Home Read Albums Of The Week: Carolyn Wonderland | Tempting Fate

Albums Of The Week: Carolyn Wonderland | Tempting Fate

The Bluesbreakers guitarist pulls no punches on her latest powerhouse release.

ALCD 5007

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The more guitar you play, the more you sing, the better you get,” says award-winning Texas guitar slinger, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Carolyn Wonderland. She would know. Since performing her first professional gig at age 15, she’s never stopped singing and making music.

Her approach includes a bold mix of timeless original songs and reinventions of some of her favorites, ranging from blistering electric blues to deep, heartfelt ballads to cosmic country to soulful Tex-Mex. Every song is fueled by Wonderland’s forceful yet melodic Texas-flavored guitar work and her full-throated, heart-on-her-sleeve vocals. She’s recorded 10 previous albums under her own name, including four produced by famed musician Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel. Wonderland, who spent the last three years as lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, ushers in the next chapter in her remarkable story with the Dave Alvin-produced Tempting Fate, where her spine-chilling, soul-deep singing matches her guitar prowess note for note.

On Tempting Fate, Wonderland delivers 10 riveting songs, including five fiery originals (and one co-write with her Mayall bandmate Greg Rzab). On every song — from the searing, guitar-heavy Broken Hearted Blues to the tender and poignant Crack In The Wall to the very upbeat Texas Girl And Her Boots to the politically charged Fragile Peace And Certain War to the take-no-prisoners version of The Grateful Dead’s Loser — Wonderland throws herself completely into the music. Her shining duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on Bob Dylan’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry redefines the song. Her explosive guitar work and commanding vocals on John Mayall’s The Laws Must Change makes his song hers.

In addition to her longtime road band — bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance — anchoring every song, guests on Tempting Fate include Gilmore, 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, with producer Alvin playing guitar on three songs. “I got to record a dream list of songs and play with a dream list of people,” Wonderland says. “And Dave really got me to kick the doors in.”

Photo by Marilyn Stringer.

Alvin says, “I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues that incorporate bits of folk, country and even psychedelic riffs, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling. Her ability to move from intimate, whispery gentleness to earth shaking, Saturday night bar-room loudness, always impresses me, both for the obvious gifts of her vocal range but also how well she uses it to advance the drama or the story of the song. I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keep them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”

Wonderland, born Carolyn Bradford in Houston in 1972, grew up in a house full of music and instruments. She first starting making music at age six, and by eight had decided, in her own mind, that she was a musician. After she scratched up her mother’s vintage Martin guitar by imitating Pete Townsend’s famous windmill move, she was forbidden from using a pick. Because of that, she developed her aggressive, distinctive finger-picking guitar attack. Her early influences include her mom, Houston guitar legends Albert Collins, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes and Little Screamin’ Kenny, as well as blues and soul vocalist Lavelle White. Singing came naturally, as did learning to play just about every instrument she got her hands on. She plays trumpet, accordion, lap steel, piano, and mandolin. She’s a whistler, too. Her renowned whistling can be heard to great effect on her song On My Feet Again.

By age 15, she was performing at Houston’s famed Fitzgerald’s club, playing solo or with friends. As a 16 year old, she found herself swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt. She formed her first band when she was 17, and began proving herself on the tough, competitive Houston club scene. A year later, she joined forces with famed Houston musician Little Screamin’ Kenny and formed The Imperial Monkeys. Before long, Carolyn Wonderland And The Imperial Monkeys were swinging high on the vine, touring as far as Utah, New York and South Dakota, and winning every music award Houston had to offer. A booking at Austin’s famous Antone’s club left a strong mark on Wonderland, who moved to Austin in 1999 at the urging of Doug Sahm (who told her, “It’s the land of free guitar lessons”). For two years she traveled with her band in her van, and stayed with friends in Austin and on the road, trading chores for meals and lodging. “I wasn’t homeless,” she says. “I was van-full.”

Photo by Laura Carbone.

Wonderland released Alcohol & Salvation in 2001 on a tiny local label. The self-released Bloodless Revolution followed in 2003, and brought her new fans, along with local press and radio attention. Her growing reputation as a hotter-than-fire live performer kept her touring calendar full. Then one day in 2003, legendary musician Ray Benson was having lunch with his friend Bob Dylan, who had heard Wonderland’s music. Dylan asked Benson, “Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She’s something else.” Dylan wanted to meet Wonderland, so Benson got her number from a mutual friend and called her in Houston, telling Wonderland to get to Austin immediately to meet Dylan. She drove the 165 miles in record time, and they had great fun jamming that night. They’ve crossed paths since, sometimes jamming, sometimes just talking about music (“He’s a real musicologist,” she says of Bob). Dylan once asked Wonderland to write bawdy answer lyrics to his already-ribald Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, and all but fell over laughing when she played the newly rewritten song for him. “Sometimes he’ll just call,” Wonderland says. “I haven’t changed my number.”

Wonderland’s first Benson-produced album, Miss Understood, came out in 2008. Upon its release, the mayor of Austin declared “Carolyn Wonderland Day” throughout the city. Benson produced her next three albums, Peace Meal in 2011, Live Texas Trio in 2015 and Moon Goes Missing in 2017. According to Benson, “Carolyn’s got that unbelievable, incredible voice, one of the great voices of our times. She’s got the range, the emotion. She’s also an incredible guitar player and a great person. The combination is disarming and totally real. That’s magic.”

In 2018, legendary musician and bandleader John Mayall chose Wonderland to be lead guitarist in his band, The Blues Breakers. She became the first woman to ever hold that position. (The all-star list of Mayall’s legendary guitarists includes Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.) She toured the world with Mayall, once playing 50 shows in 60 days in 19 countries. She’s also played with her own band all over the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Canary Islands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Japan.

In addition to her performing and recording with her own band, Wonderland has collaborated with a number of other artists, including Jerry Lightfoot’s Band of Wonder (featuring The Grateful Dead’s Vince Welnick), The Loose Affiliation Of Saints And Sinners (with Papa Mali, Guy Forsyth and others), and James Williamson (The Stooges). She can also occasionally be found singing and playing in Sis Deville, the Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, the Austin Volunteer Orchestra, the Texas Guitar Women, and the Woodstock Lonestars.”

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla.