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Dave and Tracy

You know, it’s really an African instrument and it sounds to me like Japanese instruments. I love this idea about doing Texas music that transcends cultural boundaries.—Dave Carter

I think in terms of lines and colors. I use a lot of analogies to let people know what I am doing with the violin. Things like “I want to sound like something going over a hill, or I want to sound like a particular type of animal.”—Tracy Grammer

    Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
    Interviewed by Mike Devlin

[This interview first appreared in Issue 12 of the Music Matters Review. At the time they were not widely know on the East Coast. All that has changed with the release of Tanglewood Tree on Massachusetts based Signature Sounds Recordings, and their warm reception at many of the summer of 2000's folk festivals.]
Dave Carter’s influences include growing up in Texas and Oklahoma, horses, a charismatic Christian household and classical piano training from the age of four. He has made starts in careers as a mathematician and a Jungian psychologist. Somehow this all figures in the organic whole of his music, which crystallizes the mythologies of American life into poetic yet accessible song. Tracy Grammer spent nine years in the Bay Area, at Berkeley, and later teaching English as a second language to foreign professors. Her professional musical credits include work with the techno-pop band Juicy, in which she sang and played electric violin and keyboard. Grammer brings fiddle, mandolin, guitar and vocals to their engaging performances. As a duo, they have created quite a buzz in the Pacific Northwest as well as at the Kerrville Folk Festival and industry showcases.

You refer to your music as “post-modern mythic American music.”
Dave: I woke up this morning thinking that I don’t really like that but I made such a big deal about putting it on the web site that I can’t take it off for at least a few weeks!

Was that an attempt to avoid narrow categorization?
Dave: There is almost a bias against the term “singer-songwriter.” Personally I can’t see any logical objection to it. If you write songs and sing them, you are a singer-songwriter, but for a lot of people it has come to mean a very self centered approach to music, songs about yourself and your friends and little things that happen to you. We definitely don’t feel like we are a bluegrass act, although we have some allusions to the bluegrass style in our music. I know that it is pretty grandiose—but nevertheless I might as well go for something that I really believe in doing—but what I’d like to do for country music, for the Texas tradition of music, is something like what Frederico Garcia Lorca did for flamenco music. He was a great poet, considered by many to be the greatest poet of Spain. He took folk tales in the form of Gypsy songs and created a more cosmopolitan form of poetry. Both Tracy and I have a classical music background but we both have very strong folk and country roots. The way I approach this is to take the fundamental myths that are inherent in the music of the American West and also the Appalachians, and put them in a more cosmopolitan frame that a lot of people can relate to. I happen to be interested in world music. People will consider African and Chinese music to be world music, but nobody really considers country and Western to be part of the world. But I do! So I’m trying to bring all this out so that I can draw upon my own authentic roots, but bring more to it—the classical training and my interest in ancient and modern poetry and music. When I bring these things together and bring the myths of American music to the forefront, really what I am participating in is post-modernism. I’m not particularly interested in progress or being modern or the latest thing.

I’m a little confused.... You don’t want to be modern?
Dave: Oh no, I don’t mean it that way. By post-modern I mean not concerned with modernism. I want eclectic influences. My particular style is to draw on antique things as well as things that are current. I find that the most powerful archetypes are often more easily accessible through older language. Parts of ourselves that we have forgotten and would like to remember, have taken up their own particular and peculiar presence in antique turns of phrase.

“When I Go” stands out for me as having especially elevated language.
Dave: The process of writing that song was pretty deliberate. I wrote it with a guitar in hand, not a banjo. I wanted to write a song that didn’t rely so much on chords. I wanted to have a melody going along on the guitar and sing over that melody. It started out almost as an exercise and then I found a place to put a nice line and “when I go” popped into my mind. As soon as I said that I realized that this should be a song about all the things that this person is going to do and I wanted it to be a little bit of a “death be not proud” song. I knew that I wanted about three verses, four choruses and I wanted to use sort of a high romantic style. I wanted to have a shamanic theme and a Native American feel, but the music sounded both Native and Celtic, so I thought that this was a great way to have a pan-cultural approach to the afterlife. I brought in some modern elements and viewpoints but it is almost something that might have been published in the 1880s.

