“Mighty and joyous rock-injected blues…luxurious vocals and fine guitar work. Her voice is as muscular as her name is evocative.” – Austin Chronicle
“Nothing can be this raw. Nothing can be this real.” Mike Nesmith
Carolyn Wonderland is a blistering Texas guitar-slinger, multi-instrumentalist and song-writer, with a singing voice replete with full-throated raw emotion that will reach right inside you and give you a darn good shaking. Which you probably need.
She’s been making music since she was a small child, damaging her mother’s prized Martin guitar along the way, and developing a distinctive picking finger style approach to her guitar playing. She’s been compared to other Texas musical titans like Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but really, Carolyn Wonderland is one of a kind, something special in the broad area of blues rock.
Influenced at an early stage by Albert Collins, Jimmy Hendrix and Joe “Guitar” Hughes, she formed her first band when she was 17 and has never stopped singing and making music. She’s won multiple Austin Music Awards and been inducted into the Austin Music Hall Of Fame and has played with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, James Cotton, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Levon Helm.
Over the past three years, she’s been the lead guitarist in The Blues Breakers, the band of legendary musician and bandleader John Mayall, the first woman guitarist after a who’s who of electric guitar royalty that includes Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
She has ten previous albums to her credit, and has now released, with Alligator Records, Tempting Fate, a glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The album features a number of guests as well as Wonderland’s longtime road band of bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance, including Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar, Marcia Ball, Shelley King, Jan Flemming, and Red Young. The album was produced by Dave Alvin who also plays guitar on three songs.
Alvin said, “I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling…I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keeps them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”
We were delighted to get chatting to Carolyn about the new album. I asked her about moving to Alligator and the making of the record.
“I got really lucky. It all really came about because I’ve been working with John Mayall the last three years. He’s so generous. Not only on stage with everyone, but he’s just a generous individual. Anyway, I saved up enough money and decided I should make a record. And while I was on tour with my band, I ran into my friend, Cindy Cashdollar, in Woodstock and she asked me if you could have anyone do the record, who would it be? And I was like, oh, I’d love to have Dave Alvin do it. So she called him and he said, yes!
“I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. So we all got together last January in Austin and I had my band, Kevin and Bobby, and our friends Shelly King, Marcia Ball and Cindy happened to be in town. And Jimmy Dale Gilmore came by and sang some, and it was great. It was just a hoot. I think you can tell how much fun it was. Like you can hear the joy.
“And then the pandemic hit, of course. But I got a call from Bruce Iglauer at Alligator who asked to hear the record and again I couldn’t believe my luck – really?! And so he put it out and I was so amazed.”
The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but Carolyn’s comment was a modest, “I know that I wouldn’t be here, you know, if not for the many trailblazers ahead of me.”
What you notice on Tempting Fate, hot through the guitar work is, is the vocal performance – she’s absolutely at the top of her game on this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album seems better than ever.
“I think some of that was me just being so comfortable and happy to be home, and so I really got into the record. But also I think some of the credits should be split between Dave Alvin and Stuart Sullivan [Sullivan is a recording engineer, and the founder, owner and engineer of Wire Recording in south central Austin]. Stuart and I have worked together for years and years. He makes me sounds like me instead of me going, oh, what’s that? So I was very happy that he had the time to do it and I really think he’s real good at capturing that kind of stuff. Making the voice sound like the voice.”
The album gets off to a cracking start with the first song, Fragile Peace and Certain War. There seem to be a lot of things in Wonderland’s sights there – desperate people getting evicted from their homes, water that ain’t fit to drink, and inequality between the rich and the poor. “We’re standing on the precipice” she sings. I asked her if that is that how she sees things in the United States currently.
“Yeah, I would think so. But it’s also the way I see things throughout history and in our human existence. Sometimes we tended to not do great things, and it’s hard to understand why. So I think sometimes it’s good to look at ourselves.”
John Mayall’s The Laws Must Change, from 1970 is an interesting inclusion on the album. One of the lines in the song is, ‘Some people are saying you’re wrong, and they’re right. But we’ve got to see both sides.’ And that seems to me to be very apposite in the world at the moment. As an outsider, looking on in America, there’s clearly a lot of division.
So I asked Carolyn if she had hope that things can change. She replied, talking about the need to reject the us and them attitudes that dog us, and if we can do that, then there can be hope for us. “You and I are the same. It has always bothered me when we don’t see each other that way.”
Carolyn told me about performing the song in The John Mayall Band. “When I joined John’s band, it was like, here’s 80 songs, go and learn them and who knows which ones will be pulled out on any night. It’s so fun. It’s perfect. But even with that many songs, he never pulled out The Laws Must Change. And I always loved that song. Well, during the show, John would always let me sing a song or two, so I thought, well, maybe if it’s not too cheeky. I’d like to do one of his songs. So I started doing The Laws Must Change!”
