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The Dreamer & the Butterfly
Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer at The Rosendale Cafe

by Gary Alexander

Scheduled to appear all three days of the 2001 Falcon Ridge Festival is the extraordinary duo, Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer... The slippery path between Discovery* and Sensation** glows with reflected starlight as two pair of feet make their way into the future. (*"Discovery," in this context, has its own sensations as collective delights and surprises are tallied from individual exposures to prodigious, fresh talent and ** "Sensation" status arrives as voices of acclaim unite in widespread recognition.) This may be the best new folk duo since Richard and Mimi Farina...

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer at Falcon Ridge Festival 2000

Armed with a home-recorded debut album which shockingly generated more airplay in 1998 and '99 than many of the countless efforts pumped by megacorporate overproduction and hypeglut, commanding a top ten position on the National Folk DJ's poll for two years running, the alternative-western-acoustic duo of Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer toeing the pathway through a multitudinous jungle of one-nighters with their gaze fixed to the distant shine of a sunlit meadow, glimpsed through the dark trunks of the forest. It's a meadow that an incalculable number of would-be sensations never reach, bogged in the shadows cast by the focused glare of the conglomerate global market, but a not-unattainable destination for those with enough inspiration to emanate their own light.

Also in that inspired arsenal mentioned above is a collection of first place trophies in just about every songwriting competition they've chanced into- not least of which was the Kerrville Folk Festival Award- as well as a follow-up disk on an independent label of high repute which seems like a shoo-in for this year's Album of the Year honors in that category.

If you're still on the far side of that "Discovery" milestone, Carter and Grammer will roll into the Rosendale Cafe for an 8pm concert on Thursday, November 16th [2000] to offer you a first-hand opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. But, let me give you a hint...

Dave Carter's lyrical brilliance contains the kind of poetry which constantly keeps listeners off balance, tipping them this way and that by avoiding the obvious, steering clear of the predictability of contrived associations and rhymes. In the opening song of their second album, Tanglewood Tree, he sings; "...shootin fools and starry gazers, wizard hip and button-down/ I walk the occam razor way through priests and circus clowns/ am I a missioner of faith or grace or vision or/ another grinning prisoner of happytown..."

Carter's stance, with one foot in the swirling fogs of myth and the other planted firmly on a perch of precision-cut flagstone, began to be postured in his Oklahoma and Texas-based childhood, under the influence of a left-brain, right-brain parentage described in his bio-sheet as "a music-fearing engineer/mathematician father and a charismatic Christian mother who was given to visions and states of ecstasy."

A trace of the biblical heritage lingers in a verse from the sensitive "Farewell To Saint Dolores" wherein he sings "...in a carriage of white linen, in her bed beneath the stairs/ she took me to the jesse house of women/ and sanctified me there..." Not to quibble over street address but, when confronted by puzzlement over the term "Jesse house," Carter explained a tradition unfamiliar to those who think of the Jesus lineage as being of the House of David... "Jesse house is the family tree of Jesus; the House of Jesse... I wanted allusions to a sacred quality about this woman and people have noted to me that there's also an implication of prostitution in the song, which hadn't occurred to me consciously. But, I wanted this St. Dolores character to be threading this fine line between promiscuity and chastity; holiness and worldliness..."

With arms wide-stretched and fingers pointed toward opposing horizons to mark the distance between the sacred and profane, a child with a hard-headed, science-grounded father and a mystical Christian mother might take to measuring the mist above the prairie. When Carter began to hoist his own sails, his twelve-year-old's heretical curiosity had to be indulged surreptitiously at the local library in Buddhist texts and other informational materials which may have been pointedly unwelcome at home. One must assume that the original fervor of his buckskin-zen style of writing was seeded during these venturesome quests after forbidden knowledge. Not all of it, however, was to be found between the covers of dusty books.

"When I was 17, I left home and hitchhiked around the middle of the country," Carter recalled when reached on the duo's current tour at a hotel in Columbia, Missouri. "Mostly Colorado, down in Texas, Arkansas, those areas. To me at that time, having spent all my life in pretty much one little region, places like New Mexico seemed quite exotic and I counted myself quite the world traveler for having been there."

After his soft-spoken, boyish tone had bubbled into a small laugh of surprise and amusement in self-review, Carter reflected on the experience of the extensive and far flung touring of the past three years with Tracy and added: "Now, I realize how provincial a mindset I still held onto but I had many adventures and I met quite a few interesting characters in that period of my life."

Mini-Meditations? When you make the observation to Dave Carter that he has his eyes closed in many of the duo's promotional pictures, be prepared to answer questions the questions 'Like this?' and 'Or like this?'
Asking "did any of them turn up in songs?" is unavoidable.

