Carolyn Wonderland
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Carolyn Wonderland

Austin, Texas, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014 | INDIE

Austin, Texas, United States | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2014
Band Blues Americana

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Dec
21
Carolyn Wonderland @ Armadillo Christmas Bazaar

Austin, Texas, United States

Austin, Texas, United States

Oct
31
Carolyn Wonderland @ The Kessler Theatre

Dallas, Texas, United States

Dallas, Texas, United States

Oct
24
Carolyn Wonderland @ Vino Mio Social Club & Winery

Corpus Christi, Texas, United States

Corpus Christi, Texas, United States

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Music

Press


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. - Weekend America


“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.” - Rocky Mountain Outlook


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.


Carolyn Wonderland

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 - Austin.com


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.

- Boston Herald


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 invite - Austin Chronicle


"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 - Americana UK


"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. - San Antonio Express-News


"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 - Dirty Impound


"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 - Houston Press


Carolyn Wonderland churns out a keeper judging by this Janis- and Stevie Ray-inspired artist's new Peace Meal. - USA Today


"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 - Guitar World


"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 - Premier Guitar


XL COVER STORY
Musical adventures in Wonderland
Guitar in hand, Carolyn Wonderland connects with an honest, impassioned wildness of the heart

By Brad Buchholz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
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 th - Austin American Statesman


Discography

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

Photos

Bio

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 worlds 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 Helms studio in Woodstock, NY.

Internationally heralded as one of the best vocalists in her adopted hometown of Austin, 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 Wonderlands 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 wasnt 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 Lightfoots band in Houston for a time), and with the help of Larry Campbell on pedal steel, unleashes an epic vocal performance. Additional highlights include Dylans 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),  The album quickly reached the Top 10 on Billboards Blues chart.