Cover photo © Laura Carbone
Despite the fact that she has been steadily touring for more than three decades, Carolyn Wonderland often seemed to be flying under the radar of most blues listeners. Blessed with a rich singing voice and a fiery guitar style, one could easily imagine her becoming a regular on the blues festival circuit. She admits to being a bit socially awkward, but anyone who spends time with her will quickly discover that she has a kind, gentle spirit enthused with a passion for helping others. The last few years brought changes that have finally begun to bring her long over-due attention. And it was another musician who got things rolling.
Over the years, the guitarist got to know Greg Rzab, who had been entrenched as the bass player in John Mayall’s band. One day she got a call from Rzab, extending an offer to guest on several tracks for an upcoming album. Then Mayall got on the phone.
“John said, why don’t you come out and play some shows with us for a bit. I met up with John and the guys at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz Fest for our first show together. Spending the last three years with him was a real education. He is all about playing music. He pushes you to do more, and gives each band member a chance to shine. But it is not necessarily a big drum solo where everyone leaves the stage. John wants us to provide ensemble backing during the drum solo.
“Greg Rzab has great sense of humor musically. He will suddenly throw some funny riff in the middle of his stuff, like the theme from The Pink Panther, which will get a giggle out of John, as he waits to see how Greg is going to get out of that and back to the song. It is liberating to be able to play without any preconceived notions as to how the song must be played. We feel what John is doing, and let things happen naturally. That has helped me get rid of a lot of fear with my own stuff.”
Given the lineage of guitar players that have backed Mayall over the decades, a list that includes Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and Mick Taylor, one could understand if Wonderland felt pressure to live up that legacy. But she had a coping mechanism.
“ It’s scary, so I just tried real hard not to think about it. He sent me about 80 songs to learn in the beginning. Listening to them, I got hip to J. B. Lenoir, who is one of John’s favorite blues artists. Digging up recordings of people he likes, which is much easier in these digital times, I could see what John found so attractive, and it gave me a chance to learn the head licks. For instance, on “All Your Love,” people want to hear that opening part as Clapton played it, but then you have to walk away from it. I would try to go further into Otis Rush stuff, what would he have done, that spoke to me in the same way. You can’t just copy what people did before. You can allude to the head, then jump off. Otherwise, it tends to sap the joy out of it.”
Growing up in Texas, Wonderland can trace her passion for music back to her mother, who sang and played guitar. She was a big hit with the younger generation.
“Both of my parents were really cool. I got super lucky in the parent department! Mom would play in pizzas places when I was a kid. My first memories of her teaching us music was when she was my Girl Scout leader. Everybody knew her as the “guitar lady”. She would be there at the day camps, teaching us all of the songs. If we were learning “This Land Is Your Land,” we would learn all of the verses, including the ones that the Girl Scout Council didn’t want us to know. Mom was really into music, the lyrics and saying what you mean.”
Wonderland still has three of her mother’s guitars. One, a late 1930s student model Martin F-hole archtop was found in the trash in Waco, TX covered in nail polish. Her parents refinished it and brought it back to life. A second acoustic Martin, an 00-18 from the early 1940s, was discovered on a front porch in El Paso with flowers planted in the sound hole.
“Mom asked if she could have it, to save it. I’m glad she did because that particular guitar has songs in it. Some instruments do, some don’t. That guitar, when you play it, something is going to happen. In the little hippie group in Houston where I grew up, she was always known as Mama Land. In the years before her passing, she was living with me in Austin. It was cool to be roommates with her, and to have her meet all of my friends, who revered her. They would look after her while I was out on tour. It was very sweet.”
While Wonderland was intrigued by the piano, even as a youngster she realized that it was far easier to move a guitar from place to place. She liked the trumpet as well, but wanted to be able to sing while playing an instrument. And she had her mother as a constant source of inspiration.
“The guitar was the one. It provides endless amounts of mystery. As soon as you think you’ve got something figured out, you discover there is now three other things to figure out. I think about my Mom a lot when I play her guitars.
“She grew up in Waco, which was a smaller town at that point, and she hadn’t experienced snootiness, if not discrimination against women. When she was pregnant with me, she took the Martin, the one that had the flowers, on a plane as she traveled to Houston, a woman obviously pregnant, by herself with a guitar on her back. She had never seen so many dirty looks in her life. My parents were married but Dad wasn’t traveling with her. I guess women do attract that kind of attention.”
Growing up, Wonderland did plenty of singing, especially with her mother. She always enjoyed it, but her real interest lay elsewhere.
“I loved doing back-up singing, and harmonizing was a hoot. When you can join someone, it sounds so much bigger. There was never intention on my part to be a lead singer. My focus was on trying to be a better guitar player, and to learn to play other instruments. Then, in my high school band, our singer chickened out on our very first gig. So I stood up there, totally sucked, but I did it. The more you do it, the less you stink at it. I think I’ve finally found what my voice sounds like. About to be 50 years old and finally figuring out what your voice sounds like!”
