Blues Guitarist Carolyn Wonderland Shreds, Slings & Sings With The Best (INTERVIEW)

Texas native, Carolyn Wonderland, has been a force of nature with her powerhouse vocals and her guitar-slinging. She has thrilled audiences worldwide with her Janis Joplin-like vocals and her Stevie Ray Vaughan caliber of shredding. The description sounds cliche until you experience Wonderland bringing the soul of Texas blues to life. Words are scarce that adequately describe what Wonderland delivers live. 

Wonderland’s music is heavily blues-influenced with rock, soul and gospel flavors. The multi-instrumentalist has mastered the guitar, accordion, trumpet, piano, mandolin, and lap steel. “I picked up whatever was laying around the house and learned to play,” she says.

Born Carolyn Bradford, she dropped out of high school to pursue her musical career. Wonderland moved from Houston to Austin in 1999. She has accumulated multiple awards over the years from Best Blues Songwriter of the Year to Best Female Vocalist. Wonderland tours regularly with her band and began touring with John Mayall two years ago as his lead guitarist and singer. 

In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wonderland is homebound like the rest of the world. She had finished recording a new album in January and was set to tour with her band. Instead, she is doing live gigs from her home every Wednesday on Facebook. We caught up with Wonderland from her busy schedule at home for a chat and here is what we learned.

I understand you recently finished a new album and are ready to release it. Can you tell us about it?

I just finished recording it in January. This is the first record I did myself without a record label to put the money up. We thought, it’s cool. We’re going to go on the road, April through September and I’ll recoup. Nope! (laughing). I’m so super glad that we did it though cause if it had been any later, how would I have justified it to myself?

Tell me some more about this new album. Is it all original songs or cover songs?

It’s a little bit of everything. There’s a lot of stuff I wrote and then there’s obscure stuff that my band has done for years that we have never recorded. Dave Alvin produced it. I was super excited. It’s frightening when you ask a hero and they say yes and you go ‘oh, shit. Now I’ve got to get it together.’  We had such a great time recording it. Everybody was sitting up straight and playing really well. We had a bunch of friends come over. Cindy Cashdollar happened to be in town and Jimmie Dale Gilmore was there too. There’s a Billy Joe Shaver song, “Honey Bee” along with a Robert Hunter song, Jimmie Dale turned me on to the Dylan song, “Takes a Lot to Laugh and a Train to Cry.” I used to do “Honey Bee” in my live shows. It’s one of my favorites to perform. I never thought to record it. It was such a fun, live romp. In the studio it was really cool to take it apart and put some accordion on it. I can’t wait to share it. I haven’t decided how we are going to release it now. We are talking to a couple of labels, but I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. 

I don’t want the Coronavirus to dominate this interview. It is everywhere. I’ve heard they would like to open things up in Texas soon.

It’s not quite on the level as Georgia, but there is talk of opening things up. A friend of mine took a picture of an outside restaurant and the only person there wearing a mask was the server. They were not observing social distancing. It’s so heavily politicized. Covid-19 doesn’t give a damn what your politics are. It doesn’t care if you’ve got money or if you don’t.

While covering the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I was photographing the John Mayall set in the blues tent. To my surprise, you were playing with Mayall. How did you get involved with him?

That was my first gig with him. It was scary. Years ago, in the nineties, I had done a tour with Buddy Guy and his band. His rhythm section at the time was Greg Rzab and Ray the Killer Allison. It was one of the best rhythm sections I have ever heard, amazing. So Rzab and I have run into each other over the years. He’s been in John’s band for the last 15 or 20 years. John had been touring as a trio for a couple of years after Rocky (Athas) had left. He had been having fun with that. It was a totally different sound. You think about all the changes he has done. Like here’s an album with no drums. John always has some cool, experimental ideas. He decided he wanted a guitar player again. They called and asked if I would play a couple of songs on their record. I was actually up in Woodstock at the time. I had just come from visiting Levon’s (Helm) grave. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll record a couple of things.’ After that, John asked if I wanted to go on the road. I didn’t think that would be the amount of touring that he does. Man, that guy plays a lot. (Laughing). The tour we did last spring was 45 or 50 shows in 55 or 60 days in 19 countries. You don’t hardly see anything on tour but the bus or the stage. It was amazing.

