Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

When I was at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival for the first time, in 2000, I didn’t know who Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were. I wasn’t alone; although they had their following, they were not a featured part of the festival. Big enough to have their own 50-minute time slot, but small enough not to entice the majority of festival-goers to return to their blankets to lend their ears. What I recall best from their 2000 performance was their energy and conviction. However you choose to describe the world they evoke in their songs (Dave’s songs, that is), they clearly believe in it. After I began listening to their music regularly—only after the last time I would ever see them play together—I would find further proof of that, from the Buddhist blessing they reprint on their CD covers to the stark instrumentation of the recordings. At that first Falcon Ridge performance, I remember feeling a rawness from the duo that is missing from most singer-songwriter duos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings that moved me as much as that first Dave and Tracy show, let alone from the Indigo Girls. Not much registered about those songs the first time, but the performance was meaningful to me, solely on the power of the singing and playing and passion. For some photos of the duo, including one of them at Falcon Ridge 2000, with Dave Carter looking rather intense, see here: http://www.hvmusic.com/article/alexander/carter_grammer/.

I only saw them together twice after that. At Falcon Ridge the next year, their popularity had clearly grown, and my festival companions were impressed. I was impressed enough by their performance that I made my way over to the songwriting workshop later that afternoon, or maybe it was the next day. I don’t remember what song they played, but I remember the mike being passed to Dave Carter after Richard Shindell had played “Transit,” one of that man’s very best songs. Dave was clearly a bit overcome. He pronounced it one of the very best songs he had ever heard, a sentiment that he repeated when I reminded him of it the one time we met, many months later. That last time I saw Dave and Tracy was in March of 2002 as part of Joan Baez’s touring band. They played Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, and Richard Shindell opened with a solo performance, playing his finely-crafted songs sitting alone on the Hall stage. I remember bounding town the aisle at Town Hall with my colleague at Columbia, Georgia Kernell, in the middle of his opening song, “Beyond the Iron Gate.” During Joan Baez’s set, the great women graciously let her new protogés take the stage for a few songs. They played “Ordinary Town,” “The Mountain” (which Joan had performed for the Dali Lama), and “Hey Conductor” which enticed Joan to return to the stage to dance. After the whole show was over, Richard and Dave and Tracy returned to the stage to greet audience members. I got autographs from Richard and Tracy, but I stopped to talk to Dave for a few minutes. I only recall two things. First, he had only glowing things to say about Richard Shindell. Second, he was tall. I don’t know how tall he was, but my recollection of him was that he was easily over 6 feet tall. He seemed to tower over me. He had a lot of hair too, not like what you see in photos of him in the CD jackets. Something about his presence seemed very intense, like whatever he was doing he meant to do and was meant to do. As with his presence, so too with his music.

One of the pitfalls that folk-based songwriting often falls into is a kind of soft fatalism. I’ve heard far too many songs that evoke pastoral imagery, mysterious women, the road, or explicit political disengagement in a way that conjures up an image of hippy-mysticism, middle-class escapism, or both. I have very little patience for either of these phenomena, although I make allowances for the latter (more than I should, probably). All sorts of stuff can redeem either one, of course, including unusual arrangements, extraordinary musicality, or a damn good sense of humor. Albums that move between songs of this kind and other, stranger (or hyper-normalized) material are often success stories. Listen to Richard Shindell’s Somewhere Near Patterson as an example.

