Monday, January 16, 2012
CAROLYN WONDERLAND - Austin, TX
Salvation, Revolution, and Understanding
Living in Austin renewed Carolyn Wonderland'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.'"