirt. And I swear, I didn't know if he was going to make it out of the bathroom during the break."
Like many in Austin's music community, Wonderland was heartbroken by the "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. It's no surprise that she lent her support to activist Cindy Sheehan's peace movement and played shows at the Crawford Peace House. But Wonderland also has visited disabled veterans. "Go play in a VA hospital," she says, "and you will hear more honest dialogue about peace than anywhere else."
"I think people are just beginning to realize who the enemy is, that the enemy is within," she says a little bit later, while munching chips and queso at Taco XPress. "Now I wish we could turn off our televisions for a minute and consider the possibility that everyone in the world is trying, that we want the same things. Everybody has to eat, everyone wants shelter, everyone wants to feel love. ... "
Wonderland's latest album, "Miss Understood," is emblazoned with "make love, not war" graffiti — but the music within has a more introspective feel, designed to showcase the breadth of her musical interests (Tosca strings, country ballads, soul shakes) and featuring some of her most nuanced writing to date. "I Live Alone With Someone" is a stand-out tune, a beautiful slow burn of a blues that riffs on the idea of separation. The barbed-wire song was born while Wonderland was on tour in the Netherlands. Leafing through her Dutch-English phrase book, she flipped to the "intimate conversations" section and saw the phrase: "I Live Alone/With Someone."
All the same, Wonderland cannot conceal her strong social and political passions — as songs such as "Bloodless Revolution" and "It Ain't Nobody's Fault But Mine" continue to dominate her live sets. At the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, Wonderland brings the room to tears each year with her delicate, almost whispered rendition of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." ("I really believe this song is going to be ironic next year," she said in December. "I really do.") Yet she also performs on behalf of food banks and soup kitchens, on behalf of homeless shelters, and yes, (like Willie Nelson) on behalf of the legalization of marijuana.
"Carolyn has very strong beliefs," says her friend, steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar. "In the same way that she's committed to her artistry, she's also committed to community and to causes. Some artists cherry-pick their favorites. But Carolyn does every one that she possibly can."
The feel of strings
Ten minutes before show time, Carolyn Wonderland sits with her band on the little porch outside the Saxon Pub and listens to the spring rain pound the roof above her. It's a chilly, gloomy night. Wonderland drags on a cigarette, nervous and apprehensive, knees drawn up under her chin, clearly worried that she might not measure up for the night's show.
But inside, when the lights dim, Wonderland straps on her Gibson Les Paul guitar — "Leslie Pauline" — and commands the room in the company of her power trio. The people in the crowd are so jazzed they roar in appreciation as she fires out several bars of warm-up riffs. You know that woman who was just outside, the one with the timid, little-girl face? She's long gone now. And in her place, Carolyn Wonderland launches into classic Bob Dylan:
"Throw my ticket out the window; throw my suitcase out there too," she sings, in a voice that embraces the notion of refuge after so many miles of hard road. "Throw my troubles out the door. I don't need them any more. 'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you."
Wonderland sings in a way that we might imagine she's addressing a waiting lover or her two friends on the bandstand. It could be she's addressing music or her muse. She could be addressing Dylan himself or the friendly faces in the crowd.
What's beyond speculation is that the woman on the bandstand truly feels what she's singing and playing on the guitar. She feels life in the strings. And as the crowd roars in appreciation, Wonderland bows her head shyly as if she's never heard applause before in her life. Watch her; it happens every time.
"She'd better learn to get used to it," Cashdollar says. "Because that acclaim is only going to get louder."
22 Questions With Carolyn Wonderland (Dec. 2009)
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22 Questions With Carolyn Wonderland Written by Tim Abbott One of Austin's biggest names in m...22 Questions With Carolyn Wonderland
Written by Tim Abbott
One of Austin's biggest names in music, Carolyn Wonderland has picked up the Austin Blues baton and been running with it for a while now.
1- How many live shows do you average a year the past 3 yrs?
Hmmm... about 200 - 250 with my band & maybe 25-70 with other bands.
2- Outside of Austin, what 3 venues in what 3 cities in USA do you love playing at?
There are far more than 30 clubs I can think of that would be tied for first choice. Fresh in my mind is Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY. Cole and I had the extreme honor of playing at the Ramble in a band with Guy Forsyth, Will Landin and Rob Hooper a few weeks ago. That was a night of music lessons. Dang... off the top of my head, and the answers may change tomorrow, I'll go with some festivals...
