When Chatter asked Carolyn Wonderland how many Houston Press Music Awards she's won, she confessed she couldn't remember, as she was often out on tour when they were presented. After ruling her hometown's blues-rock scene for most of the '90s with her band the Imperial Monkeys, where she racked up all those awards for both her singing and guitar skills, Wonderland moved to Austin around 2003 and fit right in.
She almost immediately became a fixture at Antone's, the state capital's legendary "Home of the Blues." Wonderland sang with South Austin's finest in nondenominational gospel group the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers, signed to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel's Bismeaux Records and won a very prominent fan in Bob Dylan.
On her second Bismeaux album, this month's fiery Peace Meal, Wonderland's collaborators include Dylan's longtime sideman Larry Campbell and ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, who produced her version of the Elmore James classic "Dust My Broom." She admits she still gets starstruck.
"Mostly I just try to remember to breathe, and before I say anything to consider it," says Wonderland, who married former Saturday Night Live writer A. Whitney Brown on Zilker Park's Doug Sahm Hill last year. "I have a habit of occasionally the mouth goes on before the brain's fully kicked in."
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Chatter: You've said Houston blues singers like Trudy Lynn were big role models for you. Where would you go see these people?
Carolyn Wonderland: Sometimes at Reddi Room, sometimes at Pearl's Cotton Club. Evening Shadows was a real cool place to go see Joe Hughes. I don't know if that one's still there; it was at Wheeler and — what was that, Dowling? It was a little off the beaten path, but those places never carded me. Never. A lot of the rock clubs, that was an issue.
C: What about as a guitarist — which local guys were a big influence on you?
CW: Terri Greene — huge, just because his reach always extends his grasp. There's always this crazy shit he goes for, and he brings it back home. Lil Screamin' Kenny, because his tone is so much his own. Same with Joe Hughes. There's so many. And everybody I've played with, really.
I mean, God, Eric Dane and Scott Daniels — those two are the finest guitar players I've known. I'm lucky I got to hang out and learn some for so many years.
C: I caught some strong country hints on Peace Meal, especially on the songs you wrote. What do you think?
CW: I think that's a fair assessment. It's hard to favor one genre over the other. They seem like kids or different languages — one is never better than the other, but why not mix 'em up? Sometimes a song comes out, and that's the way it is. There's no turning it into something else.
C: What about gospel?
CW: I dig some gospel music, man. I suppose everyone in gospel music clings to the part of the story, or the piece of the elephant that they believe in most. For me it's that whole Prince of Peace thing.
C: What impressed you most about working with Mike Nesmith?
CW: He was so encouraging, it was a lot of fun. Much like Larry — both guys would sit back with their eyes closed and take things in for a bit. You'd think it would be intimidating, but it wasn't. He was very generous and sweet. It was cool. We spent a couple of days in there trying different things.
The main impetus for that track to begin with was that it was a companion piece for his book, so we were playing the part of his bar band. It's cool, because otherwise I probably would have never tried to do "Dust My Broom." It's such a standard, so many people really kick ass on it. It's not my forte, but it came out groovy.
C: Tell me a little more about why Blood on the Tracks is one of your favorite Dylan albums.
CW: It just seems so naked to me. I don't know, maybe that's not the right word. It's a cry, but it's a hopeful cry, high but not so lonesome. That's how I should describe my country songs — high and not so lonesome (laughs).
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