When asked by her friend and collaborator Cindy Cashdollar who would top her dream list of producers for her first album on Alligator Records, only one name came to mind: Dave Alvin. You never know until you ask.
“She called him up, and he said sure,” Wonderland said in a recent interview about such fortunate happenstance. “He would refer to himself as the ‘mad rearranger.’”
That album, “Tempting Fate,” is the 11th record of Wonderland’s career. Her songwriting weaves the sounds of blues, gospel, and even some country into its sonic landscape. No less than Blues Rock Review praised her work on the album for “prioritizing her own personality, giving her personal style to the songs as a guitarist, vocalist, as well as a songwriter.”
She will bring her energized Texas blues sound to the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis April 9, performing on a double bill with Bad Influence.
“I like places where you can actually hear the amps and see the people. It’s a cool vibe,” Wonderland said of returning to the Rams Head. “I love the history of it too. A lot of the music venues that you get into…you think about all the folks who have played there before. You try to be respectful and live up to it as best you can,” she added with a good-natured laugh.
Wonderland grew up in Houston, where she idolized such talents as Townes Van Zandt. She was worried her own output might not measure up to such impressive singer-songwriting royalty, but finally had to tell herself to give it a try anyway.
“The more you do it, the less you stink at it,” she said. “I think that’s true of most things we do.”
Wonderland now lives in Austin, which she calls “the land of free guitar lessons” given that people tend to swing in and out of one another’s bands and cheer on their friends from the audience. However, despite the glut of exceptionally talented musicians, the atmosphere in the Texas capital scene couldn’t be less cutthroat.
“You would think it would be more competitive, but people are really supportive,” she said. “It’s a trip.”
But this is still Texas, after all, so Wonderland displays no small amount of Lone Star sass on “Tempting Fate,” including “Texas Girl and Her Boots,” which would be as at home in a honky-tonk as blues hall. It’s one of many of her tunes that crosses various musical boundaries. Wonderland again praised Alvin for helping her to get “Texas Girl and Her Boots” successfully past the finish line.
“It started with open chords and some singing, and [Alvin] said, ‘OK, now let me get this straight: You’re proud of those boots, right?’” Wonderland said, adding that, upon hearing her respond in the affirmative, Alvin told her to move a particularly spicy riff from the middle of the song to its opening. In his parlance: “Maybe you should kick in the door with [the boots] in the intro instead of asking permission.”
“He was like that about every song,” Wonderland said of her producer. “I love getting to work with him.”
Wonderland had been sitting on the tunes that became “Tempting Fate” for some time prior to setting them to acetate. During her years playing behind John Mayall, she was able to save up some money to pay for studio time later. Even though Wonderland was between labels, the time was right to at least record the songs. Thankfully, Cashdollar was in her corner, pushing her to work with Alvin.
Indeed, Wonderland has a tip for anyone wanting to hire someone of Alvin’s caliber: Book recording time for January. In the post-holiday weeks, many musicians tend to be off the road, which was good news for “Tempting Fate” as Wonderland was able to corral several of her friends to lay down work on her new tracks.
“I got to have Shelley [King] and Marcia Ball. Dave [Alvin] played some [as did] Cindy Cashdollar and Red Young,” Wonderland enthused of her troupe. “It was such a hoot.”
However, the pandemic spoiled her plans to tour extensively in support of “Tempting Fate,” and for a while it seemed the record might languish in obscurity. Nonetheless, the album got an early booster in Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records, who insisted on putting out the album on his label—without any changes whatsoever. (Wonderland says Iglauer called out of the blue to say, “I hear you’ve got a record I might want to hear.”)
“It just blows my mind because when I was a kid, a lot of my records were from Alligator,” Wonderland said, adding that Alligator’s own Hound Dog Taylor was a frequent sound in her home growing up. Now, she can count herself among the label’s A&R club.
Although the story of “Tempting Fate” had a happy ending, this was far from certain. But rather than worry, Wonderland spent the early months of covid putting the needs of others first. Alongside King, she put her energies and fundraising efforts into HomeAustin.org, a rather important charity that looks to care for some community members who might have been overlooked as the world shut down in 2020.
“What we do is make sure that musicians 55 and older in the Austin area don’t wind up losing their housing, because once you’re in the system, it’s really hard to get out,” Wonderland said.
Her pandemic experience also entailed learning how to record alone and picking up new instruments. She is already incredibly versatile, having tackled the guitar, mandolin, piano, trumpet, and slide guitar.
“I just play the lap steel; I’m no good at the pedal steel,” she said. “I’ve tried, but that requires a bit more brain power than I have.”
Life as a touring musician was difficult even before the pandemic. Though things have returned to a semblance of the “before times” and concert halls are again filled to capacity, Wonderland says the life she leads isn’t for everyone.
“You learn how to live cheap [and] take on little extra things sometimes to support your music habit,” she said. “Every musician I know has two or three things going on.
“The arts has always been a difficult thing to navigate, but it’s something that we work on to try and make better for ourselves—and the people who are going to come after us.”
She once tried to step away from music, only to feel it not letting go.
Wonderland’s calendar for the year includes a run of East Coast dates, and likely sharing the stage with Marcia Ball at various venues. She already has ideas for a follow-up to “Tempting Fate,” though she said she’s trying to be more cognizant of allowing the compositions to direct her rather than the other way around.
But first, she and her band have a date in Annapolis to tackle. Yes, it’s Easter Sunday, so Wonderland says you can expect even a gospel song or two.
“We have to ask forgiveness for all the fun we’re about to have,” she said of performing on the holiday, adding that King’s being on stage will allow for a great deal of harmonizing.
“We’re just going to have a hoot,” Wonderland said. “It’s so good to get back out on the road again.”
Carolyn Wonderland performs April 9 at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at RamsHeadOnStage.com. To donate to Home Austin, visit https://www.homeaustin.org/.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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