He has amazing taste in guitar players. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, and Walter Trout to name a few. I’d say you are in good company. 

Getting to learn all those parts was cool!

Let’s get a little bit of Carolyn Wonderland history. Wonderland is not your birth name. How did you decide on Wonderland?

I decided when I started playing music to change my name just in case. I didn’t want to embarrass my family. (Laughing). I booked a gig in high school and we really didn’t have a name for the band. I had a friend who was into mind-altering substances gave me some and put the headset on. We listened to everything Hendrix ever recorded on reel-to-reel. He dubbed me Wonderland and I said I’m sticking with that. (Laughing)

How did you get into music?

My mom played and there’s always been instruments around the house. Her mom and dad played instruments as well. There was like a flea market piano around the house. I still have my mom’s Martin guitars and a Strat hanging on the wall right now. There was always guitars and pianos. My aunt had a trumpet. When junior high band came around, I had a trumpet to play on. It’s just been a thing. I started writing when I was about eight. My family was not professional musicians. My grandma worked in an auto parts place and my mom did special education and was a girl scout leader. We would play in coffee shops. There was a little place in Bellville she would go play. I’d go take quarters out of their tip jar and go play video games when I was a kid. I would occasionally sing high harmony on a Jerry Jeff Walker song. My mom was into the Stones, rock and roll and country.

My dad was from Chile and he was more into Brubeck and Peter, Paul and Mary. He was mostly into Brubeck and Johnny Ace and folks like that. It was really funny too. 

One time, on tour, we went to the Rochester Jazz Festival. We were playing with Jake Shimabukuro, an amazing ukulele player. Brubeck was playing the next night. He came into the theatre to see which piano he wanted to play. Knowing he was my dad’s favorite, I called my dad up. I said, ‘Oh my God, listen to this, it’s Dave Brubeck checking out the piano. It’s crazy.’ I got my dad’s answering machine. I said, ‘Listen to this!’ When Brubeck was done and I finished my soundcheck, he came over to say hello.   He extended his hand and I shook his hand. I didn’t think you were supposed to do that, but he offered his hand. My phone rang at the same time and it was my dad calling me back. My dad’s ring tone was “Blue Rondo a la Turk” I got this really bemused look from Mr. Brubeck! I was blushing and thinking, “Okay back out.’ It must have made him giggle for a good long while. Crazy girl!

It really helps to be a little crazy! If you were to only be able to listen to three albums in the next year, what would those albums be?

Let’s see. Probably Freddie King’s Texas Cannonball. Since we were mentioning Brubeck, one of the records would be Take Five. Man, that is such a hard call. Maybe the Blasters’ American Music or Townes Van Zandt. It really depends on which itch you are trying to scratch. You know what actually, the album The Band. The New Year Eve’s show album. It’s really amazing.

Dead or alive, who would you like to meet?

Golly! That’s a tough one. Dead or alive, huh? Einstein really. I would want to get a grip on where he’s coming from. I would like to see what he thinks about where his theories have been proven or disproven and what he thinks about that.

Who would you like to see perform that is either dead or alive?

 Of course, I never got to see Hendrix, so I’d like to see Hendrix. If I could, I’d give anything to see Levon (Helm) perform again. The first time I saw him was in New Orleans when he had that club for a little while. The last four or five times was at his house in Woodstock. 

What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

 I worked at the makeup counter at Walgreens. First of all, I don’t know how to apply makeup. Second, teenage me didn’t want to do anything unless it had something to do with the guitar. People would come by and ask me questions about products and I was like uh, the stereotypical kid. I did not know shit about being a store clerk. Any job that I had was a way to support my music. I had some interesting jobs over the years though. I painted houses for a bit. 

If you weren’t a musician what would you be?

