A story from Dirty Linen magazine #97 (Dec '01/Jan '02).
Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer
Karaoke & Confucius
by Pamela Murray Winters
It starts with dreams.
“Most of the beginnings of my songs come in dreams, or in a waking state that is very similar to a dream state,” mused Dave Carter. “That is, I wouldn’t want to be driving when I was in this state.” He was cocooned in an air-conditioned trailer with his musical partner, Tracy Grammer, while outside in the Philadelphia summer heat the WXPN Singer/Songwriter Festival got underway. Rangy, sort of a beardless Lincoln, with deceptively simple lines to his face, he struggled to translate this inspiration: “And I will hear, just out of the blue…almost…not that I hear voices!”
He flashed a slightly abashed smile and continued. “I will imagine a certain turn of phrase which, for me, has great meaning. And I will hear the basic little musical part that goes with it. So the motif, both lyrically and musically, will hit me at once. Very often, it’ll be like I dream it, but a lot of times I’ll just hear it.
“And from there, I think about the crux of the meaning of that phrase, both lyrically and why it sounds good to me with that music. So that I understand the motivation, in part, for grasping onto that lyric. And from there I work.”
Next move: hit the pedals. “One way I have of [working] is, if I have time, I’ll get on a bicycle, and I’ll ride the bicycle for, like, 20 miles. And I let my pedaling fall into the rhythm of this turn of phrase. And at the end of it I’ll have sheets and sheets and sheets and sheets of lyrics from which I will pare down the stuff… I just pare it all down so I can get it into a song. Some songs I feel call, aesthetically, for a whole gob of lyrics. Like [Dylan’s] ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ There’s a song that would not be right unless it had about a hundred verses.
“Chuang-Tzu tells this story, about this woodcutter, and he’s supposed to be a great sculptor. What he would do was go out into the forest, and he would find the particular piece of wood, the particular stone, and he knew that inside the stone was this shape he would see. So depending on whether I get a stone, or a log, or what the stone’s made out of, or maybe it’s just a dirt clod, that depends on how much paring down that’s gonna be. But you have to start by bringing in the whole uncut block.”
Carter’s is not the only voice that interprets his lyrics. Asked whether there are differences between “Dave songs” and “Tracy songs,” his partner on the sofa, a bird-boned woman with arresting green eyes, shrugged: “He puts more words in my songs!”
Tracy Grammer, too, knows something about dreams. “When I was in the third grade and fifth grade, I got parts in operettas at my elementary school. And in one, I was the modern major general, and in the other, I was the Duke of Plaza-Toro. I don’t know why I got these boys’ parts! I think it was because at that time I had a loud and booming voice relative to all the other kids, and also because I was kind of a stage hog all the time. I was fearless! I would just get out there with my feather in my cap, and my knickers on, and just strut around and do anything. And also I could memorize a lot of lines.”
She tossed off a snippet of classic Gilbert and Sullivan in a clear, earnest voice. “When I think about those parts that I got — the wordplay and the density of the lyrics — it so goes with what I’m doing now.
“I always wanted to sing in the musicals in high school but never got to.” Instead, she played violin in the pit orchestra, returning to singing only after college at Berkeley. “Really, I got my start as a public singer in a karaoke bar in Modesto, California.” Carter’s eyes were closed, and a long-suffering smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as Grammer continued: “My brother and I would go to a place called the Early Dawn, which was right down the street from where we were living, very convenient. And every Sunday night they had karaoke night… I would sing ‘Love is Alive’ by the Judds. And there was a guy named Marshall there, and we would sing ‘Up Where We Belong’ by Joe Cocker—”
Carter murmured, “Are there any more nails you can hammer into the coffin of our reputation?”
Grammer replied impishly, “I haven’t even mentioned John Denver yet! But, yeah, so I started singing this karaoke, and I just loved it. And I even won a prize! I won a free dinner for my karaoke singing.”
Around that time, she also met Curtis Coleman, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, and started attending his gigs. “At some point he got me up on stage, and I remember that first time so clearly — it was terrible. I opened my mouth to sing, and it was just something else altogether that came out. It was this noise that I had no control over at all. I was just totally gone with nervousness. But we did it over and over all through the summer, four nights a week, and I eventually got more comfortable up there, and started to figure out how it all worked. And after that I was just hopeless, you know?”
Elsewhere on the map, Carter was building a reputation in the Portland, Oregon, music scene. Raised in Oklahoma and Texas, he studied at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, where the son of a charismatic Christian mother and an engineer father explored the mysteries of consciousness. (From the school’s website: “The proper role of the personality is to be a translucent window, a servant to divinity within.”) A vision of his dead grandmother sent him from Portland to Nashville in 1995, where he worked the open mikes. He was already a legend in Portland by the day in February 1996 when Tracy Grammer and a friend came to perform at a songwriters’ night at the Buffalo Gap Saloon.
