Photo: Mike Devlin
That song is one of the very few songs that came almost completely in a dream state. I woke up and knew what to write. I grabbed my guitar, which is right by my futon and started playing and it was like I already knew the whole song. It took me about twenty minutes from the time I woke until the completion of the song. I went over and played it for Tracy, and we had a gig that morning at 10 A.M. We performed it that day. That song was a gift.Dave Carter
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer need no introduction to readers of The Music Matters Review. We have been fans since Darryl Purpose gave us the word about this amazing duo from the Pacific Northwest. Dave and Tracy have been interviewed twice before in Music Matters, the first time in regard to their debut together, When I Go and the second time after the release of Tanglewood Tree. As always, speaking with this duo was an extreme and unique pleasure. Dave is a dreamer and philosopher with a background as a mathematician. There seems to be no beach when you talk with Daveyou are immediately in deep water. This is not an unpleasant experience though, because he is one of the most gracious and humble people on the planet. No less open and easy to talk with is Tracy. She is an intuitive instrumentalist and singer who has the gift of being able to get to the emotional center of the music. She also seems to be the very organized and stable center of their business of being a touring duo. Their mutual affection and admiration is evident and, on a personal level, they are obviously equal halves of a wonderful whole. This interview took place by phone at about the time of the release of Drum Hat Buddha. They each spent some time on the phone, working around the emergency of a mix-up in a show date in their local paper. For a brief time near the end of the conversation, they were both on the phone at the same time. Dave was on first, while Tracy left to post the correct date of the show on the door of the venue.
M.D. The album title, Drum Hat Buddha, has had me wondering since before the album was out. I take it that this in not a phrase describing a particular type of Buddha, as in a drum-hat Buddha, but three separate concepts.
D.C. Thats correct. Its three different things.
M.D. I take the drum to be the rhythm of music and life, and possibly a representation of Native American culture. The hat is for the head, as well as Western Culture and Buddha is, well Buddha.
D.C. Basically, all of those things that you said were pretty much what I was thinking. I came up with the title for this record. Tracy decided that we should call the other one Tanglewood Tree. For this one, I was driving back from the grocery store and we had done an interview just before. Many times the interviewer doesnt know your work at all and they will ask you to describe your music. Ill pour thousands of words into such a description and still never get it right. I was thinking about how I could quickly describe what our music was all about, and I thought that what I should really do was to think in terms of just a few symbols. The first one I thought about was the cowboy hat. Were not really a hat band, so to speak, but theres that Western tradition. Id been reading Cormac McCarthy, his Texas novels. We also have a lot to do with the Native American culture, and I thought of the heartbeat of the shamans drum and the hat that sits on the head. But it is all tied together with this idealistic desire that we have to improve the world and ourselves somehow through this art of being a singer-songwriter. We try to be aware of a transcendental influence in our work. So I figured that the next time that somebody asked me that, I would say that we have the elements of the drum, that hat and the Buddha.
Tracy and I have all of these things in our house, and they are all about the same color. It occurred to me that this would be a really good name for a record. Our previous albums, When I Go and Tanglewood Tree and the album that I produced prior to meeting Tracy, Snake Handlin Man, all were named after songs that we thought people would find the most interesting on the CDs. Its not good marketing, but I wanted to get away from that and have a title that would explain what we were generally about.
I liked that idea for the cover of the CD, these almost technical photographs with just the words Drum Hat Buddha underneath. Later on, after Tracy warmed up to the idea, she took the hoop drum and put the hat inside it and put the Buddha inside the hat, so you get the mandala on the inside of the CD where you take the disc off of the spindle.
M.D. Now you have me looking at the CD itself. What is that design?
D.C. That is the middle of a Tibetan tingsha cymbal. This was the idea of Thorin Nielson, the guy who did the design for the cover. Thorin took Tracys tingsha and made it into the CD design. The problem is that tingsha has these sacred symbols of Buddhism on it, and when we got the draft of it back it looked cool, but unfortunately there are all these trademarks on it and it struck us as disrespectful of the Buddhist religion. So in the end we just used the center of the tingsha, and that is what ended up on the CD. I like the way the symbols progress from the cover where they are separate things to the inside where they have coalesced into a mandala.