We co-headlined the Rochester International Jazz Festival with Jake Shimabukuro this last summer at the Eastman Theater. That place was beautiful and the sound was amazing. (They couldn't fail - Chris and Jules are quite the sound team.) I always love playing the High Sierra Music Festival (Quincy, CA). They make improvements to the already excellent festival every year, always leaving the grounds better than when the festival began and decreasing their footprints all around (not to mention the eclectic line-up and truly kind staff). The Telluride Blues & Brews Festival was a hoot. We were again blessed with great sound, this time courtesy of our friend Jon O.
Of course, I love to play for my family in Houston every chance I get. One can usually find us at Dan Electro's or Last Concert Cafe or Mucky Duck. All completely different venues with individual vibes. In the virtual world, I love to play Michael Nesmith's Video Ranch. There is nothing quite like it!
3- you've tour Europe, too? what 3 venues in what 3 cities did you enjoy playing at the most?
We have been so lucky to have been where we've been. Norway has always been a great place to play, Bergen and Trondheim are so grooving, but it is the Blues in Hell (Hell, NO) that stands out for me. I really loved touring Italy with Ginger Leigh. The mind-blower on that tour for me was the gig in Koper, Slovenia in front of the castle. I love the Cultuurkapel De Schaduw and the Banana Peel in Belgium equally and for different reasons. (We love Belgium in general. It's not just the best beer in the world, but great people like Conrad and Stoneman who have booked us and cared for us, as well as Guy Forsyth and Wendy Colonna.) One of our best gigs this year was in Austria at the SummerTimeBlues in Gamlitz. (That whole tour was amazing thanks to our friend Joachim.)
The thing about Europe for us is this: our friends are our agents. We all go on this adventure together. I know it is unusual, but it has been one rich experience. Having already listed over quota on this question too, I'd like to say that my home away from home is Amsterdam. It is the back of my hand. I dig walking around the city for hours and I love playing at the Maloe Melo. Back in the late 90's, on my first trip over, I stumbled into the joint. I sat in on an open mic night and played some Doug Sahm songs. Everyone sang along! I have played in Amsterdam every year on my birthday (November 9 - you are invited) as a result of that evening.
Hmmm... I know it's not Europe, but I would like to mention Kyoto as a place that feels very much like home. Shelley King and I (as a duo) toured Japan last February by the hands of the gracious Umemotosans and we look forward to our return in mid-January (as well as full band shows later in 2010).
4- Who's in your current band?
I have been blessed with Cole El-Saleh on keys and key-bass for about 8 years and Michael "Lefty" Lefkowitz on drums for the past 5 years. We travel with hand puppets and sometimes we even grab our friend Shelley Cox to help us manage the Road. It is good to travel with people you love and respect.
5- What recording studio do you prefer recording at?
Austin's own Bismeaux Studios, of course!
6- Who's the engineer/ engineers of your sessions?
We're back at Bismeaux in between tours with the illustrious Sam Lightnin' Seifert and Ray Benson at the helm. They both have incredible ears and different approaches to time spent in the studio. It's nice to hear different ideas on any given song and they are both great to work with!
7- Tell us about your recent release. Is there a theme, for example, or a common thread to the songs?
Miss Understood was released in 2008 on Bismeaux Records. Ray Benson and I went in and recorded around 20 songs and picked out the 12 that would be on the release. We wanted to play around with arrangements and have a lot of our friends sit in. It was so fun! I figure the theme for anything I record is simple: Do I believe it? If the answer is yes, it has potential. When selecting songs for an album, it's not too dissimilar from making a set-list for a show. One tries to tell a story without repeating oneself thematically, musically or stylistically.
8- Did you write, co-write all the songs?
A little from column 'A', a little from column 'B'. I am always writing. Some of those songs stick around, others don't. It is a worthwhile experience to walk around in other people's songs, too. I loved getting to record songs by people I admire like Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines, Bruce Robison, JJ Cale... We included a song I co-wrote with my friend, Eldridge Goins. I also had a ball writing with Ray. It speaks volumes that the songs we wrote together are among the top requests at shows. Or, at least it tells me I'm not the only one who digs those songs!
9- Do you cover any other artists' material?
In addition to the artists mentioned in my previous answer, live we throw in some songs by Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, Willie Nelson, maybe Ellington on a given night... you never know...
10- At what age did this music bug first bite you?