Your banjo playing sounds a bit different than other players.
Dave: I don’t play with picks for one thing—I definitely don’t play in a bluegrass style. In fact I don’t know anything about playing the banjo. It’s that kind of instrument, it’s a folk instrument. I really just picked it up because I got a banjo really cheap at a garage sale—a terrible banjo! You know, it’s really an African instrument and it sounds to me like Japanese instruments. I love this idea about doing Texas music that transcends cultural boundaries.

In reference to “The River, Where She Sleeps,” did you know that there is no rhyme in the English language for the word “orange?”
Dave: I was dared to do that at a songwriter’s party! We were doing this songwriter thing, going around in a circle writing a song and my friend Arlene Hale, who plays bass on the first album, set it up so that I would have to rhyme something with the word “orange.” I took that problem home and I knew that there was probably some ridiculous thing that I could do to come up with a rhyme for it. [laughs] If people didn’t like the rest of the song at all they’d notice that there is a rhyme for “orange” and think it’s funny. Maybe that will be my footnote in the songwriting world, the guy who found a rhyme with orange! [laughs]

In “Grand Prairie TX Homesick Blues” you have the lines “St. Peter when you call me, you will find me waiting here/ Beneath this sad mimosa tree with a quart of drive-thru beer.”
Dave: Grand Prairie, Texas is one of the places that I lived growing up, and adored. It was way out in the country. When I got older my grandmother lived there and I would go back to visit and it started to get built up and become a bad neighborhood. I began to realize that it wasn’t even out in the country anymore when they built a convenience store right across the street with a drive-thru beer window! There was a mimosa tree out in the front yard and I’ve often imagined myself just sitting there, having given in to the urbanization and the corporatization of that whole area. I think a lot of people in our country are thus dispirited. They just give up and fall in and figure that there is just no other way to be.

Many of the characters in your songs are a generation or more older than you.
Dave: I think that all this started when I was listening to an interview with Gore Vidal, and he was saying that he didn’t think that Americans had a sense of history. I realized that I was pretty ignorant of history, so I began to study it a little bit. Then I began to realize that there had been such an emphasis in my life on young people. There is nothing wrong with that but there is a whole dimension of life and wisdom that I had been missing. And so it became one of my missions as an artist to adopt this stance that had something to do with maturity and a vision that went beyond the last sixteen or twenty years. It all has to do with the sense of timelessness. It’s one of the things that I find attractive about many of the Americana artists. Gillian Welch is involved in this work. Wilco and Sun Volt, are doing that kind of thing too but they are just not as aware of it. I have a private hope, (not so private if I am going to tell you about it!) that I can make a lasting contribution to the art of songwriting, and I think that in order to do that it is better if one has a sense of history and being a little older than one’s years.

There is a quote from Darryl Purpose saying that you go to some dark places. What is it that you take from the darker places?
Dave: I grew up in a charismatic Christian household and I found that living like that my whole life was untenable, because I really had not come to terms with my “shadow nature,” the dark side of my nature. I just didn’t know what to make of evil. I saw it as a kind of mean and slimy darkness that had to be stamped out with a hammer and boot of light. [laughs] That’s not a good model. I found that in my own psyche I had to go into the darkness and all the things that I had despised and feared about my nature, that I had tried to suppress. Not that I had to go and act these things out. What I found there was that all the really horrible, evil and negative feelings that I had were really all virtues that had been misdirected or repressed or turned. I found that Satan was allegorical to this. Here was the angel of light who had been turned, who now manifests himself to us as darkness. When I write songs like “Red,” I want to go in and explore the virtue in that dark place and find what is beautiful about it. When I do that I solve for myself and hopefully to some extent for a serious listener, a little bit of the problem of evil.

“Cowboy Singer” seems to be describing Townes Van Zandt.
Dave: I love Townes Van Zandt, and there’s a guy who is just a case in point. He kind of founded the outlaw country movement back in the ‘70s. He was in love with these dark—at least mislead—characters. “Cowboy Singer” was definitely influenced by Townes Van Zandt. But I wouldn’t entertain myself with the conceit that I had written a Townes Van Zandt song, because nobody else can.