M.D. On "Love, The Magician" you have a note "with apologies to Ray Wylie Hubbard?"
D.C. Ray also has a song that starts, "He came down from Oklahoma." Its a song about a card player. I know that Ive heard that almost archetypal line before somebody or another coming down from Oklahoma, and I wanted to write a "come down from Oklahoma" song. Shortly after I wrote it, Tracy and I were in Davis, California, in a club that caters to Americana acts. We were on stage at the sound check, practicing the song and the guy that runs that place (its called The Palms) is a big Ray Wylie fan. When we were done with the sound check he put Rays song on. I respect Ray as a songwriter and a performer, and a great deal as a human being. So I just thought that it would be a courteous and a respectful thing to apologize, in case this was a subconscious borrowing from Ray. The songs are completely different after the first line and they dont sound the same at all. Rays is a much darker kind of song. I thought that it was just the proper thing to do and it gives Ray a little more publicity.
M.D. "Gentle Arms of Eden" has a note"for Tom Noe and Linda Silas."
D.C. Tom Noe and Linda Silas live outside of Dallas near a town called Wylie. I met them at the Wildflower festival in Richardson, Texas and later on got to know them a little bit better at the Kerrville festival. Tom is well known in the world of telescopes. He invented very high-quality telescopes that fold so that he can ride them around on his motorcycle. Tom and Linda run a house-concert series where Tracy and I have played a few times. They have a special cabin where the performers stay and they are very dedicated to music. They are musicians themselves and enjoy playing. In the mornings at breakfast, Tom likes to discuss philosophy with the guests and so we had gotten to be good friends and had a lot of philosophical discussions. In a way, that song grew out of questions that were raised in those discussions, questions that I could not find answers to.
That song is one of the very few songs that came almost completely in a dream state. I woke up and knew what to write. I grabbed my guitar, which is right by my futon and started playing and it was like I already knew the whole song. It took me about twenty minutes from the time I woke until the completion of the song. I went over and played it for Tracy, and we had a gig that morning at 10 A.M. We performed it that day. That song was a gift.
I had so many dedications that I wanted to make on this CD, but it was getting tiresome so we whittled it down to two.
M.D. That has to be one of my favorite of your songs.
D.C. I think that there was a great deal in that song that was waiting to be said.
M.D. Its just the story of life on earth in a three or a four minute song!
D.C. I worry that fundamentalist Christians will be offended by this song. Ive had people come up to me after shows and express concern for me and tell me that they are going to pray for me. But I figure that if I can get Pat Robertson in a lather about it, it is a good thing!
M.D. Can you settle an argument for us! I thought that "Gentle Soldier of My Soul" has a Native American sound to it, but my wife thinks that it sounds Eastern.
D.C. The Native American is a little closer in the composition of the song, but I didnt set out to make a song that is particularly Native American. But as we ended up realizing it in production, the drums and the way the bass was played, and because we are out here on the West coast, [laughs] there is always a subtle influence of Asian and Eastern culture.
Im really overjoyed that people would not be sure, thats really, really good! One of the things that Tracy and I are trying to do with our music is to create a Western style of music. But where does it come from? I like the fact that it is very cosmopolitan, its a world music, yet it can ring true in the Americana style that we have.
The last time we talked, I had this idea that Tanglewood Tree was going to be all about the hunters moon. Ill have a particularly intense relationship with a set of symbols, for a period of time. At that time I was thinking about an elemental existence, an existence that integrated beauty and savagery. I thought that was the direction that the new CD would take. But not long after we talked, that relationship burst open into relationships with a lot of other symbols, so Tanglewood Tree turned out the way that it did.
M.D. I guess it is hard to stay in one place emotionally.