Music has been the one constant in my life. I cannot remember a time without either listening to or playing music. My Mom sings and plays guitar, her Mom played fiddle and taught me piano, Mom's Dad played ragtime piano. I was always surrounded by music. I am ever grateful to get away with this. If nobody came to see me play, I would still play for myself despite the opinons of my cats.
11- What was the first coherent song you wrote... do you still play it?
I wrote a lot of goofy stuff as a kid. Started writing music on piano and composing when I was eight while sneaking in time on mom's guitars on the side. Lyrics that stuck started flowing to various degrees of success by the time I was ten. While I do not play the songs I wrote when I was in elementary school, it wouldn't surprise me if they revealed themselves in an instrumental solo when I'm not paying attention.
12- Will you share with us your 5 biggest influences in music?
Every song I have ever heard has an influence one way or another. Moments: 1) seeing my Mom's band as a youngster, 2) having my first original live music adventure be Little Screamin' Kenny (and subsequently playing in a band with him), 3) jamming some Jimmy Reed riffs with Bob Dylan during soundcheck kept a smile on my face for the better part of a year, 4) accidentally playing an after-hours song swap with Townes Van Zandt as a teenager, 5) having the great fortune of moving in across the street from Uncle John Turner and playing in bands with him, and 6) joining Jerry Lightfoot's Band of Wonder changed my life. Oh, and being a member of the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers did, too... really, getting to play with my friends and folks I admire is a perpetual influence.
13- God has a jukebox, but only room for 10 songs. Pick your favorite song you wrote to head the ten, and then 9 more of any genre.
Aaaaaaargh! I don't have a favorite song. Songs are like kids to me. I try not to favor one over another. I guess the song we play the most would be "Judgment Day Blues".
Ravel's "Bolero", Shelley King's "Welcome Home", Doug Sahm & Bob Dylan's "Wallflower", Roy Buchanan's version of Neil Young's "Down By the River", anything by Billy Joe Shaver with Eddy Shaver playing that guitar, Les Paul and Chet Atkins' version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan", Anuradha Paudwa's version of the Gayatri Mantra, anything from Willie Nelson, any Lightnin' Hopkins, Freddie King or Hound Dog Taylor. (I guess two of those are hidden tracks. Man, I stink at staying within parameters!) If I sneak in my own mp3 player, (I suspect the musician's entrance to Heaven might be behind a dumpster shaped cloud) it'll have Ella doing Porter, some Guy Forsyth, Gatemouth Brown, Etta James, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top and Los Lobos all over it, too.
14- You in a serious relationship, and how does that work out with music?
I am always in a serious relationship with music. So far, so good!
15- Name your favorite 3 Austin restaurants.
Ming's Cafe on Guadalupe. Fai used to keep me alive with his veggie eggrolls when I was a punk kid with his Houston store in the Montrose. I am soooooo glad he moved to Austin and I don't have to miss out on his cooking. There is music on Mondays and he has the best hot mustard around. For more one of a kind sauces and good music in a relaxed room, I dig ArtZ Rib House on South Lamar. Vegetarian? Dig the skewers. Hot stuff? ArtZ on Fire habanero sauce. I have friends in Europe who ask for it every time we visit. (While you're there, check across the street at Maria's Taco X-Press! Awesome people, indoors / outdoors, music and food! Got vegan on the brain? Cross back on Lamar to Mr Natural. That is likely my favorite intersection!) Also, you gotta dig Threadgill's North and South for music, food and memorabilia or you haven't really been in Austin.
15- Where were you born, do you still have family there?
I was born outside of Houston in Webster, TX. My Mom stays in Houston part time, my Dad, Brother and Aunt all live in and around Houston.
16- What music gear do you use?
[ guitar, amp, strings, mics, reasons why, if any, you use them.]
