Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Tracy Grammer & Dave Carter
(Photo by Jeff Bizzell)

I was talking with Craig Bickhardt during a break at our reading / event with Eileen Tabios last Tuesday night. Craig is a singer-songwriter who works the folk/country border of music – what alternative radio jocks these days call Americana – and has written number one hits for the Judds, Pam Tillis & Ty Herndon, had platinum hits sung by Martina McBride & Trish Yearwood, as well as having songs recorded by B.B. King, Ray Charles, Kathy Mattea & Alison Krauss – he did some of the music for Robert Duvall’s Tender Mercies awhile back. It’s a genre that I’ve been following, at least vaguely, for decades now since it evolved out of the folk festivals I attended in the 1960s.

My own instincts for that music tend more toward what I think of as the Austin sound, that aspect of country-folk that emerged from the work of Willie Nelson & especially Townes Van Zandt, whom I’ve written about here before. The person who really introduced me to that sound was Nanci Griffith, whom Krishna & I first heard at a memorial concert for Kate Wolf in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago. We had wanted to have Kate sing at our wedding, but she was already too sick with the leukemia that would eventually cut her life short. We ended up going with the Good Ol’ Persons, Kathy Kallick’s bluegrass group that is still playing & recording two decades later, sounding as crisp as ever.

Where Van Zandt & Nelson were songwriters who’d attempted to break into the tight-knit scene in Nashville, only to find their hippy ways didn’t fit well with the neo-George Wallace types at the Grand Ole Opry, & thus returned to Austin to create a scene there more to their liking, Griffith grew up in Austin listening to their likes along with other local bands like Buddy Holly’s old outfit, the Crickets. Tho she’s a great singer & has long been a touring & recording success both here & in Ireland (where she spends several months each year these days), Griffith like Bickhardt often describes herself as a songwriter first & as a singer only of necessity. Like Wolf, Bickhardt & Van Zandt, the very first thing you note about her music is that it has a level of literacy about it that is a steep step above normal country or folk fare.

Another songwriter with Texas roots whose work I always point to as an example of what country-folk can be at its very best, and very most literate, is the late Dave Carter. Next to Townes Van Zandt & Bob Dylan – his two greatest influences – Carter was easily the best songwriter I’ve heard over the past half century. Carter, who grew up primarily in Oklahoma & Texas & whose partner, Tracy Grammer, still refers to him as ODC for Oklahoma Dave Carter, a nickname he still used when they first met in Portland.

Dave Carter released only five albums – four while he was alive, the fifth (this year’s Seven is the Number, presently the number one folk album in America) is largely a reworking of his rejected first effort, which had been released before Carter learned the nuances of record arrangement & production. The song “Crocodile Man” was a huge hit circa 1999 on the Americana charts – with Tracy singing the lyrics even tho they’re figured as a man’s words – and Carter found himself suddenly an “overnight success” after must have been decades of effort. He was 46 at the time & only would live to be 49 before a massive heart attack killed the rail-thin vegetarian after a morning run on the road in 2002.

Carter was raised in an evangelical family but whose own spiritual commitments broadened considerably & are best captured by the title of one of his albums, Drum Hat Buddha – the title’s juxtapositions, which sound exactly like NY School poetry, gen 17 (think of Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat, which came out four years after the Carter-Grammer album) – gives you some sense of what makes Carter so special as a writer. Here are the lyrics to “Ordinary Town” from that CD:

Common cool he was a proud young fool
In a kick-ass Wal-Mart tie
Rippin’ down the main drag
Trippin’ on the headlights rollin' by
In the early dawn when the cars were gone
Did he hear the master's call
In the five and dime did he wake and find
He was only dreamin’ after all, cause . . .

This is an ordinary town
And the prophet stands apart
This is an ordinary town
And we brook no wayward heart
And every highway leads you prodigal back home
To the ordinary sidewalks you were born to roam

Rock of ages, love contagious
Shine the serpent fire
So sang the sage of sixteen summers
In the upstairs choir
So sang the old dog down the street
Beside his wailing wall
"Go home, go home," the mayor cried
When Jesus came to city hall, cause . . .

This is an ordinary town
And the prophet stands alone
This is an ordinary town
And we crucify our own
And every highway leads you prodigal again
To the ordinary houses you were brought up in

Raised on hunches and junk food lunches
And punch-drunk ballroom steps
You get to believin’ you're even-steven
With the kids at Fast-Track Prep
So you dump your bucks on a velvet tux
And you run and join the dance
But your holy shows and the Romans know
You're just a child of circumstance, cause . . .

This is an ordinary town
And the prophet has no face
This is an ordinary town
And the seasons run in place
And every highway leads you prodigal and true
To the ordinary angels watchin’ over you

There is a lot of rhyme in these lines & some extraordinary word choices – ages / contagious / sage of is my favorite – here, as well as a remarkably pictorial eye. I can’t read these words without hearing Carter & Grammer’s arrangement – it feels completely inevitable to me, which is one test of the success of joining words to music.

At one point Carter attended the California Institute of Integral Studies where I was the director of development & outreach, although we didn’t meet until later & I’m not 100 percent certain that our time at the ‘Tute overlapped.¹ Krishna & I once heard him & Tracy perform at an outdoor concert that was driven indoors by a thunderous downpour to the King of Prussia township council chambers – as inauspicious a venue for sound as you can imagine – where they played sans benefit of any amplification. They made it sound as intimate & welcoming as a house concert. And if it wasn’t the biggest venue we ever saw them in – that would have been the Philadelphia Folk Festival – nor the space with the best sound (that would have been The Point, the late lamented folk club in Bryn Mawr, the last place we saw Dave before his death) – it’s probably the place I’ll remember longest & best, simply because their strengths as people as well as singers shined so brightly that evening.

I’ve been listening this past week a lot to Seven is the Number. When Carter died, he and Grammer had planned at some point to rework his early Snake Handlin’ Man album into what Carter – who obviously was a perfectionist – would have considered an acceptable arrangement. Grammer, who started out as his accompanist on violin & voice & has emerged herself as one of the best folksingers alive, has done a terrific job with this. Every one of Carter’s albums is well worth owning – indeed, they make great presents too – and both of Tracy’s post-Carter solo albums have lots of his songs on them as well. Lucy Kaplansky, Chris Smither & the Kennedys have all recorded some of his songs & Joan Baez has included “The Mountain” in a number of her concerts (she once sang it for the Dali Lama). If you have even a remote interest in folk or in the singer-songwriter genre, you owe it to yourself to own all of Dave Carter’s music.


¹ Carter’s Wikipedia article refers to the influence of Joseph Campbell on the singer after a visit to his school. That was, in fact, one of my projects at CIIS. Campbell died in 1987, a year after I’d left to edit the Socialist Review.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?