D.C. Or you integrate it or come to some conclusion about it, or the process moves itself to another place. It is not something I do intentionally. But right now I am having a relationship with goddess religions. Not religions really, I dont really like that word, but philosophies and ways of looking at the world that have more to do with a relationship with naturewith progressive or transcendental deep ecology. I find that as I get deeper into these religions, it is more and more difficult for me to resolve this with my fundamentalist upbringing. So when I wrote "Gentle Soldier of My Soul," I wanted to explore what it would be like for a person who had a relationship with Jesus as a nature deity. Historically it has been the case that Christianity has set itself at odds with the natural world. I was thinking of the concept of the Christ as someone who resolves the conflict between the natural world and the sky-god. This is exactly what I was looking for in my own heart and psyche, because I had been writing all of these nature, goddess oriented songs. Of course, with my upbringing, this is pure evil devil worship, yet I see this clearly to be timely and true and the work I need to be doing. I wanted to write a song that would be my own personal way of integrating these images and making this all OK. The Gentle Soldier of My Soul is a Christ figure Christ as a nature deity.
M.D. Is "Gentle Soldier of My Soul" a sister song to "Disappearing Man?"
D.C. If it is, it was not intentional. I wrote "Disappearing Man" much later. I wrote all of the songs on this album this year except for "Tillman County," "Gentle Soldier of My Soul" and "Merlins Lament." Those three had been laying around for a whileof course I worked on them some more and brought them into focus.
M.D. There is the mention of a gardener in both songs.
D.C. "Disappearing Man" is really about a woman who wants children but never finds the right relationship. The gardener in "Disappearing Man" is the husband who never really came. This song is about a woman passing from a point of desperation in life to where the world opens for her. For a while I was intensely thinking about what this must be like. Its like the tree thats waiting to flower or bear fruit, and it waits and waits, and what a sad thing this is. Of course we are human beings and we are more than just this biological urge to reproduce! But if you go into this place, you can see what an archetypally painful process this must be, not to be able to have children, especially for women.
M.D. There is quite a bit about the sound of "Disappearing Man" that reminds me of a Beatle song.
D.C. A lot of people have been asking about that. I like what George Martin did with string arrangements, and I wanted that kind of sound. Its not a copy of any Beatle song exactly, but I did want a string trio. My favorite work that has ever been done with bowed strings in popular music is the stuff that George Martin did on the Beatle records.
M.D. So there is no particular song?
D.C. No, there are different ones Eleanor Rigby is one that pops right out, but thats not the only one.
M.D. It reminds me of "For No One."
D.C. Ive heard that and somebody else said that it was like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." When I did that string arrangement I wanted it to sound like George Martin, but we actually took that string arrangement a little bit further. There are some well-researched [laughs] violin solos. Especially the second one with the double violin solo. I wanted it to break out of those beautiful George Martin kind of strings. I wanted to reach a certain level of intensity and then bust out of that into a more florid, almost baroque style. I have a set of songs that are similar to "Disappearing Man" that we have never put on any of our CDs. Im so happy that Tracy is singing more. Her voice lends itself to that kind of work. Its really more of a feminine kind of thing and it works much better with Tracy singing. Thats the one song that we still havent learned to play live.
M.D. I was going to ask you about that.
D.C. I actually dont think that it will be that hard to do live, because it is easy to kind of fake the backup strings on the guitar well enough to get through the songs. But somehow we never get around to working on that song, even though it is one of my very favorites.
T.G. Disappearing you might say!
D.C. Im hoping that the song will become popular, people will be yelling "Disappearing Man" and then we will be forced to do it!
M.D. Michael Smith is a huge Beatles fan and he mentioned that a really good pop song will start off with a great line. One of his favorites is "Penny Lane," that starts with the line, "Penny Lane a barbers showing photographs/ Of every head hes had the pleasure to know." Thats reminds me of the first line of the first song on Drum Hat Buddha, "Common cool he was a proud young fool in a kick-ass Wal-Mart tie." That song, "Ordinary Town," is how shall I put it not optimistic about ordinary towns.
D.C. I wrote that for a friend of mine, who is a mystical kind of person. She has always lived in small towns and has had trouble all of her life resolving her place in the world. It is a song about confinement and ignorance. It doesnt end on a completely down note. The person always has a place and she is rocked in the bosom of the ordinary angels that watch over her. [Laughs] But theres no space made for wide-eyed mystics in those small towns!
M.D. Corporate America is not going to let this tune get on the radio anyway. After all, you dissed Wal-Mart in the first line. I guess youll be banned at Wal-Mart!
