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Tragedy & Tenacity:
Hoisting a Dream and Carrying It On

Tracy Grammer at The Colony Cafe

Thursday, April 10, 8pm
Colony Cafe, Woodstock, NY
22 Rock City Road. 845-679-5342

Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

  Related Links:     Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer Website  
  The Colony Cafe  

and when the sun comes trumpets from his red house in the east he will find a standing stone where long I chanted my release he will send his morning messenger to strike the hammer blow and I will crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go sigh, mournful sister, whisper and turn, I will rattle like dry leaves when I go stand in the mist where my fire used to burn, I will camp on the night breeze when I go
- Dave Carter ("When I Go")

Looking too fragile to hug, Tracy Grammer stood vigil yards from an open tent near the backlot entrance to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The tent's simple interior was adorned with photographs and flowers, a few decorative keepsakes and lit candles tastefully arranged on a couple of tables within.

Chords of Fame:

From huge festivals to small clubs, [above] the climb to public recognition and acclaim for new musicians invariably involves a rigorous, often grueling, schedule of travel and performance. A glance at the Dave & Tracy website tour board almost always told the same story of nights filled with sets in myriad venues and days packed with travel on the road- one behind the wheel and one trying to snatch some winks between the bumps and turns.

A close look at Dave in this shot from Rosendale Cafe in October of 2001 [above] plainly shows a level of strain which Carter was striving to rise above. The Cafe's proprietor, Mark Morganstern is as highly regarded among musicians as any club owner it has been my experience to meet. He recalls his reaction to the duo's signing with a particular booking agency with grim hindsight: "I remember the night they told me they were about to sign with them, and I said that's too bad. It'll be hell to get you here, plus you'll be on the road until kingdom come... The last time I saw Dave he was exhausted, road weary. I remember telling him to take his time, relax, have dinner, play when they were ready."

Morganstern curses the treadmill tour grip of the agency and laments its cost in human flesh and nerve: "I know that if he had a pre-existing, perhaps undiagnosed, heart condition, it's not their fault, but I still want to blame them. I want to blame something for the loss of this talented, great person. What can I do; what can any of us do. It feels like shit.... I am so sad and hurt. I really loved this guy. He was one of the most talented people I ever met at the cafe. His songwriting was the very best. He was a kind, gentle guy."

It was July 27th, 2002 and the bright, austere tented space was glowing with a strangely muted sense of spirituality as it served to focus the encumbering sorrow of passersby. Grammer had seemed ever present through the weekend as the candles burned and people arrived to pay their respects. Fragile, yes, but she had put herself out there as a focal point for the anguish and bereavement of fans and the consoling embrace of the friends and acquaintances she had gathered in the past few exciting years with her brilliant mate, Dave Carter. Rather than folding herself into a self-absorbed corner of desolation, Tracy had determined to face an outpouring of shock and hurt in the public eye. It was a courageous strategy to cope, unselfishly, with a tidal wave of grief.

On Friday, July 19th, Tracy's musical partner and life companion, Dave Carter, had returned to their Massachusetts tour hotel after a morning jog- a routine round of the area he had developed when touring there- and collapsed with a massive heart attack. A message posted by Grammer the following day described the following moments:

"Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back for a lucid minute to two to tell me, 'I just died... Baby, I just died...' There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he was on his way. He stayed with me a minute more but despite my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone. He loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the light in all things. I figure he saw something he could not resist out of the corner of his eye and flew into it.

"Despite the fact that every rescue attempt was made by paramedics and hospital staff and the death pronouncement officially came at 12:08 pm Eastern Time, I believe he died in my arms in our favorite hotel, leaving me with those final words."

Tracy, on stage, begins the Dave Carter tribute at Falcon Ridge.

Tracy's touching missive also related: "Dearest friends and sweet fans, I am with you in tears and bottomless sorrow. This loss is indescribable. He was endless spring to me, he was bountiful joy and gentleness and laughter. He was my soulmate, my partner in everything worldly and otherwise... I am so, so very moved by your recollections. I have a thousand hugs and tears and words waiting for whoever wants or needs them. I will meet you at Falcon Ridge on Saturday, if not before. We need to keep this music alive, it was always my mission that the world hear and know the poetry and vision and wonderful mystical magic of David Carter. This path is broad and long; I hope you will stay the course with me.