"Oh, yes, definitely, my songs are riddled with characters based in people I have met," Carter responds. "Had I not had- I don't know if you can call this good fortune but- had I not met some crazy and always-in-trouble characters that I used to hang out with during my (pause) directionless youth (laugh), I don't think that my songs- whatever impact they may have now- would have as much..."

A case in point may be a composite sort of character named "Willie," who turns up in different clothes in several of the Tanglewood Tree songs, once as a recognizable real life figure. Because the album possesses such a cohesive, almost seamless, sense of continuity and progression, as if it were an examination of the different faces of a single multi-faced gem or oasis stops on a lone pilgrimage of realization, a natural inclination is to look for connective ingredients.

"I cannot honestly tell you that I planned to put 'Willie' in all those songs during that time," shrugs Carter. "I didn't even notice it until Tanglewood Tree had come out and somebody else in an interview asked me that. It just came as a total shock to me. With all the energy, time and concentration I poured into those songs and that recording, I never noticed that Willie kept turning up throughout the record.

"So, I've gone back through it and Northrup Frye-like, I've examined my motivations for that," continued Carter, referencing the late philosophical literary scholar, "and I think there's a certain presence that I wanted in that cd and in the period I was writing those songs. I think it's still true but especially during that time I had a fascination with an uncontrollable kind of wild and woolly sort of character- somebody that was a kind of 'x-factor' in whatever setting you put them in- and somehow the name 'Willie' just sounds like that to me; like you just don't know what someone named Willie's gonna do..."

One Willie bites the dust in "Cat-Eye Willie Claims His Lover," a rolling ballad instilled with such exquisitely authentic flavors of tradition by the wiles of Grammer's violin that it seems always to have hung in the air. Other unknowable Willies poke their gaze around scattered corners of the cd while a notable exception is that 'Country Willie' known far and wide in the music world.

"...so strap me in, i'm going clear- burnin' circles 'round the sun/ the fisher king is here, but he is not the only one/ parcival and valentino ridin winged palominos/ willie in his el camino, on the run..."

"In the song, 'Happytown,' I talk about 'Willie in his El Camino,'" Carter explains. "That, actually, is an intentional reference to Willie Nelson. I read an interview with him and Dwight Yokum where they were sitting in Willie Nelson's Cadillac in the picture that went with the interview and I thought that this is a character that needed to go in that verse.. because I wanted to have images from pop and classical culture turning up in the song..."

It's worth dwelling a moment upon the mysterious, if relatively inconsequential, appearances of the more anonymous willies here, chiefly for the ray of insight they throw into Carter's creative process. The fact that they hadn't been consciously accounted for as individuals on the album as much as symbolic presences in Carter's overview can be traced to the shamanistic plunge he takes to animate his portrayals. The relationship to realms of myth and dream which some of the images in Carter's songs invoke are not accidental. Nor is the attendance of their forces here quite as deliberate and calculating as it may appear. But we have to pry a bit deeper into the workings of a creative mind and the songwriter's own background to discern the true identity of those nameless willies.

"I started taking piano lessons when I was four and kept it up until I was about 12, when I temporarily abandoned the piano for the guitar," Carter recalls, brushing a few lines of musical color into his self-portrait. There was also cello study somewhere in there and the Second Wave of Psychedelia rock band he formed in Carter and Grammer's hometown of Portland, Oregon in the mid-80's; even a bit of rendering Mozart and other masters in piano bars as he polished his expertise in horsemanship and the martial arts. But his musical leanings stayed largely in the flirtatious range, even with a master's degree in music from the University of Oklahoma, as he followed his father's lead with a mathematics degree and one in psychology. When your demeanor is as shy and reserved as Carter's, the impulse to cast it out into the limelight is a hard one to grasp in your pitching hand. Another barrier to the stage door can be a richly active intellectual life, especially when its manifestation remains largely interior.

The influence of Carl Jung brought Carter to an intensive study of dream symbolism, an interest enhanced by an opportunity to spend time with Joseph Campbell when the great mythologist was visiting Carter's university.

"Then, at one point when I left mathematics, I went down to the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto and then studied at the Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco," Carter reveals. "I did a lot of work in those places with dreams, dream journals, relationship of dream to spiritual experience. I was interested in all of that kind of thing."

To judge by the nature of Carter's songwriting, a saying of the Indian sage Haridas Chaudhuri, who founded the Institute of Integral Studies, must have left a lasting impression: "Reality divided by reason always leaves a remainder." Carter's tunes are firmly rooted in that "remainder."

