Tracy Grammer - Beautiful dreamer
The sudden death of Dave Carter in July 2002 forced Tracy Grammer to choose between two options, she says: either go on the road and continue to perform, or stop singing entirely. Adding to her dilemma was the fact that Carter -- who Grammer described in a poignant website-posting to fans as her "soul mate and partner in everything worldly and otherwise" -- had been the outgoing half of the duo, exuding onstage charisma while Grammer offered stolid, quiet support. In the end, the outpouring of encouragement from fans propelled Grammer to return to the stage quickly, but dealing with Carter's death in a public forum was especially difficult during the first year. "I felt like I was the conductor of the grief train," says Grammer, whose fond memories of Carter are punctuated with a blend of sentimentality and laughter. "I would sort of go around the country and do my shows, and what would happen, invariably, is that as soon as I got onstage, and people recognized, for the first time, that Dave was not there, his death would become real, for everyone. It made his absence palpable, and people had a very strong reaction to that. They were weeping at the shows, and it was a very emotional time. "I would say it was that way for the entire first year. But then the second year was entirely different. People were like, 'OK, we've been through the grief door. What's next? We want to hear what you have to say.'" When Carter, at age 49, suffered a fatal heart attack, he and Grammer were entering a period of creative momentum and burgeoning commercial success. Two albums recorded for Signature Sounds -- 2000's Tanglewood Tree and 2002's Drum Hat Buddha -- had generated a buzz among peers who saw something uniquely sophisticated in Carter's songwriting, and who saw, in Grammer, a musician and singer of dazzling versatility. On Flower Of Avalon, her first full-length solo album, Grammer pays tribute to her late partner by bringing to life nine previously unrecorded Carter songs. Just as important, however, the album unfurls as a portrait of an artist coming into her own as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and arranger. "We used to perform some of these songs as far back as 1997," says Grammer. "And some of them are things we were learning at the time of Dave's death. There's one song -- 'Phantom Doll' -- that we have only because we were rehearsing that song the day before Dave died. Byron Isaacs, of Ollabelle, and George Javori, of the Joan Baez Band, were going to be our rhythm section for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival the following weekend, and they were rehearsing with us. Byron recorded me and Dave playing the song, using his little hand-held tape recorder, and I think it was about eighteen hours later that Dave was gone." As Grammer tells it, there's a bit of a storybook component to the way she and Carter met. Raised in southern California, Grammer was first introduced to music by her father, an amateur guitarist who often led the neighborhood kids in sing-alongs, following songbooks by popular artists of the day. "I would sit across from him and flip the pages," says Grammer. "That was kind of my first exposure to something like a folk process -- sharing music, and singing along with a bunch of people." At age 9, Grammer began studying violin, and throughout high school she played in the orchestra. While attending the University of California, she put the instrument aside for several years, but near the end of her time there she met Curtis Coleman, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, and began accompanying him at small shows around Modesto, California. Soon after that, she met singer-songwriter David Noble, and the two formed a techno-pop band called Juicy. That project was short-lived, but it did serve as a conduit to Carter, who Grammer met when she and Noble participated in a songwriters showcase in Portland, Oregon. "Dave Carter got up there at the end of the night and did two songs, and I was just blown away," remembers Grammer, who's been based in Portland ever since. "He was accompanied by a girl -- her name is Susan Martin -- and I fell in love with the configuration. But more importantly, I had just come from UC Berkeley with a degree in literature, focusing on Native American women writers. So Dave gets up, and he plays this song that's got a real strong Native American theme to it, and he's using this real poetic language, and he's so humble. He just looks like the nicest guy in the world. As far as I was concerned -- it really happened this way -- everyone in the room just disappeared. I was focusing on Dave, and I was focusing on the sound of Dave and Susan singing together, and I thought, 'That's what I want to do, right there. I love that.'" Introductions were made after the event, and to Grammer's surprise, Carter invited her to be in his band. Two years later, as a duo, she and Carter recorded their first album, the independently released When I Go. A rave review in the Los Angeles Times, along with a flurry of awards from various folk alliances and festivals, earned the duo a national following, and in 1999 Carter and Grammer signed a deal with Signature Sounds. The ensuing albums garnered praise from a host of high-profile admirers, including Joan Baez, who asked the duo to tour with her in the spring of 2001. (Baez also added several Carter compositions to her performance repertoire.) Carter's songwriting drew heavily from his eclectic background, which included studies in advanced math, the fine arts, and something called "the psychology of mystical experience." Grammer has characterized