“I had just moved to Portland maybe a month earlier and didn’t know anything about the scene,” Grammer recalled. “I showed up, played violin, hung around, heard lots of good songwriters. And then Dave Carter comes in at the end of the night. He’s been working all day, and he’s all flustered, and he’s kinda running through the audience and everybody’s like ‘Dave Carter’s here! Dave Carter’s here! Shhh!’ ”
Her partner said, “You gotta hear this guy.” Grammer, figuring the rest of the evening’s performers had been pretty good, decided to take notice.
“I had moved to Portland from Berkeley, and my literature studies took me into Native American Lit — that was my focus. And I also had a minor in anthropology.” Carter, with his then-partner, “started to sing this song which had lots of Native American imagery. He was singing with a bit of a twang, and I had grown up on country music, so I was attracted to this.
“And he was so humble. And just — I don’t know, just so not full of himself onstage that I was immediately drawn in. But mostly for the poetry and the twang mixed together. I was just really blown away. And I had one of these moments where everybody else in the room disappeared, and I just focused on this guy.
“It wasn’t so much about ‘this guy,’ ” Grammer clarified. “I knew what I would be doing. I just had this total epiphany and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the kind of music I want to play.’ ”
Grammer ran into Carter after the show. He spotted her violin case and said “Hey, let’s play music sometime.” She agreed — “which was unlike me, because I was shy, and scared I couldn’t do it, and kinda insecure about whatever talent I had or didn’t have. But I agreed to do it. My better angel said, ‘You better say yes.’ ”
Carter had a five-piece band at the time. “The first time I heard her play, when she came on the first day to play with the band, I knew that everybody else was going away eventually,” Carter mused. After Grammer joined, the band became a sort of musical tontine: “People started having kids and building houses and getting other jobs, and everybody just left. And Tracy and I were the only people left who had nowhere left to go.”
It was 1998 when they emerged as a duo. And emerge they did, like Athena springing full-grown from her dad’s brow. That year, “We entered and won song contests at Kerrville New Folk, Napa Valley, and Wildflower,” Grammer said. They recorded their first album, When I Go, in Grammer’s kitchen. By the time Tanglewood Tree came out in 2000, they were already the source of buzz among fans of modern folk music.
No, wait — make that “postmodern mythic American folk music,” the best tag line they’ve created to describe a music that is at once fundamentally simple and unerringly transcendent. There’s a familiarity in the downhome harmonies, and Carter’s compositions tend to sound like newly mined traditional songs — studded with dry humor, proper-name references from Merlin to Elvis, and mind-bending turns of phrase:
When they hear my bowstrings tight’nin
Angels gay and devils fright’nin
Come on fire and midnight lightnin
To the garden gancy
Hail the wayward werewolf howlin
Haints and shades and goblins growlin
Fiends and demon deevs prowlin
When I break and fancy
“If you have a dream, every little thing that happens in that dream has an immense amount of significance,” Carter explained. “So if you truly, carefully, and accurately translate that up into something cognitive, like lyrics, then, in spite of your best efforts, it’s going to be dense.” So does he walk around in a daze, constantly muttering his transmissions from the great unknown into a pocket-sized Sony? “After you do a lot of dream work, you get to where you can remember your dreams easily, and after you do a lot of music, you get to where you learn melodies and harmonies very easily. This is harder than it might sound, especially the music part. It actually involves physical development of the brain in specialized ways.”
Grammer notes that a new travel-sized guitar means that “we can work on music in the van now, which is nice… he can be playing over and over again and getting into a sort of meditative state, or whatever state is required to write songs.” An intensive tour schedule, including upcoming dates in support of Joan Baez, keeps them in the van a lot. “We basically are playing at every house in America, I’m pretty sure,” Carter deadpanned.
They also practice in the van, though Carter said they don’t spend a lot of time practicing. Grammer described their arrangements as “totally intuitive.” They listen to a wide range of music — certainly country and classical, but also such unexpected styles as opera and hip-hop. What they hear is filtered into their arrangements. Carter, who plays guitar and banjo as well as singing harmony and lead vocals, is especially impressed by Grammer’s musical sensibility. Of Grammer, who plays violin and mandolin along with vocals, Carter said, “What I really love about Tracy’s music, and the way that Tracy plays — it’s all about interpretation and what’s appropriate. The jazz pianist Bill Evans, that’s the person whom I compare Tracy’s folk/singer/songwriter violin playing to, because she doesn’t get out there and do much hotdogging.”
Grammer, in keeping with her personality (in the Chinese zodiac, she’s an “earth monkey”), cited a mundane influence for her style of playing. “In high school, I did a series of four musicals. And although I always wanted to be onstage, singing the songs and acting the parts, because we had a small orchestra at my school, I was stuck in the pit. Being in the pit, and watching the action onstage, and considering exactly when you were going to start those notes, how loud you were going to be and support that singer… that’s exactly my approach, a very musicals-oriented approach, where I’m just trying to perpetuate what’s happening in the song and not just jump out and say ‘And Tracy Grammer, Violin!’
“I don’t care if I only play one note on the violin. If that’s the right note for that song, that’s all I’m gonna do.”