I recently was given a really bad ass custom amplifier from Valve Tech. It is great! You can change from 4, 8, to 16 ohms to accommodate different sized rooms, and you can change the preamp settings too. Valve Tech let me pick out some of the settings, speakers, tubes and the red sparkle tolex! "Tele" is my re-issue '69 Telecaster semi-hollow (with Joe Barden pick ups), and I usually tour with her. When I'm driving on tour I bring one of the Gibsons, too. The Blueshawk, "Patty," was a gift from Patrice Pike and the Les Paul Goddess ("Leslie Pauline") was a gift from a sweet gal I played guitar with in Strait Music one afternoon. The electric mandolin, "Mandy", was made by Houston's great luthier, Gary Clark. The trumpet was a gift from Anson Long, who put up the money for us to record "Bloodless Revolution" in 2003. I usually travel with the trumpet, sometimes I will instead bring one of the coronets. I have my Aunt's coronet and a director's coronet from my friend Bruce Ward. "Lil Lappy Kali," my lapsteel, was a gift from Eldridge Goins. I sometimes travel with her and her younger lapsteel sister, "Goldie", fills in when Lappy is being cranky. It's bizarre flying with all my gear. Typically I fly with what I can fit on my back. Lappy and Tele fit in one soft case and the trumpet is either carried on or packed with CDs in my suitcase leaving very little room for clothes. This explains why pictures from the same tour feature the same pants over and over and over and over again...
17- Feel like giving us the names of TWO lesser known songwriting musicians that we need to pay attention to?
Lesser known? In relation to...? hmmm. I dig Greg Wood from Houston. He fronted the bands Tab Jones and Horseshoe and has a release, "Ash Wednesday" under his own name as well. I also dig Megan Tubb's rock sensibilities. Sarah Brown, Patrice Pike, Guy Forsyth, Ginger Leigh and Shelley King aren't lesser known, but certainly are ones to whom more attention should be paid.
18- You can only choose one. Neither choice is good. But you must choose one. ok, hold the nose, I know you are pretty much of a liberal approach.. Rick Perry or Kaye Bailey ? [ lol...]
I nominate both of them to live on minimum wage for a year to better understand what budget cuts mean to their actual constituency.
19- How are Texas musicians received in Europe, and are you pulling in crowds in foreign lands, getting airplay...
I think musicians in general are well received, but maybe I've just been lucky in my companions. When we first would travel to Europe, the talk would be of Johnny Winter, Townes Van Zandt, you know, Texas music. After a few years of W's presidency, the conversation became far more politicized. I don't mind. I find it encouraging to hear thoughts on Peace while walking through Flanders Field, for example. Yes, people come out more often than not! Just like home, you gotta keep doing it. Some adventurous DJ's play us. I am touched and really glad they do.
20- Choose 2 songs from your recent release. Please explain how you wrote them, was it lyrics first, melody first, both at the same time, what inspired you to write them in the first place?
"Farmer Song" came fully done in a dream. It was sung by a gentleman wearing overalls playing banjo on a hillside. (Think Buddy Ebsen doing a turn in "The Sound of Music"...) Since I feel I fished that song out of the Ether in a dream and didn't really do much of the writing, and since it has to do with farmers, I donate some of the publishing to Farm Aid. "Misunderstood" came to life while I was practicing on Lappy after watching Cindy Cashdollar play. I cannot play near her league, but just reaching for it led me to the licks that met words live on stage one night. The lyrics got a little refined and once recorded they gelled. Songs mean whatever they mean to the listener at the time.
21- You, Shelley King, Leeann Atherton, Toni Price ever consider doing a project together?
We all spontaneously played together one Barndance many full moons ago... I am always happy to play music in new situations. Shelley and I play together every chance we get! (Seriously, we play as a duo, in Sis DeVille and the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers; we could market ourselves as musical bookends.) The magic trick is bending time to play all the music you can.
22- and last...Who was your favorite Beatle?
To me it is the chemistry of everyone involved that makes the music so magical (or is it that they made the magic musical?)... Perhaps one could relate more to one persona than another on any given day, but really very few of us who are asked this question could tell you as we never knew a Beatle personally. I figure that much like some days I wake up and feel like I'm 12 years old and the next day I might feel 80, so it could be that some days one feels like it's going to be a either a George, John, Paul or Ringo kind of day. Short answer: In my life, I loved them all.
Peace! ~ c
Grade A (Mar. 2008)
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Miss Understood (Bismeaux): A A dollop of Janis Joplin, a slice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a big ...Miss Understood (Bismeaux): A
A dollop of Janis Joplin, a slice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a big load of soulful individuality. That’s Wonderland, a seething-hot Texas singer-guitarist. And she can write, too. Produced by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, “Miss Understood” focuses on tough yet vulnerable blues, but also captures the melodic soul of classic American song on the ballad “I Don’t Want to Fall For You” and the haunting “Feed Me to the Lions.” No wonder Dylan is an avowed fan.