his songs as having a country component, but with "language that's really aggressive, and really poetic." "On the one hand, he was just a sponge for information. And what he would do with that information is...well, he would go to sleep," she laughs. "That's how I used to write my term papers, so I sort of understand what he was doing. I think he would sort of cram, and then he would go to sleep, and somehow, in his dream world, things would begin to make sense. Melodies would come to him, and little snippets of lyrics. He was trained in transpersonal psychology, and he was trained in dream work, and he knew how to stay down in the dream world longer than you think you might be able to, and actually mine that realm for more information, or deeper meaning. "He liked to say that he was always out and about with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the waking world, and I believe that. It was really important for him to stay in touch with that stuff over which he had no control, where he was just a traveler in his own dream space, kind of seeing what his brain was doing with all that information that he stuck in there. It's pretty fascinating, the things he came up with." On Flower Of Avalon, Carter's songs are framed in some of the most elaborate settings his work has enjoyed thus far. With help from co-producer John Jennings, Grammer assembled a cast of empathetic backers to flesh out the instrumentation, including Lorne Entress (drums), Mike Rivard (bass), and Grammer's touring partner Jim Henry (dobro, mandolin, electric guitar). Grammer herself handles vocals, acoustic guitar, violin, and walkabout dulcimer. Jennings contributes guitar and bass on several tracks, and Grammer's friend Rob Schnell provides additional percussion. Rounding out the ensemble is Mary Chapin Carpenter, who adds harmony vocals on three songs. Other than the shimmery beauty of Grammer's voice, what longtime fans will probably notice first about the album is the fullness of the arrangements. The multitude of layers and textures resulted partly from the freedom given to the players, but Grammer says she also steered deliberately toward a bigger sound. "Most of the songs were things that we had performed, or that were on tape somewhere," she says. "With some of them, I sort of re-arranged them, and fleshed them out a bit more. I made the arrangements a little more dramatic, I think, than they had been, because they were all just in their infancy. We hadn't done any pre-production on them, so we didn't really have a concept of how a band would sound on those songs. That's sort of the work that I did, kind of during the first year of touring without Dave. I sort of got a feel for how they should be played, and what seemed to work well with audiences." High points include the haunting lament "Hard To Make It" (which, style-wise, falls somewhere between Patty Larkin and Cowboy Junkies); the majestic, hymn-like "Any Way I Do"; and the aforementioned "Phantom Doll", a quirky, showtune-ish composition that brings to mind the recent work of Sam Phillips. "I don't know how to describe that one," Grammer says of "Phantom Doll". "Some people have said it's like Django Reinhardt. I do know that at the time Dave wrote that song, he was really enamored with Rufus Wainwright. We were really in love with [Wainwright's] sweeping melodies, and his sort of grandiose production, and everything. I think Dave was going for something like that, but of course he's going to put his own twist on it, with that language." Another standout is "Laughlin Boy", an Appalachian bluegrass stomp that's the sole track not written by Carter. In fact, Signature Sounds has chosen the song -- which was penned by Grammer's friend, the poet Bill Jolliff -- to be the first single. "Some people might wonder how that one fits into the picture," Grammer allows. "What happened was that Dave and I heard that song at a house concert that we were playing. Bill Jolliff and his son, Jacob Jolliff -- who's a mandolin protege -- opened for us and they played that song, and we fell in love with it. It wasn't very often that Dave fell in love with other people's songs and wanted to sing them, but this was a song that we had actually sung quite a few times, for encores and stuff, at our shows around the country." Grammer says she is already looking toward her next album, and has begun co-writing songs with Jim Henry. In addition, another album of Dave Carter songs is in the works: "Essentially it's a re-recording of Dave's first solo album, Snake Handlin' Man, with a couple of new songs added," Grammer says. But it's clear she is determined to establish herself as an artist in her own right as well. Reconciling the need to move forward with the desire to honor Carter's memory continues to be a challenge, but Grammer has achieved an equanimity that bodes well for the future. "Dave's [memory] has been like a touchstone," she says. "I would take a few steps forward from it, but then I would always feel like I had to run back and tag it before I could move a little further out. I struggled, for a while, because I didn't know how far away I could get from that and still be OK. But at this point I feel like I don't have to come back and tag that touchstone all the time, because it's a fact -- and it's not going away -- that Dave is gone. I don't need to come back and revisit that all the time. I still incorporate Dave's material as a big part of my show, and obviously...this album is all about his songs." Russell Hall lives in Anderson, South Carolina. When he's not writing about music, he can generally be found either on a tennis court or on his trusty blue bike.