Carolyn Wonderland: Real and Ready for the blues in Woodstock

Carolyn Wonderland. Photo by Ismael Quintanilla.

In an age of uncertainty, Carolyn Wonderland is real. 

Her soul, her spirit, her passion, her charm, her humility and her endurance—it’s all so real. 

I’ve seen Carolyn perform numerous times in the Town of Woodstock. I’ve chatted with her off stage. I’ve watched her dazzle audiences. I’ve seen her fans leave her shows in a daze, their burdens eased. 

I don’t know what else to say about blues guitarist and vocalist Carolyn Wonderland than she is real. Go see her perform at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on Saturday, Nov. 20, and I am sure that you will see how her humanity can consume a room. Click here for ticket information.

And then there are her guitar chops, her deep-from-the-gut singing and that vibe, that unpretentious, how-ya-doin-vibe from this musician, who would be as much at home in a saloon as an arena.

Carolyn Wonderland. Photo by Marilyn Stringer.

Performing professionally since 15, Wonderland spent three years as lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and recently signed with Alligator Records as the label’s first female guitarist.

Her new album, the 10-song “Tempting Fate,” features her longtime road band, bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance, as well as guest appearances from Ulster County’s very own Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel guitar, Marcia Ball on piano, Shelley King on background vocals, Jan Flemming on accordion and Red Young on organ and piano. Producer Dave Alvin plays guitar on three songs.

Highlights include a roaring rendition of the Grateful Dead‘s “Loser” and a swinging version of Bob Dylan‘s “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry.”

Born Carolyn Bradford in Houston, Texas in 1972, Wonderland started making music at age 6 and had decided by age 8 that she was a musician. She plays trumpet, accordion, lap steel, piano, and mandolin. 

By age 15, Wonderland was playing Houston’s famed Fitzgerald’s club. As a 16-year-old, she was swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt. She and her husband, humorist and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus A. Whitney Brown, were married by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.

Thank you Carolyn for dedicating your Bearsville Theater show to Ulster County resident Chris Howe, who was a pivotal member of the team at Levon Helm Studios, where Carolyn delivered some of her most memorable performances.

Chris, a retired Ulster County Corrections Officer who worked directly with Levon during the Midnight Rambles, recently passed away. The Bearsville Theater is pledging a portion of proceeds from Saturday night’s ticket sales to The Levon Helm Memorial Scholarship Fund at Onteora High School, in honor of Chris, whose family will be at Carolyn’s show.

And, of course, thank you Carolyn for taking the time to answer the following questions. Woodstock awaits your arrival!

1 – What inspires you?

Life. Joy. Sadness. Confusion. Love, unrequited and otherwise. When I’m happy, I like to sing about it. When I’m mad or confused by something, there seems to be a pen and paper on every table. 

2 – What do you love so much about music that you’ve built a career around it?

Music is the only constant in my life. It connects me to friends and loved ones who are no longer with us and it comforts me to know I am contributing a small thread to the tapestry of music in the ether. 

3 – What do you like about playing the guitar?

The versatility and ability to accompany oneself. I love piano, but they aren’t as portable. You can’t just whip one out at a campfire. I love trumpet, but i can’t sing and play at the same time. While I feel instruments are meant for everyone, I do remember being asked once what it was like to be female and play guitar in a male dominated field, as if the guitar was made exclusively for males to play. I had to jokingly argue based on just the shape that it was made for women. I mean, whose upper body fits that curve better? (Ha, ha).

Carolyn Wonderland. Photo by Ismael Quintanilla.

4 – Can you describe your creative process? Your songwriting process?

Some songs come complete to me while driving, others like “Crack in the Wall” take more consideration. I was so taken aback and broken hearted hearing that child’s voice in Tornillo, after being separated from their parents at the border, crying out, “quiero a mi mami,” that I locked myself in my room for days working on that song. My husband is incredibly supportive and would slide me a sandwich and check on me as I went to the dark space required to get that song right.  

5 – What are your thoughts on becoming the first female guitarist signed to Alligator Records?