The high school band experience taught the guitarist about the important things, like which band members had a driver’s license, or a PA system. There were also practical lessons on what it takes to be a band leader.
“You have to learn auto mechanics, be versed in psychology, and make sure everyone looks after each other. It’s a good training ground, because everyone is going to have a shit day. When they do, you have to be there for them.”
Committed to music, Wonderland kept plowing away for several years until she made the decision to relocate, searching for different opportunities.
“It seems like I have been doing the same thing forever. When I moved to Austin, I ended up being homeless, living in my van for a couple of years. I’ve had my own house since 2009, which is pretty awesome to come home to, with a beautiful husband and two cats. Shit, it feels like I won the lottery.
“ The main reason for the move was Doug Sahm, the great Texas musician who lead the Sir Douglas Quintet early in his career. He has always been a hero. We met years ago at the High Sierra festival. I think Doug was out with the Gourds. In the autograph line, I marveled at how he made everyone feel like he was there to see them. He asked me what I was up to. My response was that I think I need to move because it feels like I keep writing the same song over and over.
“He asked where I was thinking of going. I told him Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles, I don’t know. He said that I should come to Austin, the land of free guitar lessons. He also pointed out that if I changed my mind, I wasn’t far from home. So Doug was the reason I came to Austin. Unfortunately, he passed away the following year, so we didn’t get much time together.
“One time I was at a favorite funky, beer-soaked, amazing dive bar in Amsterdam where the great jazz trumpet player Chet Baker used to have a thing on that stage. It was my first trip overseas. I stopped in on songwriter night because I was trying to get gigs for my band. When my turn came, I started playing Doug Sahm songs. Everybody knew the words and were singing along. I was like, are you fucking kidding me! It felt like home. They even knew the songs from his posthumous release, The Return Of Wayne Douglas.”
Wonderland had a place to stay when she arrived in Austin. But then her landlady developed dementia, and from time to time misplaced the rent checks. The problems started when the landlady’s family had to step in.
“I would write another check, and never bothered to cancel the original ones, figuring it was no big deal. When her family finally stepped in to take over, they found all of my old checks, and deposited them! I was on the road, and suddenly my credit cards didn’t work. I couldn’t buy fuel, pay for rooms. I called the bank, told them they were multiple checks for rent each month, but no one would hear me out. When I got back from the tour, I got a notice giving me two weeks to move out.
“So there I was, $6,000 overdrawn. So I put my stuff in storage, and figured I would live in the van for a bit. Like most people who start off their adventure in homelessness, I planned to save X amount of dollars over three to six months to have the down payment for an apartment. What I didn’t realize, and you don’t know until you experience it, is that it is damn expensive to be poor. Everything costs more money. That free glass of water you get out of your tap, not so free any more. The opportunity to take a shower or go to the bathroom – not free any more.
“It would get weird and lonely. I would try to stretch tours out an extra day or two so that I could have a hotel room for myself. Once I dropped off the last band member, I would have empty nest syndrome. You don’t understand what it is like until you fully experience it. We understand that being homeless is hard, and rough, but if you don’t have a network or friends, some of the issues are seemingly insurmountable.
“That is what drove me to work with HOME (homeaustin.org), an Austin charitable organization of concerned women with a goal and mission to keep musicians 55 years and older in the Austin area housed. Anything we can do, like paying mortgage or rent, or phone bills. Musicians are being priced out of the city. My house is now worth more than twice what I paid for it, which creates the problem of can I pay for the real estate taxes to stay here. The musicians who rent, which is most of them, are completely priced out. It used to be that you could get a one bedroom for $750 a month. The base rate now is $1,500 and up. How do you do that and play music? Being on the Board of Directors is my way of giving a little bit back to honor the folks who used to put me up in their homes every now and then.”
The guitarist ultimately spent two years living in her van. She became an expert on figuring out her break-even charts, especially for her tours. Sometimes she came home to her husband after a tour with her guitar, and a little bit of debt.
Life as a touring musician can be hazardous, as the guitarist knows from first-hand experience. Some years ago the band was leaving Salt Lake City, heading to northern California. Near Elko, Nevada, they hit a patch of black ice just as they reached a mountain pass.
“It turns out there were six other accidents that night in the same spot. They never shut the road down or salted it. What do I know, I’m from Texas. There were fatalities in some of the the accidents. Once you hit the ice, there is nothing you can do. We ended up on the side of the road, got out of it ok. Then we see an 18 wheeler hit the patch. There was nothing he could do either. The truck was probably going about 50 mph when it started to jackknife, hitting the side of our van. The space-time continuum has a warp that you find when you head into an accident, where everything slows down. They had to cut me out of the van. I had one of the Peterbilt headlights in my lap.
“Our tour manager and I spent a night in the hospital. We were fortunate that none of us were seriously injured. We made it through, so let’s get the fuck out of here and finish the tour. We salvage the gear from the trailer, most of which was still working because we know how to pack, from playing Tetris as children. We got a U-Haul and only missed one gig. Twenty years later I finally got a new van.”