I don’t know. I haven’t thought of anything I’m good at. Music is the only thing that has held my attention. I have no idea. I suppose I would just crochet. 

Who is your biggest influence?

My mom for sure. She is no longer living. I’m the eldest in my family, I believe. I have one older aunt. 

What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

I don’t know if it was in words as much as in example. I think hanging out with Levon was a huge life lesson. It didn’t matter how shitty things might be around him, he was the most joyful person to perform with. He made sure that everybody he had on stage with him knew that they were appreciated. That was a huge thing.

My friend Teri Greene once said “Live cheap because you are playing music. Music is the reward. There is no guarantee of any monetary success. You play to play.” He’s a guitar player from Houston. He’s still around kicking it. If I’m not mistaken, he will be turning 70 this year. I used to do an apprentice under him when I was a kid. He taught me how to sauter amplifiers. That’s what I would do if I wasn’t a musician. I would repair amplifiers. 

 What inspires your music?

Usually when I’m upset by something or if I can’t figure something out. You know how it is when you’re happy or in love or your dancing and having a good time about it. When I’m angry about something, there is a pen on every table calling me. Just write it out and most of the time I’ll just write it for myself. It’s more like a writing exercise. I think, ‘okay I got that out.’ Then later, I’ll think, ‘That’s it. That’s what I wanted to say.’ 

Most songs come to me when I’m driving and everybody’s asleep in the van. We haven’t done that in a while. Everybody’s asleep and the sound of the wheels on the road starts a rhythm. The words just start coming and the melody starts coming. I’m always happy that I have that little voice recorder. Otherwise everyone in the van would wake up to the sound of me singing the same lines over and over like in the old days. 

Do you have any dreams you would like to come true?

Yes, of course. I think about here in Austin, there’s a group I’ve been on a charity board called HOME and we do our best to provide assistance for people 55 and older in the Austin area to keep them in their houses. We will make payments directly to their landlord, utility companies and things like that. I have this dream of one-day having retirement homes for musicians that are set up near elementary schools so that the kids can come by after school instead of having to have babysitters that their folks might not be able to afford. Instead, have the kids hang out with people of their grandparents’ generation teaching music that would have skipped them. It’s a pipe dream that would take a whole lot of money but Sarah Brown who is also on the board with me. Sarah is an amazing bass player, great singer and cool ass songwriter. She has an amazing name for it. She wanted to call it Da Coda. The ‘coda’ is the best part of the song. 

I read that you give ten percent of your earnings to ‘WhyHunger.’ Is this correct?

Yes, different groups at different times. For WhyHunger we did an entire album like every time Piece Meal was sold, ten percent went to WhyHunger.org. We’re not a big record selling band but it’s nice to be able to write a check and go ‘hey, thank you, this many people bought this record, thank you.’ Sometimes I might do it on a song-by-song basis to the Arch Resource Center for the Homeless here. They have a song of mine. Norml.org gets one for obviously for a pot song I wrote. Farm Aid gets one for a farmer song. You find folks that need them. Doctors Without Borders I think was the last song I did. These days its pretty much ten percent seems to go pretty quickly.

What do you think about all of these food lines that are on television now?

 It’s frightening. I really love the Food Bank here in Central Texas. They do a really decent job. It’s scary regarding the kids in school since it was their two meals. I can only speak about my local community, the ISD has a program now where you can drive in with your parents and they have a meal for the adults now which they did not have budgeted for a long time. You bring your own bag and can get two meals and take it home. 

It’s hard to make a living as a performer while you are hunkered down. I noticed that you are doing a live set on Facebook on Wednesdays.

We’ve been doing live shows so I can give my band something. It’s not a living, but I can give them something until we can get back together. We’ve all filed for unemployment, but none of us have been successful yet. I filed for one of those PPE’s but I was told, ‘Good luck. be sure to apply again. We promise that the hole isn’t smaller than the ball this time.’ 

Carolyn Wonderland’s Wednesday’s Live at Wonderland can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/wonderchicken

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