My love of Carolyn Wonderland began with my love of Johnny Winter, in particular, a love for his 1973 recording of Rick Derringer's "Still Alive and Well." That song has been my litmus test for blues artists who wring some rock into the stew along with their own blood and sweat. When Wonderland performed at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2009, she played "Still Alive and Well" — she tore it up in the process. I bounced and squealed like a 12-year-old kid on trucker speed and a pogo stick. And thus began said love affair.
Born in Houston in 1972, Wonderland voraciously got into music through the instruments her mother had in the house. By the time she was a teenager, the blues bug had bit. In 2011 she moved to Austin, and spent a spell living out of her van since she was working more on the road than at home.
Onstage, Wonderland is full of six-string heat and sings with such passion it's as if she'd crashed a gospel rehearsal. Whether it's a shoe-box honky-tonk or a huge outdoor affair, Wonderland routinely blows doors clean off at the hinges. It's like, "Here's your head; thanks for coming."
CITY had a chance to speak with Wonderland and discuss being grounded for using picks, putting her own twist on Pearl, and looking out for that elusive Mick Taylor riff. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: Are you a singer that plays guitar or a guitar player that sings?
Carolyn Wonderland: As luck would have it, in a room full of guitar players, I'm a singer. And in a room full of singers, I'm a guitar player. Sometimes I'll just whistle, play trumpet, sit near a piano, or bang on something. In our band, I try to make everyone sing. I love hearing our drummer, Kevin Lance, and bassist, Bobby Perkins, hollering along. This trip, y'all are in for a treat. We've kidnapped our good friend Shelley King to come sing and play with us, too.
When did you first hear the blues?
Sneaking out to bars in Houston as a teenager. Blues bars seldom carded women carrying guitars in. I would borrow cars and fill them up with gas or buy tickets and drinks for friends' older siblings if they'd take me. My favorites were some of Houston's best. From Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Little Screamin' Kenny — I've covered his songs all my life — Little Joe Washington, Grady Gaines, Lavelle White, Allison Fisher, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Lightfoot. All the fun late night jams. I was hooked instantly. No hope of recovery.
When did you pick up the guitar?
My mom had guitars — two Martins and a 1970's Rosewood Strat. And there was a flea market piano, my aunt's coronet, and my friends' gear when they'd leave it after our after-school "rehearsals." I started playing piano, but the guitar was far more portable.
The reason I play bare-knuckled is due to the scratches I put on my mom's '41 Martin going through my Pete Townshend windmill phase. I started playing at age 8 and was grounded from ever using a pick at age 10. When I'm home from tour, I'll play songs my mom taught me on her guitar and see where the noodling takes me. That guitar has songs already inside of it ready to be strummed out.
Which do you prefer: a little juke joint or a big festival stage?
Both, for different reasons. I love festivals because I believe, as evidenced by the actions of my youth, that one shouldn't have to be 21 to hear live music. I love that kids will get up and dance without having to "loosen up" first, and that they are quite honest about how they dig or don't dig what you're playing. I like bars and other venues because I don't have to censor my sailor mouth. But there's something so right about a truly blue show on occasion.
If you had one song to pick as your favorite, what would it be?
Ravel's "Bolero." Angélique Kidjo's version. That, or pretty much anything Levon Helm ever sang.
What's on your bucket list?
Not sure. I am just pleasantly surprised I still get away with this. It's as if no one has caught on or really tried that hard to stop me yet. I hope to play more with friends, stay healthy, and have a balance of road and home life.
How do you feel your sound has changed or matured over the years?
The more you play, the less you suck at it. I hope it's improved some. To me, it just feels like after 30 years the notes have gotten easier to find and it's fun to learn new changes and ways into and out of phrases. Sometimes it's nice to be immature and throw a wrench in here or there to make each other giggle on stage. Be on the lookout — listen out — for the misplaced Mick Taylor riff this tour.
A hundred years from now what will they be saying about Carolyn Wonderland?
I hope it's not my arrest record. But I haven't lived every day yet.