Over the years, Wonderland has released seven studio and live recordings under her name. Her eighth album, Tempting Fate, opened up a new chapter in her career. It was her first release after signing with Alligator Records.
“John Mayall is the best boss ever, a very generous man. After playing in his band the last few years, I had saved up enough to make a record. I had an idea for it, and 3-4 songs that needed to happen now, while they felt urgent and close to the chest. I was up in Woodstock hanging out with Cindy Cashdollar. The label I had been with, Bismeaux Productions, had dissolved. Cindy asked me what I was thinking of doing. I replied that in a perfect world, I’d like to put out a new record, and have Dave Alvin do it. I was just throwing that idea out there. So Cindy called Dave, and he agreed to produce my record.
“So it was no longer a dream, and I had to get things together. Dave came down to Austin for the sessions. The magic trick is, if you want your friends to be on your record, record in January! Chances are they won’t be on tour that month. So I got all of my friends to come and play, including my band plus Marcia Ball, Shelley King, Cindy, and of course Dave, which was amazing. Then Dave said, let’s get Jimmie Dale Gilmore to sing one one song. We dd it so fast, such a great time. You could catch the joy in the room.”
The excitement about the new album was soon obliterated by the onset of the pandemic.
“At that point, the only thing I knew to do was to go on the road and sell the discs out of the back of the van. I don’t know the rest of the business stuff. I’ve tried, but I just don’t understand it. So it looked like I was going to sit on it for a bit. But then I got a call from Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records. He said, I understand that you have a record that I might want to hear. I said I would be honored if you would hear it. I figured that since I am so scattered, and all over the place, so he probably will only like one or two songs. He called me back a couple weeks later to tell me he liked it, and he wanted to put it out as is.
“It was a huge surprise, and so has everything that has happened since that moment. I don’t think we have ever had an album that folks listen to so much, or that the radio Djs still play. It blows my mind. I have written more thank you notes than I ever have before. I don’t know who got Bruce interested. I keep wondering if it was Marcia, but she won’t cop to it.”
Guitarists often have a favorite guitar, or guitar style. For Wonderland, it has always been the Fender Thinline Telecaster guitar. But playing with Mayall opened her ears to other possibilities.
“After two tours, it seemed like something was missing. The Tele seemed to be taking up the same sonic space as the upper register of John’s keyboard. It wasn’t the mix that I hearing when I listened to John’s recordings. It took me a little while to figure out that I needed a guitar with P-90 pick-ups. So I pulled out my Gibson Blueshawk guitar, which had been a gift from a friend years ago. I had always been a bit intimidated by it. Turns out that it is the perfect guitar to play with him. Second gig in, John looked over to say, that’s the guitar, Love. Ok, you got it!
“I still have the Tele and play it at home, along with my Mom’s guitars. I love them all. On the road, it is now the Blueshawk. For the amplifier, my friend Adrian Goepferich here in Austin makes the Tone I/O, a beautiful Class A 20 watt amp. It’s not quite a Fender Princeton or Deluxe, but it is that kind of sound with a little more creaminess. That is my favorite amp these days. Sometimes I will run it in a pair with a Fender Blues Junior amp on top in stereo so, for example, when I sit down to play lap steel guitar, there is a good range of sound and I can hear the guitar no matter where I am. They are small amps that aren’t overpowering yet, if you are playing outside, they are powerful enough so that you can hear the guitar. It can be a little screamer!”
Wonderland got interested in the lap steel guitar at the urging of her drummer for many years, Eldridge Goins, who spotted one in a pawn shop twenty some odd years ago.
“He told me I should have it. So I said ok, but I had no idea as to what to do with it. I figured, if nothing else, I could paddle home from the middle of a lake with it! I went to my watch my friend Cindy Cashdollar, hands down my favorite lap steel player. To be able to ask her questions and pick her brain was perfect. If you go to her website (cindycashdollar.com), she lists what the tunings and string gauges are for six or eight string models, which is a an awesome resource. On the record, the song “Crack In The Wall,” is one I am very proud of, but the part that makes me cry is her lap steel part.”
Wonderland has a great appreciation for people who listen to music they have never heard before. She also proud of several recent awards. On March 8, 2022, she took home two Austin Music Awards, one for Best Blues Artist and a second for Best Guitarist. Two days before that, she received a Feed The Peace Award from the Nobelity Project along with Marcia Ball and Shelley King.
“I’m pretty sure that we got that one for our advocacy and work that we do for HOME Austin. Awards scare me, but that one is very meaningful for me because people like Willie Nelson and Dan Rather have gotten that one. The folks at the Nobelity Project do a lot to make the whole frickin’ world a better place. They work on schools and water projects in Kenya, to schools and reforestation here at home. So it humbles, and awes me a touch.”
Visit Carolyn’s website to see where to catch her live at https://carolynwonderland.com/