Carolyn Wonderland Bio:
There is a common reaction when people first hear Carolyn Wonderland, which is best summed up by the LA Times quote: “She’s the real deal.” Sure, there are lots of other pretty faces out there who can sing, and maybe they can even play a few leads on the guitar. But once you witness the raw emotional power and originality of Carolyn’s vocals and guitar playing, you are left wondering how it is that she is so much more musically convincing. Is it geography or musical lineage or life experience or what?
Carolyn cut her teeth in the same Gulf Coast music scene that gave us Lightning Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, Janis Joplin, and countless others. Sneaking into biker bars by the time she was 16, playing gigs with Little Screamin’ Kenny Blanchard and Jerry Lightfoot, becoming the toast of Houston town while still a teenager, hitting rock bottom in Austin with only an old van to live in and no gigs to be had, Carolyn’s journey has not been smooth or easy or quiet. It’s taken guts for her to survive. Perhaps this is why she digs so deeply every time she takes the stage.
Whatever it is, there is no doubt she serves up a generous helping on her new album Peace Meal (Bismeaux). Produced by a stellar cast of Grammy Award winners, including long-time supporter and inspiration Ray Benson (who produced Carolyn’s 2008 breakthrough album Miss Understood), Carolyn jumped at the chance to also work with Larry Campbell (the force behind The Band drummer Levon Helm’s recent comeback) on four of the album tracks. Finally, founding Monkee Michael Nesmith produced a track as well. The album was recorded at Benson’s Bismeaux Studios in Austin and also at Helm’s studio in Woodstock, NY.
“Come on in, the water's fine. If it gets too deep, I'll throw you a line.”
- Carolyn Wonderland, “Usurper”
Having recently married famed funnyman A. Whitney Brown, Wonderland’s life has taken a number of turns for the better. Even so, Peace Meal ponders darker social and political issues. 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.
“When you're happy, you dance. When things get under your skin, find a pen.” - Carolyn Wonderland
And then there is Carolyn’s songwriting. 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 the late Little Screamin’ Kenny “I Can Tell” and “Two Trains.”
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 has shared the stage with the likes of Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Albert Lee, Asleep at the Wheel, Susan Tedeschi and Bob Dylan. Recording and winning awards in Houston and Austin since the mid 1990s, Carolyn finally gained wider recognition in 2008 with the album Miss Understood, which quickly reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Blues chart. That same year she appeared on PBS’s Austin City Limits, enjoyed major profiles in national press and has since toured extensively across North America, Europe and Asia, performing in concerts, clubs and major festivals (including Amsterdam’s Wonder Jam, which she humbly takes credit for inspiring).
Clearly, Carolyn has not forgotten where she came from, even if it is glorious mystery to the rest of us. It may be the Gulf Coast. It may be from a musical tradition called Texas Blues. There’s a stubborn streak that has gotten her through the tough times and inspires her “take no prisoner” passion on the microphone. And she carries on the spirit of the musical legends who have taught her, in a voice all her own. She is indeed the real deal, and for those who hunger for good music, Carolyn’s Peace Meal is a welcome feast!
Carolyn Wonderland will be playing at the Harvest Tent at 5:30 pm on Thursday evening. Be sure to visit her website for any additional info, including tour dates and more. Tickets for Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Music Festival are still available on the official website.
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- Matthew Cremer