I don’t know what to think of that, really. I just hope I’m a decent enough musician and songwriter to earn my keep. It is not lost on me that I am where I am, standing on the shoulders of women who came before and inspired me. My mom was the first guitarist I ever heard, so it never seemed odd to me to play. I loved hearing Debbie Davies in Albert Collins’s band, watching Deborah Coleman, Sue Foley, Joanna Conner, Joan Jett and, growing up in Houston, there was plenty to absorb from cool players like Allison Fisher, in addition to the plenitude of groovy dudes playing. That, and my favorite lapsteel player is and always has been Cindy Cashdollar. I think she’s going to join us at Bearsville on November 20!

6 – You’ve played often in Woodstock and the Hudson Valley. What keeps drawing you back?

There is a magical pull to Woodstock. I have felt the tug on my heart since we first drove through in the 90’s on tour. Playing with Levon Helm has to be one of the most life affirming things I have ever been lucky enough to do. Also, good things happen whenever we’re there, for cosmic reasons beyond my understanding. Like, I got the call from Greg Rzab and John Mayall, to join Mayall’s band, while packing my bags in Woodstock one morning; and I was at Cindy Cashdollar’s house discussing who I would  want to produce my new album (which became Tempting Fate), and my dream of having Dave Alvin produce came true when she called Dave and he said yes! Some of my favorite people live there, and I still pinch myself that I got to be in Amy Helm’s “SKYLARK: A Night of Songbirds,” with so many amazing women! 

Carolyn Wonderland. Photo by Laura Carbone.

7 – The arts are often a refuge in tumultuous times. Has music helped you weather the COVID-19 pandemic? If yes, how?

Music can soothe the savage beast and let you roar in equal measure. I was really touched during the shutdown, watching musicians and tour managers give their time to help folks who had it worse. Shelley King (who I kidnapped for this tour,) Marcia Ball, and I volunteer with our 501(c)3 charity www.HomeAustin.org to keep musicians 55 and older in the Austin area housed. We’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and with the pandemic we found more folks in need of our services and found ourselves producing livestreams to raise funds instead of our traditional live shows. (Our next star studded event will stream December 1)

8 – Has the pandemic shaped your creativity at all?

We all had to learn to pivot, pick up new skills, and sometimes the music had to take a backseat to more pressing matters. I learned to half-ass record and mix and was fortunate enough to not have to pawn my gear. I know I was very lucky in that regard.

9 – What does the future hold for you?

Hard to say. Driving to the next gig as I type. I hope we stay healthy, safe, and make the gig successful enough for the venue to continue taking chances on bands like us. I guess I’m saying, “Safe travels and dangerous music to us all!” I really look forward to writing more songs so I can call on Dave Alvin, my favorite damn producer, again, to record them for our next Alligator album. 

10 – Is there a song you did not write, that you love so much you wish you did write it? If yes, which song and why?

My friend and one time band mate Vince Welnick wrote this beautiful song with Robert Hunter called “Golden Stairs,” that we recorded with the Jerry Lightfoot Band of Wonder. Having Vince direct my voice on his song was such a thrill and great learning experience! After Jerry and Vince died, I had a hard time hearing it without crying my eyes out. I went ahead and cut it again for an earlier album of mine, “Peace Meal” on Bismeaux, (my home for 4 albums in ten years or so) with the amazing Larry Campbell producing one snowy day at Levon Helm Studios. 

11 – What inspired “Tempting Fate?”

Having been in Mayall’s band a few years, I had songs stored that wanted to be recorded. I got lucky, recorded with all of my friends January of 2020 at Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Studios at the Mosaic Collective. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it during the pandemic, and was stoked and surprised when Bruce Iglauer asked to hear it and then invited me join the Alligator family. 

12 – Is there anything you’ve learned, personally, musically, professionally, from John Mayall? 

I hope so! John is the best boss ever! It’s always good to see how other people do what you’re aiming to do, and John runs a musical finishing school you never want to leave. Everyone around him genuinely loves him. I only hope I can be partially as cool and together as him. He is so joyful playing music. 

13 – What do you hope your fans take home from your live performances?

A good memory and hopefully folks are inspired to take chances on more live music! That, and a CD if they are inclined to be a patron of the arts. We’ll use that to make the next one! 

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