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Tracy Grammer Takes Wing

By David Bulla
Oct. 4, 2004

On an autumn evening more than three years ago, guitarist and singer-songwriter Dave Carter told a small gathering in an Indianapolis house about how it was time to let his partner, Tracy Grammer, take on a greater role in their folk music act. Carter felt like he should share more of the spotlight with the multi-talented Grammer, who plays violin, mandolin and guitar. He wanted his partner to have more singing leads and to tell more stories between songs.
Grammer confessed to being nervous about an expanding role, but as the Portland, Oregon pair went on tour to promote their third compact disc, Drum Hat Buddha, she found herself front and center more and more. On six of the CD’s 12 songs she was the lead singer. The results were favorable, as the couple continued to receive the same level of critical acclaim that came with their second CD, Tanglewood Tree, and they continued to develop a substantial national following.

Then, on July 19, 2002, Grammer found herself in a position that went well beyond taking on more of a lead in the duo. On that summer day, Carter died of a heart attack after a jog while the duo was on the road in western Massachusetts. The postmortem revealed slight damage to the heart, but in the conditions of a hot summer day on the East Coast it was enough.

“They checked out his heart,” Grammer said, “and it wasn’t a blob of fat with a tiny muscle inside. It was really a healthy heart. There was a little bit of arteriosclerosis, and it’s in a place where it’s pretty typical for people to have it. It’s in a bend in the artery, where the blood is pumping through and stuff just gets stuck in that nook right there for whatever reason. The propensity for that to happen is probably genetic, and so he just had a little clot there.

“The circumstances surrounding the 24 hours before his death, I think, contributed to his death. He was totally exhausted and totally dehydrated. He had been up all night and had this adrenal thing going on. He didn’t get enough sleep, and then he decides in the morning in western Massachusetts – it’s 80 degrees out and 100 percent humidity – and he says, ‘Baby, I’m going for a big giant run.’ And I looked at him because I had had this vision a long time before that one day he was going to go out for a run and drop on the trail and we’re not going to be able to find him. I had this thing about exercising first thing in the morning. It seems hard on the heart. Later in the day might be better in terms of biorhythms and stuff. He told me not to worry that morning, that he would be back.”

Only three weeks before, Grammer had asked Carter about his wishes after his death. “I didn’t know what he wanted,” she said. “I talked to him in the car and said, ‘Cremation, right?’ So we had this conversation. He told me I could sing with Richard Shindell, and there were people I could not sing with and people I could not marry if something happened to him. It was very funny. We joked about our last words and what they would be.”

And suddenly Carter, 49, was gone, but Grammer did not want his music to die. Instead of facing an early retirement from her budding music career, the Homestead, Florida, native had to learn to fly solo. She decided to go on the road in 2003 and continue playing her deceased partner’s music for their still-growing fan base. As for the anxiety that goes with trying a solo career, Grammar remembers a conversation she had with Carter. “He said, ‘You’ll do fine if I die,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no.’ And he said, ‘Don’t say that,’ and he really barked at me. I’ve never heard him be so stern or harsh on me before. I sort of realized it’s ridiculous to say, “Oh, I’ll die if you die.’ I realize he was right. As I go forward on this path, especially when I think I should pack it up and put my instruments up, I think, ‘He said I could do this, he said I was going to be OK.’ I think I will be,” Grammer said. One reason for Carter’s optimism is that around the time they were making When I Go, Grammer recorded a few things when Carter wasn’t around. He later listened to them and liked them a lot.

“He validated what came natural to me, saying ‘Yes, that’s music, and that’s beautiful,’ ” Grammer said. “This was just huge for me. I don’t have a lot of theory training. I understand by feel. He also was a big champion of my singing voice, for some reason. He would always say, ‘Baby, I want you to sing all the songs; I sound like a goat. They don’t want to hear me bleating.’ So over the course of our time together, he really pushed me out front. He was training me to do this work.”

Tracy Grammer--Verdant Mile album coverIn 2004, she’s still touring and has just release a seven-song CD titled The Verdant Mile. It’s available for $12 at The CD features “Solitary Man,” “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and the title track. It was in the top 40 of the FOLKDJ-L play list in August. The Verdant Mile has presented Grammar with a chance to do her own thing.

“I’m was excited about writing the material for it, about arranging the stuff, maybe going off in a slightly different direction, but also just looking at the material to cover,” she said. “It’s like a new horizon.”

The CD includes Grammer’s own songs, plus arrangements of pieces by Kieran Kane, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Emory Gordy Jr. and Jim Henry.

Carter would be proud of Grammer for keeping on keeping on. She opened for Richard Shindell or Joan Baez for a good portion of her last year’s tour, and on a mid-January Saturday night at The Centro Asturiano in Tampa, Florida, played after Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sara Lee Guthrie.

The wit and charm that were the hallmarks of Carter’s songs and performances are still there. Grammer, who played approximately 150 tour stops last year, now plays raconteur, and many of her stories are about how Carter came to write a particular song or about how the two came to record it. For example, Grammer is now playing a previously unreleased “Hey Ho,” an anti-war song that she found on five or six cassettes around their Portland home. “I think this is about where he wanted it to be because there aren’t that many differences in each version,” she said. The song takes aim at how society educates our young with media messages that desensitize them to the horror of violence.

Last March, before a polite but responsive Midwestern crowd, Grammer played 10 Carter hits accompanied by Baez’s bassist, Byron Isaacs. Half of those 10 came from Drum Hat Buddha. About the only thing missing was Carter’s irreplaceable Oklahoma twang. Shindell supplied a little of that on two songs. At the Tampa show, with folk guitarist and mandolin player Jim Henry, Grammer played 17 songs, including several from the upcoming CD.

Grammer, who played with Carter for four years, clearly is the right person to interpret the late songwriter’s music. She was just as much a student of Carter’s music as she was his life and playing partner. Grammer won’t be the only one to make Carter’s name immortal in folk music circles. Shindell closed the Ann Arbor show with “Farewell to Saint Delores,” a song about moving on, and Baez is fond of “The Mountain,” a song about finding grace through inner vision. The quality of Carter’s writing ensures that many of his songs will stay in the folk canon for decades.

Grammer, who says she’s about 85 percent through with the fourth Dave-and-Tracy album, wants to see what happens with her solo career. She hopes to have that CD out in 2005, although there are legal complications involving Carter’s estate that have been in the way of that project.

Based on the performances in Ann Arbor and Tampa, Grammer is well on her way to making a name for herself on her own. At Tampa’s Centro Asturiano, Grammer showcased three songs that will be on the future Grammer-sings-Carter CD. These include “Hey Ho,” “Hard to Make It” and “Shadows of Evangeline.”

In many ways, Carter was a man on a search in his lifetime. What he was searching for had something to do with the metaphysical – perhaps his mother’s evangelical ways, the elegant grace of mathematics and life’s mysteries. He also found a partner, someone to make sure that his music and stories don’t die. “I have no choice but to go on singing and to go on telling our story,” Grammer said. The torch of Dave Carter’s heart and mind has been passed on to another gentle folk soldier, and it is burning bright.

“I got kicked out of the nest a little early,” she says with a chuckle, “and he took off for his heavenly trailer.”