I wanted to know about her experience with the John Mayall Band, three years as his lead guitarist, following in the footsteps of some legendary guitarists. I wondered what was it like to have a sense that she was going where Eric Clapton and Peter Green and Walter Trout and so on, had been before.
“It’s often times best not to think about it because it’s a little scary! John sent me so many CDs to listen to so I could learn the songs. And I gathered that these would be his favorite versions. And there was so much Peter Green. I was in heaven. And I’ve always loved Walter and I’ve always loved Coco, but I had never really gotten to dig into Buddy Witherington’s stuff. His chord choices were sublime. And I actually wrote him a little fan letter, and he was very cool about it.”
During this three-year stint, The John Mayall Band at one stage did fifty shows in sixty days in nineteen countries, which sounds like a hugely demanding schedule, particularly for Mayall who turns 88 this year. I asked Carolyn about this.
“Oh, it’s crazy. But John loved it that way. I remember asking him at one point, like, don’t you want to take a day off and maybe go sightseeing? And I could see his eyes roll at me. Like, no, I’ve seen it, I want to want to play music. And it’s so joyful when he’s playing. Everybody wants to be on stage with John. It’s such a great time. And there’s a reason everybody in that band loves him – because he’s a really, really good guy.”
I wondered, as she looks back on this experience with John and his band, what does she thinks she learned from it?
“Oh, man, I learned so much. I mean, aside from playing more guitar than I’ve ever got to play in my life, I got to watch one of the best band leaders ever. And I’m hoping that I learned how to bring some of that to my own band too. I mean, his generosity, the way that he lets everyone express themselves on stage. And his kindness. I mean, it’s a band, but it’s very much a family, you know? When we’re out on the road it’s a family.”
Turning back to the album, while there are songs with some strong social comment, on a less serious note, there is the delightfully quirky Texas Girl and Her Boots, a great fun-filled, rockin’ blues: “This Texas girl fears no snake in the grass, I got some big bad boots baby.”
“Yeah, I’ve a good collection of all kinds of boots, mostly thrift store finds, but yeah! You get the little insert and it doesn’t matter who else walked in it!”
Texas boots. I have to say, I’m quite proud of my engraved leather, slanted heel cowboy boots which I acquired a few years ago in San Antonio. I don’t think they’re snake-proof, though. Getting back to the song, there is some rollicking piano on this track, courtesy of Marcia Ball.
“I was so happy to have Marcia on that one. And also, that one’s a great example of how having a great producer makes a great song. I had that song written and when I played it, Dave Alvin stopped me. He said ‘It sounds like you really are proud of those boots. Maybe you should kick in the door with them, instead of asking permission!’. I was like, oh! So he got me to take this guitar part we had at the back end of the song and put it at the beginning. And sure enough, I mean, instantly, the song was better.”
I always like to hear a Bob Dylan number on an album, and Tempting Fate gives us It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, a song from Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited. With Jimmy Dale Gilmore in tow, it becomes a real country number, quite different from the original, but brilliantly done. What, I wondered, made her choose this Dylan song and decide to do it in this way?
“Well, it’s a song that I had done in the past with my guitar player, Scotty Daniels, who passed away a few years ago. So whenever I would do it, I would think of him, and with it and Honey Bee, both of those songs, I do them in remembrance of Scotty. But it turns out while we were going through possible songs, Dave said Jimmy Dale used to do it when he was younger. I was like, oh, really? Jimmy Dale said yeah and he came over and we sang it together and it was so amazing. Because that voice is just one of a kind. I’ve had dreams that I could sing with him. Really awesome.”
It’s perhaps fitting that there’s a Dylan song included, because Bob, it seems is a bit of a Carolyn Wonderland fan. Apparently, a few years back whilst having lunch with legendary musician Ray Benson, Bob remarked “Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She’s something else.” Dylan went on to meet her and they’ve jammed together on a few occasions. I mentioned this famous fan to her and she replied modestly:
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s called a couple of times. I’ve been super lucky, to get to hang out and play some guitar. But, yeah, it’s always surprising. I never know if, or when, he’ll call. I don’t know if he’ll ever call again. Just in case, I’m keeping my phone number the same!”
We finished up with me asking about her planned live performances.
“We’ve been very careful, but we’ve done a couple of things mostly outdoors and then one indoor festival where everybody was vaccinated and masked indoors. That’s the tricky thing on the road in America – every place, every state, has its own rules, so we want to be safe and healthy. So, we test every week and we’re just pretty much going to live in our little bubble.”
If you’re not able to go see her and her band live, do the next best thing – get your hands on Tempting Fate and enjoy a completely original, talented artist at the top of her game.