A True Texas Guitar Heroine (Mar. 2008)
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It's South By Southwest time in Austin, Texas. And right now, the streets are clogged with an event ...It's South By Southwest time in Austin, Texas. And right now, the streets are clogged with an event optimistically titled "The Million Musician March" -- it's a peace protest and wandering jam session that's become an annual tradition.
Leading the march will be Carolyn Wonderland, a singer, songwriter and mean guitar player who has a history of speaking out. She was kicked out of her high school for leading a protest.
But she's all grown up now, and can do what she wants. She's got a new album produced by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, and tonight at midnight she has her official South By Southwest showcase at the legendary club Antone's.
Learning to Play Guitar
Well, I used to sneak around and play on my mom's Martin when she wasn't home, and I'd often get scolded or grounded for it if I hadn't done my chores or if I hadn't washed my hands after grubbing on it last time. I guess I was about 8 years old when I started really started writing songs on it, and wanting to play it every day. And I broke a string -- I remember that very clearly, because I was so proud, I found the right gauge and strung it up. But I strung it up backwards. She didn't find out for two days, and I never heard the end of that. So that Christmas, I got my own guitar.
An Attraction to the Blues
What first attracted me to the blues as a youngster playing guitar is that it was a chance to get to play with a group of people. You've only got so many chords, you've only got so many patterns you can do, but it's what you do with those colors that make it. And that's something that can't be quantified in math, can't be quantified on a chart -- that's your actual soul coming out... So that's what attracted me to the blues.
Staying Close to Her Roots
It's always been an evolution of the sound, always, but it's never strayed from the first things that I heard. I mean, "Still Alive and Well" is one of the songs that we recorded on the new record, "Miss Understood," and that's one of the first guitar riffs that I ever went around the house on my mom's guitar going, "Is this how it goes?" And she was like, "Why don't you take up finger painting?"
Getting Kicked Out of School
I got thrown out of school for leading a protest on a campus after I was suspended for leading a protest at another campus. I was asked to leave right when I turned 17, they said, "Here's the legal age where we can kick her out, and they did." Getting kicked out of school? Well, it meant more time to devote to the guitar. I think it turned out OK. I don't recommend it, but I think it turned out OK.
Hard-Headed Runs in the Family
My dad is about as hard-headed as I am. He was thrown out of school as well, so I guess it runs in the family. His advice was "Well, if you think you know everything, then you better get a job and prove it." I was like, "OK."
Playing in Biker Bars
A lot of the places that would hire me when I was underage were biker bars, by and far. It was never a consideration that I was a chick. And most of the folks there treated me like the dirty kid sister. Which was killer for me, I never had to wear make-up, I never had to do any of that crap. It wasn't until I was on the road, I suppose, where I started to see a little change in treatment.
Always Something to Prove
Before you start playing, people might look at you odd -- "Oh, great! Another strumming guitar chick... Don't break a nail, honey!" Oh, boy howdy. But in a sense, there's always something to prove to someone. So if it lights a fire under your butt, then good for it.
'Van Full' and Always on the Road
Part of living your dreams sometimes is realizing you have to live cheaply. And sometimes you go to extremes to prove something to yourself, and sometimes you put yourself out more than you have to and you give yourself the blues. For example, I was in my van for the better part of two years. It was partly by choice, and partly because there wasn't a lot of money to be made making music. Or, at least, the way that I was going about it, I sure couldn't find it. So that the result of that was just to go on tour all the time, and be OK with that. Even at the point where some people would have considered me homeless, I considered myself "van full," because I always had wheels, and I was always on the road.
A Different Measure of Success
I love getting to play life. I love freaking out. When you're playing, you don't care. I really care more about what I sound like than what I look like on any given night. I'm not thinking. If it's the end of the song, I always get surprised. "What song did we play? What song should play next?" I don't usually have set lists, so sometimes I have to look around to the band. "We haven't played this yet, right?" Because you're outside of yourself. And to me, that's success. It may never come with money, but it sure comes with that. You get to jump out there and do that all the time -- it's really lucky.
High-Energy Tour Through Texas Blues(July 2011)
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“Her music, which features vocals ranging from low and smoky to belt it out at the top of lungs and ...“Her music, which features vocals ranging from low and smoky to belt it out at the top of lungs and guitar licks from melodious to blistering promises a high-energy tour through Texas blues.”
Come hear a show and find out as we do! The setlist changes every show.