“Her violin is over 200 years old,” Carter mused, “and it was smashed at one time and put back together. And there’s a sadness and sorrow and pain and depth of knowledge and sensibility to Tracy’s playing and to the sound that comes out of that violin. And that’s because the violin itself has gone through death and resurrection. And there’s a wisdom there in that all the pain and sensitivity Tracy carries; there’s a resonance between that and the violin that she plays such that she gets this amazing variety of heartrending tone out of the thing. I really think there’s nobody else like her in the world.”
A potent yet strange combination of forces, from Taoism to karaoke, brought Carter and Grammer together to conceive their heavenly-and-earthly music. These forces are represented, in a way, by the title of their latest album, drum hat buddha. Carter explained that the title came from continuing attempts to explain the kind of music they make. “I thought, wouldn’t it be better if we could just present three images [so] that maybe people could get a certain gestalt about what it is that we’re trying to do. So we have the shaman’s drum, which I feel like relates to the heartbeat and trance states. Also to the body — also the Native American influences and the old Celtic influences. And the cowboy hat has that Texas thing going on. It also relates to the head and mind. And then we are hoping that within our work, all the time, there’s this transcendental principle running through the whole thing, which would be symbolized by the buddha.”
“It also happened that we have each of those three items in our house,” Grammer added. “ ’Cause Dave made the shaman’s drum that’s on the cover, and that’s his cowboy hat — I’ve never seen him wear it — and his little buddha. There was a joke for a while that we were going to call the album ‘Dave’s Favorite Things.’ But we think drum hat buddha is better.”
Carter picked up the CD. “This was Tracy’s idea.” Under the disc, the three elements are combined into a sort of mandala.
“It was my idea,” Grammer acknowledged, “but our graphic designer [Thorin Nielson] just did a fabulous job. I’ve never met anybody who totally gets what we’re doing and can represent it visually so well.”
Here are two people who appreciate beauty, especially when it radiates through the concrete. Before I could even ask a favorite question — is creativity a necessity in life? — Carter chose the same topic. Perhaps it was in response to the suggestion that the world is full of singer/songwriters, most of whom don’t have the gifts these two have.
“The real message of Confucius,” Carter began, and then uttered a nervous laugh, as if fearing he’d come off like some kind of a pompous freak — “which people don’t understand, is that the basis of education in society should be poetry. His fundamental thing was that society should be structured on poetry. Poetry is the source from which all real knowledge springs. That is our gateway to understanding. In that sense, I’m really a Confucian. I would just like to see everybody do this. But of course I come from kind of a biased point of view.
“But you know, some people would say, ‘Look, who cares about poetry? We need to build a bridge.’ But you know, if you can’t see poetry in the bridge, you’re gonna have a nation with these really gnarly-looking bridges that are not oriented towards human beings. And we’ve known this now in architecture for 30 or 40 years. Architecture now is less about steel and glass and structural hierarchical functions and more about making the city human. I just think that this principle translates to just about everything there is.”
“Portland is a great example of a city that practices this,” Grammer chimed in, about the couple’s home town. “Portland is really hell bent on preservation and making sure things fit in. Everything you do makes sense as part of the whole.” This is true, Grammer says, not only of the city’s architecture, but also of its acceptance of artists. “It’s not just like you’re this part that’s out here, doing this strange thing that nobody else understands. Art is everywhere.”
Like the city they call home, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer prove that authenticity and dreams can walk hand in hand.
Dave Carter on Feeding Your Head
Curious about the emphasis on altered consciousness in Dave Carter’s comments, I asked him: “What do you think about the use of mind-altering substances or methods — meditation, marijuana, peyote, prayer, prolonged periods of staying awake, etc. — in relationship to your songwriting?”
He addressed the topic readily, and with his usual blend of spiritual reaching and common sense.
“It’s important to say something about addictions at this point. I’ll just say this, and rational people can criticize me all they want. Still, I stand by the truth of the following irrational words: A substance like peyote or hemp is the doorway to the house of a particular spirit. This spirit can show you many visions and truths. But if you enter his house too often, or with few defenses, he will make you a prisoner there. He may also wound you during your stay.” He noted that he was using male pronouns for convenience’s sake.
“Visions you find on your own are harder won, but they are equally potent and they are yours. Shamanic work (and this includes deep songwriting) is perilous enough as it is. I would add that, if one does choose to traffic with these spirits, one should approach the substance involved with reverence. A lot of people would say that casually lighting up a joint every few hours is like walking in and out of the spirit’s house without knocking, much less calling to say you’re coming. You can have every expectation that he will take umbrage at this.
“So, I don’t use any mind-altering substances at all. That includes alcohol and tobacco. However, let me add that for a very few people, the ritual use of some of these substances may be appropriate, and the idea of someone being incarcerated because they're in possession of the “wrong” plant (particularly hemp) is abominable to me. That said, I personally don’t want to play around with my brain cells or my ability to focus. I have found myself perfectly capable of vision without using substances. I do meditate and pray. I keep a dream journal sometimes, and I often go without sleep. There are a number of other methods for achieving different states of consciousness, and I practice many of those.”