It is one thing to clinically study myth and dream, as Carter has, and quite another and more courageous thing to indulge it on its own terms, as he does. His tapping of an underground stream of culture directly from its subconscious wellsprings provides the psychically natural, loosely ranging and unexpected associations of his lyrics and melodies. His explanation of the logic in his approach is succinct: "I try to tap into a kind of mythic aquifer that flows beneath the bedrock of everyday life. If I can bring the magic of the deep unconscious into the all-too-predictable realm of the daily grind, well, that's like bringing water into the desert. I need this to live fully; I suspect we all do."

Any trace of the dry, intellectual powder of Intent is utterly dissolved in the actions of their music as what is 'intended' swirls into what 'Is' like cream into coffee and is carried off on a stream of sound infused with the phenomenal talents of Tracy Grammer. A self-described "Aries earth monkey," a phrase which hints at some familiarity with eastern mystical traditions of her own, Grammer's voice, mandolin, guitar and violin wing through this union like a butterfly traversing a flower garden, mingling, merging, punctuating with a perfectly placed kiss, the flow of sublime balladry.

Raised in a musical home environment in California's Orange County, Grammer absorbed the spirit of two piano-playing grandmothers, a mom who could pull out the accordion and a father who was no stranger to lapsteel guitar and knew where to set the levels for vocal harmonies. In childhood, she studied classical violin, performed in school operettas and led regional orchestras before leaving for Berkeley to study anthropology and English literature.

"In high school, I got to be involved in all the musicals as a member of the orchestra," Grammer said, recalling an early interest in acting and stage work. "It was a struggle for me because I really wanted to be on stage singing and doing the acting but our orchestra was so small that my absence would definitely be noticed, because I was the concert mistress. So, I just stayed down there in the pit."

Grammer, like Carter, had strayed from music for a period of some years by the mid-90's when she met Curtis Coleman, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, through her father and decided to borrow her dad's Yahama guitar and break out the bow again to back Coleman in local coffeehouses. Somewhere in about the same time-frame, Carter was beginning to hear the lure of his own neglected instincts.

Employed as a computer programmer while studying commercial calculus in Portland, Carter had a vision of his grandmother, a poet and healer long since departed, which urged him to ditch this numbers stuff, pack up his guitar and banjo and head for Nashville. While striving his way through the open mike scenes of Tennessee, Carter learned to hone his performance style and crack his way out of an introspective shell.

"I set out, really, to be a songwriter and I was not particularly interested in performing," Carter explains. "I had written a lot of songs but my natural bent is to be kind of introverted; to be a hermit. So, I knew very few people and, at one time in my life, when I decided I'm going to take these songs and try to get them out into the world, I entered a songwriting contest in Portland, which I won. Suddenly, all these songwriters wanted to be friends with me and I was invited to a party for songwriters where we all sat around in a circle and did our songs.

"There was a guy there who had just put together a studio in his house," Carter continues. "He said he really liked my songs and I that should put a cd together. Against my better judgment, I went to make the cd."

The result, Snake-Handling Man, was of limited run and is unlikely to be reissued. Not, Carter asserts, because he has to apologize for the songs, a couple of which have been revisited by the duo, but because "at that time, I had very little performing experience as a singer. The guitar playing isn't that good either. I was not really ready to make a cd."

Although Carter may flinch a little today at mention of the cd, his Nashville experiences following its release had begun shaping his public presentation to an edge which captured Tracy's attention when she happened into him at a folk concert in early 1996, just weeks after she had moved to Portland.

"Basically, I was in one of those 'throw a dart at a map and see where it lands' kind of states," recalls Grammer. "I had been in Berkeley for about 9 or 10 years and really just wanted a change. I had a friend who lives in Portland I kept going up to visit and really loved it there."

"Oklahoma is a cool place in a way," Carter says, explaining how he landed in Portland. "There's a lot of Native American culture. It's not too expensive to live there. There's a lot of open space. But it's also culturally very conservative and it can be very repressive. I just wanted to get out, wanted to get to the West Coast. I had tried living in San Francisco and found it to be too expensive; too difficult to make my way in and still have time to do music. I moved back to Oklahoma for a while before eventually making my break for Portland- which is actually a lot like SanFrancisco but easier to live in. It's cheaper and not as dense and mean a city as San Francisco has become..."

When you hear the irresistible manner in which Grammer's voice and music weave and blend their flesh onto the bones of Carter's elegant structures, you'll want to tip your hat to the whole state of Oregon just for providing a space for the meeting. Before long they were stitching together a band and by the summer of 1998 had started to record their first album, When I Go, in Tracy's kitchen.

