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Carolyn Wonderland: A True Texas Guitar Hero(ine) Gets Her SXSW Due

Michael May

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Carolyn Wonderland
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"Miss Understood"
(Carolyn Wonderland)

It's South By Southwest time in Austin, Texas. And right now, the streets are clogged with an event optimistically titled "The Million Musician March" -- it's a peace protest and wandering jam session that's become an annual tradition.

"Brick Wall"
(Carolyn Wonderland)

Leading the march will be Carolyn Wonderland, a singer, songwriter and mean guitar player who has a history of speaking out. She was kicked out of her high school for leading a protest.

But she's all grown up now, and can do what she wants. She's got a new album produced by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, and tonight at midnight she has her official South By Southwest showcase at the legendary club Antone's.

Learning to Play Guitar

Well, I used to sneak around and play on my mom's Martin when she wasn't home, and I'd often get scolded or grounded for it if I hadn't done my chores or if I hadn't washed my hands after grubbing on it last time. I guess I was about 8 years old when I started really started writing songs on it, and wanting to play it every day. And I broke a string -- I remember that very clearly, because I was so proud, I found the right gauge and strung it up. But I strung it up backwards. She didn't find out for two days, and I never heard the end of that. So that Christmas, I got my own guitar.

An Attraction to the Blues

What first attracted me to the blues as a youngster playing guitar is that it was a chance to get to play with a group of people. You've only got so many chords, you've only got so many patterns you can do, but it's what you do with those colors that make it. And that's something that can't be quantified in math, can't be quantified on a chart -- that's your actual soul coming out... So that's what attracted me to the blues.

Staying Close to Her Roots

It's always been an evolution of the sound, always, but it's never strayed from the first things that I heard. I mean, "Still Alive and Well" is one of the songs that we recorded on the new record, "Miss Understood," and that's one of the first guitar riffs that I ever went around the house on my mom's guitar going, "Is this how it goes?" And she was like, "Why don't you take up finger painting?"

Getting Kicked Out of School

I got thrown out of school for leading a protest on a campus after I was suspended for leading a protest at another campus. I was asked to leave right when I turned 17, they said, "Here's the legal age where we can kick her out, and they did." Getting kicked out of school? Well, it meant more time to devote to the guitar. I think it turned out OK. I don't recommend it, but I think it turned out OK.

Hard-Headed Runs in the Family

My dad is about as hard-headed as I am. He was thrown out of school as well, so I guess it runs in the family. His advice was "Well, if you think you know everything, then you better get a job and prove it." I was like, "OK."

Playing in Biker Bars

A lot of the places that would hire me when I was underage were biker bars, by and far. It was never a consideration that I was a chick. And most of the folks there treated me like the dirty kid sister. Which was killer for me, I never had to wear make-up, I never had to do any of that crap. It wasn't until I was on the road, I suppose, where I started to see a little change in treatment.

Always Something to Prove

Before you start playing, people might look at you odd -- "Oh, great! Another strumming guitar chick... Don't break a nail, honey!" Oh, boy howdy. But in a sense, there's always something to prove to someone. So if it lights a fire under your butt, then good for it.

'Van Full' and Always on the Road

Part of living your dreams sometimes is realizing you have to live cheaply. And sometimes you go to extremes to prove something to yourself, and sometimes you put yourself out more than you have to and you give yourself the blues. For example, I was in my van for the better part of two years. It was partly by choice, and partly because there wasn't a lot of money to be made making music. Or, at least, the way that I was going about it, I sure couldn't find it. So that the result of that was just to go on tour all the time, and be OK with that. Even at the point where some people would have considered me homeless, I considered myself "van full," because I always had wheels, and I was always on the road.

A Different Measure of Success

I love getting to play life. I love freaking out. When you're playing, you don't care. I really care more about what I sound like than what I look like on any given night. I'm not thinking. If it's the end of the song, I always get surprised. "What song did we play? What song should play next?" I don't usually have set lists, so sometimes I have to look around to the band. "We haven't played this yet, right?" Because you're outside of yourself. And to me, that's success. It may never come with money, but it sure comes with that. You get to jump out there and do that all the time -- it's really lucky.


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  • By see here here


    When I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment. Is there a means you are able to remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!http://www.baroni-lab.com

    By baroni guitar amp

    From BC, 09/24/2014

    she is amazing and i hope she can play again,but everyone have their freedom to choose what they.i like guitar and enjoy playing it.

    By roland bŁtikofer

    From washington, DC, 07/28/2012

    hi i live i switzerland, i'm looking for the singel, she as got the money in a not LIVE version, did Caroly ever record it tk's

    By Marc Brandon

    From Austin, TX, 10/01/2010

    Carolyn, Just wonering : have you and dylan ever shared musical expression? BTW I think you are the best since janis ( I know you have heard that before) Rock on lady

    By long mary

    From St. Petersburg, FL, 07/16/2009

    omg I love Carolyn wonderland!!! And I really want the chords&lyrics to her song sober.

    By Jane Otte

    From Calgary, 10/06/2008

    Just got back from Austin. Went to the Austin City Limits Fest but the best gig we caught for my 49th birthday was listening to Carolyn perform at the Saxon Pub on September 26th. I've been listening to the blues for a long time and there has not been a performance since I first saw Stevie Vaughn play that has rendered me blissfully speechless. If you get a chance make the trip to wherever Carolyn is playing because friends you will not be disappointed. She has an incredibly soulful voice, plays a mean guitar and her lyrics are original and powerful. She blessed me with her latest CD "Miss Understood" and signed a copy for my birthday. Carolyn not only are you truly talented but you are authentic and a beautiful soul! I hope you come to Calgary one day and bless us with your music!

    By Frances Dowsing

    From Ipswich IP3 0RA UK, KS, 09/30/2008

    I live in England. I heard Carolyn on the radio,amazing.I understand she is performing in Amsterdam later this year, can you send me dates and details please?

    By Chuck Hargens

    From Fremont, NE, 07/24/2008

    Carolyn played for one of our "Playing with Fire" concerts last weekend along with Tab Benoit and what a performanceit was.Dynamite vocals,excellent guitar,and she played the Trumpet,Mandalin and Lap Steel. She is fabulous live!!

    By Sharon Brown

    From Seattle, WA, 07/14/2008

    We caught Carolyn's act at Nutty Brown's in Austin. And loved the music! Meeting her after the show was a huge plus. She is sweet and inspiring. I am happy to have her as a role model for my trumpet playing 13 year old daughter!

    By Steve Bolender

    From San Diego, CA, 07/12/2008

    Caroline is amazing. I just heard her for the first time on NPR and she blew me away. I am no newcomer to the blues and she just made me stop and listen. I just finished going to her site and I bought all 3 of her CDs. Thank you NPR for exposing me to a great artist. Hey Caroline, stop into San Diego real soon!

    By Jeff Albeck

    From Los Angeles, CA, 04/09/2008

    I have listened to a few of her albums and then saw her live at Antones, she kills live, sorry but the albums do not come close. I would drive all night to see her perform, I think she is the essence..

    By Diaa Kristy

    From Oak Park/Berwyn, IL, 03/23/2008

    Hope she comes out to play for us. She's AMAZING!!!

    By Louis Pena

    From Austin, TX, 03/15/2008

    It's about time that the rest of the nation caught onto what we in Austin have known for a long time; Carolyn is jaw-dropping good and can go head to head with the best. If you think her CDs are great you should see her live. You will quit your job to devote all of your spare time to follow her.

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