You and Tracy have very distinct roles in what you do. She has no writing credits on the album, but are there ways that she influences your writing?
Dave: Tracy is herself an enormously talented writer, but she doesn’t feel like she has written anything that she wants to record at this point. I’m always encouraging her because she has started about fifty of the best songs that I have ever heard, but she needs to finish them. To answer your question—she influences my writing in a number of ways. When I write now, I hear the songs in our combined voices. I’m always hearing her violin or mandolin playing or us singing together. I write with both of us in mind rather than just what I am feeling. She is a very detail oriented person, and being around her has gotten me to a place where I’m looking at small things in the music that I wouldn’t at one time have bothered with. The lyrics to “When I Go” for example, are influenced by Tracy. Whereas once I would have re-written a song three or four times, now I’ll rewrite the songs twenty times.

I see that you are on an album with Greg Brown.
Dave: There is an organization called “In Harmony” They are building a center for kids who are having a difficult time being adopted. They are also building a place for elderly people to live in a circle around this center, so that the elderly people mentor the young people. It’s a village concept. When we hear about this, we really got behind this concept—the world needs something like this. Greg Brown felt the same way so we were able to do these concerts that were taped and made into a CD. The name of the CD is Solid Heart. Greg has fourteen songs on it, we have two songs plus we play one with him.

In regard to “Long, Black Road Into Tulsa Town,” are dreamers your heros?
Dave: I definitely consider myself to be a dreamer. Until I started working with Tracy, I was just a big ineffectual dreamer in life! I was writing good songs, but it is really through my partnership with Tracy that I’ve learned to function effectively in the world.

Is there a special significance to the “hunter’s moon?”
Dave: It’s going to come up a lot on the next CD. I’m a vegetarian, I really care about animals, I try to do good gentle work in the world, I’m a non-violent person, but also I feel that there is a lack of acceptance of the hunter culture, the horse warrior culture. Our culture and most of the powerful cultures grew out of these cultures. I don’t eat meat, but I don’t despise, for instance, the Native Americans that had to hunt for a living—it was their way of life. Maybe that way of life is obsolete, but still I want to find in myself, like in “Don’t Tread On Me,” that sleepy old coot with the pistol in his boot.

Who is Tom Weathington, to whom you dedicate “Elvis Presley?”
Dave: He’s a songwriter I met on my first trip to Nashville. I had left music for a while to go into mathematics and computer science. I was good at math but I realized that it wasn’t my calling. I felt like I really needed to decide fast what I wanted to do so I decided to become a Jungian psychologist. On the advise of some Jungian psychologists, I went to The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, a wild but brilliant psychology school in Palo Alto. I later went to The California Institute of Integral Studies to start work on a doctorate. When you study at places like this you are required to also study meditation, and keep dream journals, and I actually took courses in shamanic work. I came out of it realizing that I would make a terrible psychologist, but songs began to come to me in dreams. I had a vision of my grandmother saying, “Dave, get in the car and go to Nashville, play some of your songs and see what people think.” So I drove out to Nashville without a map—I went across the desert, met interesting people, got lost on the Ute Reservation and went through Tulsa where my family still lives. I got to Nashville and with literally trembling hands and tremulous voice, got up and played a couple of my songs in a roomful of really excellent professional songwriters. It was really well received and at that time I had a great empowerment and that’s when I really began writing a lot and entering contests. The first person to talk to me that night at Douglas Corner, was Tom Weathington. He’s a great singer and has written some really cool songs, but Tom is also a philosopher and political and economic theorist. He’s a guy who wants to make changes in the world. He’s insightful, surprising and sometimes incendiary. I had this dream where I met Elvis Presley, and I saw myself as Tom Weathington. So my song “Elvis Presley” is in the voice of Tom Weathington.

Should one read a romantic relationship into your partnership with Tracy.
Dave: We don’t like to make a big deal about it, we kind of like to keep people guessing when we are on stage, but yes, it’s true, we are very close.

Obviously you both have a great deal in common, but often in successful relationships, there is a great deal of difference.
Dave: Tracy has a head for minutia that I don’t and she’s practical. I walk around with one foot in the real world and one in the dream world. Tracy’s the kind of person who can read several pages of complex language and see every typo. When we record, she hears every little note that goes wrong. On stuff that sounds just fine to me, she says, “No, we’ve got to do that again,” and she really makes me work.