With some exceptions here and there, I’ve never thought that Dave and Tracy fell into this trap. Something always saves what could be overwrought or overwritten songs and makes them register for me, with a tingle down the spine or a smile on the lips. Let’s take two songs, both from their first (and least impressive) album as examples of what they were able to accomplish: “Where I Go” and “The River Where She Sleeps.” “Where I Go’s” mysticism doesn’t truly lead anywhere, not really. The narrator does appear to transcend life and death by the final verse, and it happens organically, line by line in the song. It’s impressive, like a monument or an oil painting, but just as escapist…right? Insofar as all music is, yes. But, like I said from the beginning, these musicians sound committed. Like-minded souls (and I use that word advisedly) are free to listen along and accept it all as is: at the Dave Carter tribute at Falcon Ridge 2002, Pete Kennedy actually referred to Carter as a bodhisattva. The banjo part that opens the song (and album) is haunting and sets the stage for Dave Carter’s stark vocal. “Come, lonely hunter / chieftain and king / I will fly like the falcon when I go.” Later, Tracy Grammer enters the sound, putting an exclamation point on the mystery of the opening verse with an enchanting violin part that carries me easily to the next verse. I won’t go into a line-by-line analysis—I’m not sure if I could—suffice to say that the banjo-fiddle duo creates a lonesome, slightly creepy feeling that stands in contrast to the mysterious-but-not-creepy vocal. And after the climactic final verse, with the singer’s soul freed from its body, the instruments finish off the track by jumping into triple-time in order to evoke…what? “Spirits dancing in the flesh,” Carlos Santana might say. “Your mind has left your body,” Paul Kantner once sang. But Carter’s songs move me than anything either of those old Frisco hippies has recorded since the 1960s and We Can Be Together.

“The River Where She Sleeps” shows you just how well an austere arrangement can suit a song if it’s good enough, the singing is just right, and the melody is assertive. If you don’t like the melody that opens the song, I’m not sure what to tell you. The rolling banjo part just keeps chugging, and the lyric that follows sounds inevitable, with the line “when the sun refuse to shine” re-hooking each verse throughout, a strategy that would be used to great effect on “Mother, I Climbed” on Tracy’s album of Dave Carter songs Flower of Avalon. On this song, as much as on any song Dave Carter has ever written, the tumble of mystical imagery, pop music line dropping, furious rhyming, and seriously committed romanticism just plain works. And what really takes the cake is the reference to Alan Watts, which contextualizes every reference to Eastern philosophy I’ve ever heard in one of his songs. The whole thing is a masterpiece.

Those are the best two songs on the album, but they aren’t the only good ones. The first minute of “Kate and the Ghost of Lost Love” didn’t immediately strike me as anything major, although even here the melody is a good one. But it’s when Tracy Grammer pipes up on the second verse that the song’s power lifts off like a bumble bee from a flower. “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Little Liza Jane” both feature Dave Carter’s sense of joy and fun. And “Grand Prairie Texas Homesick Blues” picks up where John Prine’s “Paradise” left off. Not ever lyric works. But, after several listens, I began to notice the calculated goofiness of Dave Carter’s singing, a big plus. And the final track, “Elvis Presley,” contains a lot of stuff that, in most other contexts, would make me roll my eyes. But even there, the song’s soft fatalism is evoked with a tricky mixture of metaphors and images that add up to an enticing follow-up to Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

Their second album, Tanglewood Tree (2001), is an improvement. Every element of their music—songs, melodies, harmonies, arrangements—kept getting better, album after album. Here, the arrangements are fuller, bringing more life to the music without intruding on the lightness and sense of fun. They are richer, but I still wouldn’t call them anything other than austere. Listen to the opener, “Happytown” with its quiet percussion and lovely organ which, on the final verse, makes Dave Carter’s self-amused singing seem to ring out with more passion and humor. But this is also the album wherein Tracy Grammer’s contributions become important to the overall sound. Her violin part on the title track and her lead singing on “The Mountain” make those entire songs work. Her harmony singing is more assertive than on the debut. Beyond that, the murder ballad is keenly written and sung, the “Farewells” are bittersweet, and “Crocodile Man” would later take on new life in Chris Smither’s hands (and voice). Listen to his version of the song on the Train Home album for evidence of the song’s greatness. In the end, though, what I like best, I think, is Dave Carter’s singing, which is probably the thing I’ve read and heard the least about, as far as these albums are concerned. It’s not a technically accomplished voice, but it’s lively and it puts across lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily work from other singers’ lips. “Happytown” is an example of that, and so is “Hey Conductor.” But “Walking away from Caroline” is priceless as written, taking a very familiar masculine boast/lament and taking it to town. How about this opening: “Caroline puts Dylan on / she always sings along / she gets the words all wrong / she falls out of time / but it sounds just fine.”