When I Go
"The room was just one big, wide, open rectangular space," describes Grammer. "The carpeted portion was the living room and the linoleum portion was the kitchen. It had a wooden pantry off to one side which made for kind of a nice reflection of the sound in the room but it wasn't very 'live'; it wasn't real 'bouncy' like there was a lot of natural reverb. There were a lot of windows but mostly just a big open space where we set the microphones up in the middle of the floor and the recording equipment in the living room portion. Sometimes, only one of us was available to record and engineer or indulge our passion for staying up in the middle of the night with the remote control for the ADAT machine- hitting it with our toes or whatever body part was available and then singing or playing our part and playing it back to see if it worked. A lot of the tracks on When I Go were done that way."

It was a humble but passionate period of conception for an album which the Los Angeles Times would name as one of their "best of the year" and it comes from a couple who in no outward way resemble "pop stars." In the Sunday go-to-meetin' outfits they wear in most of their promotional photographs, Dave, with his short haircut and subdued jacket and tie; Tracy in her tasteful and demure dresses, the pair look more like part of a team from Austin overseeing the recount of Floridian votes currently in progress than performers of extraordinary caliber.

However, When I Go presents a very different kind of credentials. It features an expansive range of finely-etched and many-mooded excursions into what Carter calls "Postmodern Mythic American Music." Its title track stirringly samples the thoughts of a Native American warrior preparing himself to meet the Great Spirit on the eve of battle and shifts directly on to a Woody Guthrie-tinted talking blues without gnashing gears. Add the poignancy of "Kate and the Ghost of Lost Love," the breathless rollicking pace of a downhill careening truck in "Little Liza Jane," the bright, sly wit of "The River, Where She Sleeps" or the escapist fantasy of "Frank To Valentino," and you're still only scratching the surface. It was an album which brought Carter and Grammer the Discovery they needed to reach out further.

"The cd that we recorded in Tracy's kitchen did very well for airplay," Carter says. "At one time it was the fourth most played cd in the country, so there was a sort of buzz on it. Record companies began to approach us and we talked with a few of them. All in all, we liked Signature Sounds the best. We felt they offered us the greatest amount of artistic freedom and we left our first meeting with them with just a feeling that it would be a good partnership. And it has proven to be. We are really happy and proud to be on that label."

The addition of studio players was carefully and sparingly applied at the sessions which produced Tanglewood in April of this year. Each entry was, again, painstakingly polished by hand with a distinct philosophy guiding the work. Where many contemporary popular artists take pride in successfully trading on a "sound" of their own at least somewhat distinguishable from that of other artists, Carter and Grammer strive to instill each individual song with a power and identity of its own without the slightest regard for a trademark "sound"... and they have the wherewithal to accomplish just that.

"We did consciously attempt a certain amount of stylistic continuity with the instrumentation and so forth, so it would hold together as a cd," Carter concedes after voicing his awareness of the branded styles of modern music. "A problem with a lot of singer-songwriter CDs is that, after you play it, all the songs sound like one big song. That's the problem with a lot of acts in general. They have a 'sound' which is their product. You may get into particular moments in the lyrics or the music but you basically buy their CDs because you like that 'sound'... just like when you walk into a McDonald's, you know what you're going to get. We didn't take that approach."

Tanglewood Tree
Indeed not. Smooth without sounding slick, each song emerges in some measure of conceptual isolation from its companions, united by the common illusion of dream-tilted logic and a nearly subliminal musical affinity. You can't tell rumors from legends in the buoyant opening track or yodel for Dylan against the shared secrets of "Farewell To Saint Dolores," which Carter delivers with Townes Van Zandt sensitivity. The violin weave and vocal counterpoint and layering of the title tune is a highwire act that dazzles like sunlight through intricate lace. A whiff of Hank Thompson and early Johnny Cash pours from the engine's smokestack in the infectious "Hey, Conductor," which rambles through the mountains, leaning into snatches of traditional melodies on the turns while you want to hold your breath for the eggshell ballad "Walking Away from Caroline" lest you break the mournful spell.

Taking the lead vocal on "Crocodile Man," Grammer's expressive delivery suggests that maybe she should have been an actor in those high school plays, culminating with a final explosive "hah!" which packs enough haughty, tough and sexy emphasis into that brief syllable to curl your toes. All things considered, Tanglewood Tree has the makings not only of an award-winning album but an all-time classic of the genre. This is extraordinary stuff.

And that's what all the fuss is about. Out of nowhere, well, out of a rectangular kitchen, actually, Carter and Grammer has brought a new breath of life to a genus of music which had begun to wilt in the shade of the megamusic onslaught. They offer fresh energy and new direction. That should be more than enough to bring you out on Thursday night.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on July 18, 2001

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