When I Go was recorded in her kitchen.
Dave: It’s a nice sounding kitchen. [laughs] Our next album will be done in a recording studio with a professional. The record companies want to be able to get us on the radio, and they say that the main radio stations won’t play you if it’s that stripped down. Who knows, maybe the whole thing is misguided and it will be a debacle, but there is nothing to stop us from rerecording the whole thing in Tracy’s kitchen!

Tracy, when you play the violin you express a great deal of emotion without words. Do you put words to what you are playing?
Tracy: I think in terms of lines and colors. I use a lot of analogies to let people know what I am doing with the violin. Things like, “I want to sound like something going over a hill, or I want it to sound like a particular type of animal.”

How did you and Dave meet?
Tracy: The local songwriters organization had a showcase night, and I performed with a guy I was playing with at the time. Dave Carter came breezing into the room at the last minute. He was the last performer in the lineup and it was a weird thing to see how quiet the room went when he got there. He’s got kind of a drawl and an “Aw, shucks” demeanor on stage and he says, “Sorry I’m late y’all, I’ll be ready in a second.” My partner said, “You’ve got to hear this guy. He sounds just like Lyle Lovett.” I grew up on country music and I was really intrigued because nobody around me was doing anything that even resembled country. Dave got up there and played with another woman singing and playing guitar. At that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to play music with Dave Carter! I don’t know if you ever have those moments, but it was just crystal clear. On the way out we were both at the door leaving at the same time and he looked down at me and said, “Oh, you’ve got a violin there.” And I said, “Yup.” And he said, “Do you want to play some time?” And I said, “Sure” (OK twist my arm, you know!). So we played and we had a five piece band for a while, but gradually it just became a duo.

From listening to When I Go, it is very apparent that you do your own thing as you play.
Tracy: It’s kind of funny because Dave didn’t even know about a lot of my tracks until we got to the mix. I would engineer Dave when he was here and when he wasn’t here, I’d come home some days feeling really inspired and just turn everything on and go for it! So all of the stuff on “Tread” is pretty much off the cuff. Harmonies on “Grand Prairie” weren’t planned, we just did those at the last minute and he loved it.

I would imagine that “Kate And The Ghost Of Lost Love” was a duo project from the get go.
Tracy: That song—it’s probably pretty obvious that it is composed. That’s not the kind of thing that we would come up with off the cuff. That’s like folk-Bach!

Are you going to be singing more on the new album?
Tracy: Yes. We have a song that Dave has written that only I sing, but I’m not sure that I like albums with a bunch of different lead singers—it always makes me feel a bit schizophrenic while listening. I haven’t heard all of the songs that he has written. He says that there is more counterpoint stuff, maybe trading off leads.

How has Dave’s music influenced your playing?
Tracy: He’s taught me how to be a side-person. In my last musical endeavor, the guy wanted weirdness, shock value. Dave taught me taste and that less is more. (He’s making a face at me!) And also how powerful a simple line can be. It doesn’t have to be fireworks every time you draw the bow, it can be simple and emotive. He’s really supported me, there are a lot of things that I didn’t even know I could do. He didn’t even know that I sang until we had this emergency gig situation come up and his backup singer from the band couldn’t make the show. He asked, “Can you sing,” and I said, “Yeah, I can sing a little.” We practiced some material an hour-and-a-half before the show and it was great.

What have you learned getting out and performing in front of audiences?
Tracy: Dave and I are very different on stage. Behind the scenes, I’m the person who’s in charge of the details, booking, press, business things, maps for the tour, hotels and stuff like that. Dave is kind of the ramblin’ dreamer guy. He conjures up these songs in his dreams and works on them. But on stage we reverse rolls. Dave stands pretty still on stage and he’s the storyteller. I’m on the side and I move around a lot, which is something I didn’t do in the beginning. So, I’ve learned not just to stand stock-still and stare into the lights. It’s a very Yin and Yang relationship. When he is steady, I am moving and when I’m steady, he is moving. Of course, I was a cheerleader in high-school so maybe some of that is coming back to me! [laughs]

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