Blues Guitarist Carolyn Wonderland Just Wants to Play Songs, Releases ‘Tempting Fate’

Ismael Quintanilla, Alligator Records

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Austin, Texas-based blues guitarist, Carolyn Wonderland (born Carolyn Bradford), just wants to play music. Hers is a simple-yet-noble ambition. For the frontwoman, who is a whirling dervish on the six-string and who offers a formidable growl on the mic, to participate in song is not about ego or shine. Instead, it’s about the glory of the artform, the chance at harmony, the opportunity to participate in unison with other talented folks who have similarly devoted decades to the craft and journey.

Wonderland, who has released her new LP, Tempting Fate (Oct. 8), is just happy to be on the gig. And it’s been this way since she began in front of audiences at 15 years old, and later when she traded the guitar back-and-forth on stage with now-late songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. Since then, Wonderland has earned praise from Bob Dylan, of all folks. Now, just as always, it’s about the work.

“I always kind of look at it like this,” Wonderland tells American Songwriter. “If I’m in a room full of guitarists, I’m the singer. And if I’m in a room full of singers, I’m the guitarist. And I’m happy that way no matter what because I can be useful. All I want to do is play music, play the songs.”

Perhaps this devotion to the song began all the way back when Wonderland was growing up. She says she was raised in a house of music, there were fiddle players, piano players, ragtime—music was always in her home. As a teenager, Wonderland was kicked out of high school, something she says is easy in Texas (“You just have to have a differing opinion,” she laughs). But it was about that time she began to take her musical practice seriously. Today, while Carolyn is obviously talented, she doesn’t boast.

“It’s just the more you play, the less you suck at it,” she says. “I just kept on playing.”

The 48-year-old Wonderland remembers her first singing gig as going badly—but one wonders if her judgment can be trusted about her own performance. She got the gig because the singer in the early band she was in never showed. Where one got cold feet, Wonderland stepped in hot. Later, she found herself inspired by a number of Texas singer-songwriters, including Little Screamin’ Kenny. Watching him, Wonderland had a light bulb moment: Kenny was playing originals. So, she could write originals, herself. Wonderland had long written in journals but never had she combined the two interests. And after she started writing her own material, soon she was in the presence of Van Zandt in Houston. At the time she was about 17 years old.

“I would borrow the car,” she says. “It was standard, so it was easy to roll it down the driveway. You’d push-start it so nobody would catch you. And I’d go up to nightclubs—I knew where the music was—where I wouldn’t get carded.”

One of those evenings, she found herself the only other person in the bar, along with Van Zandt. He played some songs, which, Wonderland says, were “devastatingly awesome.” Then he got to one that Wonderland knew well. Her mother used to play it and she told Van Zandt so. He told her he’d written it. But Wonderland was suspect. She told him so before he laughed and told her to play him one of hers.

“I basically called him a liar,” she says, with a laugh. “It was a real quick lesson in ‘shut your mouth and open your ears.’”

For Wonderland’s new album—her first since Moon Goes Missing in 2017—the artist says she saved up from playing in other projects—most notably, John Mayall’s band, Blues Breakers—and it was about time she put out her own offering. Mayall had chosen her to fill a spot preciously held by artists like Eric Clapton and she’s the first female guitarist ever in the group. But ready to make her own LP, she called up a few friends and took advantage of a little industry trick. She set the recording sessions in Austin for the month of January. That way, she could get her pick of the standout local players who were all home for the holidays. As such, the record is imbued with a lightness, a joy that makes one want to listen again. It’s like a hangout with your favorite local players. Because, for Wonderland, that’s what it actually is. And it’s these relationships that inspired the work, too.

“All you can do is tell the truth,” she says. “Write about what you know or what you’re confused by.”

When Wonderland feels upset, everything is fair game to write about or write on. Her husband, comedian A. Whitney Brown, even knows to let her set up in her room to write for days on end, if necessary, she says, merely offering her a sandwich to slide under the door. But when she’s in a good mood, there is much to write concerning happiness and appreciation. Or if a guitar riff continues to show itself, Wonderland will think she’s got to get it down on wax. In fact, all three come together on the opening track of her new record, “Fragile Peace And Certain War.” And as Wonderland continues to look ahead, with a new album out, tour dates set, it’s music that she continues to hold firm.

“It’s as close to some kind of spiritual existence that I know I’ll ever achieve,” Wonderland says. “It is honest, it’s there for you whether you’re happy or sad. It has the potential to do a lot of really great things.”

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