The third and best Dave and Tracy album is called Drum Hat Buddah (2002) which improves still more on the same basic Tanglewood Tree framework. The only noticeable difference, and I think it’s an important one, is that Tracy Grammer is even more involved. Her lead vocals on the best songs, like “Ordinary Town” and “236-6132” are a revelation: not perfect, but perfect for the songs. They also liven up material that might otherwise falter, like “I Go Like the Raven” and “Love, the Magician.” And her harmony vocals and fiddle sweeten Carter’s very best song, the eco-spirituality hymn, “Gentle Arms of Even.”

But here’s the amazing thing: I probably listen to the two posthumous albums as much as I do to Drum Hat Buddah. Seven is the Number (2006) is the last Dave and Tracy studio release featuring “new” Dave Carter songs that anyone will ever hear. It’s the album they were working on when Dave suffered his fatal heart attack in July of 2002, and much of it is a rerecording of Snake-Handling Man, a cassette-only release that dates back to pre-When I Go days. On this disc, every single melody is a keeper. On purely musical grounds, it may well be their most consistent album. The arrangements are the duo’s most austere since their debut. The songs may not be quite as good, as a whole, as those on Drum Hat Buddah. But I miss Dave Carter not because his songs tell some kind of primordial truth, but because of the sense of fun tucked away in his voice, because of what sounds like a spontaneous musicality in his sense of language and melody, and because I could do with more references to Mr. Rogers and lines like “I got nothin’ up my smile” in my folk music. And Flower of Avalon (2005) is even more miraculous. It’s an album of Dave Carter songs that the duo never recorded, that Tracy engaged with on her own...with a little help from John Jennings and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I wonder why she decided that these folks would be the ones to help her realize these songs on record. John Jennings is the producer that helped propel Carpenter to country music stardom in the early 1990s. His production is nothing like what you hear on the Dave and Tracy discs. I figured that this marriage would not work out and, on first listen, I thought I was right. But, repeated listening has made the glossy recording and insistently hooky arrangements more and more appealing. I don’t understand why “Mother, I Climbed,” is sung so mournfully (something I don’t blame Jennings or Grammer for). But I would say that as many as five songs from this CD are among Carter’s best, mining familiar themes to great effect. The male “Gypsy Rose” is cold and virginal, “Hey Ho” is Carter’s best (only?) political song, and “Anyway I Go” is half chorale, half lullaby and is elevated by Grammer’s soaring vocal. “Mother I Climbed,” sad though it sounds, is a remarkable statement of atheism, hooked around the lines, “open up your gate, Marianna” and “lay me down / in the dark womb of your love,” both of which have to be heard to be understood. Even when the songs aren’t winners as written, the production livens the material considerably. I remember seeing Tracy Grammer at the now-defunct Satalla in New York City, and she introduced “Phantom Doll” by telling us about Dave Carter’s love of Rufus Wainwright’s music, and you can hear it in the arrangement to the song. Much to my amazement, Flower of Avalon gets as much playing time as Drum Hat Buddah.

Well, in the end, it’s all about taste anyway. And I am hypersensitive to this duo’s virtues. Their music does more for me than dozens of other folkies, duo or otherwise. I couldn’t guarantee that someone who didn’t like this kind of music would like these folks. But I would be surprised by anyone open to the world of contemporary folk music, singer-songwriterdom, or what the late Dave Carter called “Postmodern Mythic American Music,” who wasn’t captivated by the Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer recordings. Their songs are expansive and ambitious, the harmony singing and melodies delights, and, never forget, Dave Carter was a joyful and fun-loving performer…whether he was a bodhisattva or not.

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