"In the center of our hotel window earlier tonight, by lamplight, came the shadow of a bird to my curtain. He held steady for a four flaps of the wing, maybe five, and then he pivoted away. My heart froze for an instant and then I felt some relief. I took this midnight messenger as a sign. You know that I have been desperate for a sign... My love to you,... Tracy "

At 49, Dave Carter possessed a boyish charm which conveyed the illusion of a man growing younger by the day... Or was it illusion? When you look as photographs of Dave and Tracy from July, 2000, when their performance at Falcon Ridge first electrified the Northeast folk community, you see a man still marked by the solitary stage years before Tracy; a man carrying an intellectual fever his new partner was helping him elevate. As the weave of Grammer's incandescent musical fiber slipped through the structures of Carter's music, it rose soaringly to new heights; bringing the pulse of the entire genre upwards with it. And, as his hair grew longer, Dave's face and eyes seemed to grow younger.

An early self-released solo cd by Carter called Snake-handlin' Man contained an alert to the folk music world that a raging new talent had arrived but the promise of that start didn't really begin to congeal until Tracy was added for a second outing billed "Dave Carter with Tracy Grammer" and the Leo-Aries axis truly began to roll. That effort, called When I Go, sparked world-wide notice and the hard pace of touring turned furious at points of the year. But, as a result, they placed third in popularity among acoustic acts in the year 2000 and, with subsequent releases, first place in the following two years. Their second album, Tanglewood Tree, came as close to the perfect folk record as anyone had dared to even imagine in decades. The follow-up, Drum, Hat, Buddha, brimmed with an astonishing progression of the duo's pilgrimage and contained perhaps the best song of 2002 in "Gentle Arms of Eden," along with a generous serving of other masterpieces. It all left fans breathless for the next entry in what seemed a flight beyond any moon folkies had the good fortune to walk beneath for far too many seasons of radio rotation.

Tracy's role increased with each release; her incredible fiddle and ever expanding vocal share winning even more converts as she picked up the tone of Carter's surreal journey through an American landscape which he was able to make more recognizable to the divine core of its inhabitants than any television programmer working the corporate line.

That night of July 27th, at the Falcon Ridge Festival, Tracy walked upon the stage at sunset to a thunderous and lingering ovation. Standing tall, she sang one of their most popular tunes, "The Mountain," as Pete and Maura Kennedy as well as Chris and Meredith Thompson accompanied her voice... "I see the mountain/the mountain comes to me"

Falcon Ridge 2001: (L to R) Mark Erelli, Mary Gauthier, Dave Carter, Tracy Grammer,
John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, Vance Gilbert, Christopher Williams, Jimmy LaFave

As the applause died down, Tracy retired to the back of the stage as other artists at the festival performed a deeply indelible tribute to Carter's music as the day faded and night stole in and more than a few from the audience joined their voices to the blend... The Thompson Sisters stayed to render a gorgeous version of "Tanglewood Tree"; singer-songwriter Mark Erelli followed with Carter's darkly ironic "Cowboy Singer." "Ordinary Town" was stirringly visited by Nerissa and Katryna Nields with Dave Chalfant and Lorne Entress before the latter two backed Erin McKeown on "The Gentle Arms of Eden."

Mark Erelli returned to team with Kris Delmhorst on "Farewell to Fiddler's Rim" and the group Eddie from Ohio contributed their version of Carter's Townes Van Zandt-inspired "Farewell to St. Dolores." After a rousing take on "Happytown" from The Kennedys and Christopher Williams' rendition of "Merlin's Lament," Chris Smither delivered an interpretation of "Crocodile Man" that had you hoping he'll record it so you could hear it again and again and more after that... He tore it up with fond and lively reverence.

As Tracy returned to the spotlight for a parting rendition of "Gentle Soldier of My Soul," the crowd sat stunned by what had unfolded before them. And then, when the set closed, they just exploded.

In those brief years and in the months since Carter's departure, Tracy Grammer has become much more than the already superb musician she had been when they first met at an open mike performance in Washington State. A consummate performer on violin, mandolin and guitar, Tracy's extraordinary and beautiful vocal expressiveness masters the singular tone of their masterful songs together and proudly advances the dream of a transcendent crafter of song.

Bringing that spellbinding legacy and the new horizons to which it compels her, Tracy will play her first performance in Woodstock at The Colony Cafe on Thursday, April 10th. This is definitely not a night to stay home.

-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 April 9, 2003

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