D.C. I can always claim, "What do you mean. I said it was a great tie!"
M.D. Tracy, your playing and singing has always been compelling, but now it is even more so. You are more to the front. Do you feel freer from having performed so much live?
T.G. Part of it is that we spent more than 150 days on the road last year. A lot of it is just practice [laughs]. Dave has always been very encouraging of my work and my involvement in the arrangements. I have always been very reverent of his songwriting, not wanting to step all over the songs and get in the way with instrumentals that were superfluous, or vocals that were histrionic or over-the-top, or didnt really speak as the character would. I have been letting go more and making this album was so much fun that I couldnt help but to let that kind of thing come through, especially in some of the vocal performances.
Also, Big Red Studio where we recorded in Corbett, Oregon, is a beautiful studio with vintage gear, and an engineer who is attentive and also a violin player who was interested in seeing me do my very best on the violin. He used to be with the band Night Noise on Windham Hill. Hes got a couple of Gold Records on the wall. Its nice to have someone like him in the studio saying, "Oh, I love your fiddling!" And Im saying, "What, you like my fiddling!" So, all around I was getting these shots in the arm with everybody telling me that I was doing a great job. I was loving the songs and I was loving the way things were sounding in the headphones, even the microphones that we were using. We actually got to sit there for a half-day testing the microphones we wanted to use for vocals. It was so much fun to actually hear the difference and get an education about the process. When it came time to lay things down, we felt like we had a great sound right out of the box. I was also just happy to be there, because I really love to record. So experience on the road, good sound in the studio and an encouraging team had a lot to do with my performance.
M.D. Did you jam with people on the road?
T.G. You know, Im not much of a jammer. Its not because I cant, but I cant really do fiddle jams. I didnt grow up as a fiddler and for some reason my bow arm cant keep up with my brain when Im trying to improvise that way. So I dont have many opportunities to jam, although The Nields invited us up to jam at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and play some solos. But mostly, its just being around other musicians, seeing what they do and how they do it. I realize that I am not Natalie MacMaster, April Verch or Vassar Clements nor will I ever be, but I do have this certain thing that I can do and what I do is good. Its not that Im selling myself short or not trying hard, but I dont have to be the best at every little thing.
M.D. Its not like every musician has to be a virtuoso player. You dont always have to play blazingly fast, but its more important to achieve a certain emotional value in your playing.
T.G. If it were just me out there playing by myself I mean, I wouldnt even by out there by myself. I wouldnt have anything to say at this point especially on the violin. But when you put me together with Dave, theres a certain kind of magic that happens, thats inspired by the partnership, thats greater than either of us could be alone. Im getting comfortable with my limitations and my gifts. We are getting booked at all these great festivals, and shows and on-air performances. We had a remarkable year in 2000 and were just starting to feel like a million bucks!
M.D. It was interesting to watch the reaction to you at Falcon Ridge. The first day there were a few people who knew who you were, but by the end of the festival, there were great crowds of people migrating to wherever you were playing.
T.G. A lot of people heard us for the first time at Falcon RidgeI cant tell you how many friends we made at that festival. There are so many people from up and down the East Coast and even the West Coast who saw us at Falcon Ridge. They show up at our shows now and say, "Oh, we saw you on the workshop stage," or "We saw you in the rain at Winter Hawk."
M.D. I regret not being able to make Winter Hawk last year. They had a great lineup. Gillian Welch was there
T.G. And Stacey Earle.
M.D. Have you gotten to cross paths much with those performers?
T.G. Very early in our careers we opened for Gillian and David, in Corvallis, Oregon. We recently did a show with Stacey in Pittsburgh. We really like Stacey and Mark a lot and could see maybe doing a little tour with them, if they were up for it. I wouldnt say that we are close friends with any of them, because we are all touring and there is no time. Its a good show when we play with Stacey and Mark. We are both drawing from the same roots, but we take them to different places. We really enjoyed that and our audiences seem to like it too.
M.D. Ive been promising myself that I will catch Stacey when she comes around.
T.G. Shes very animated on stage. She kind of swings her leg the whole time and does this little kicking thing to keep the rhythm. She grins a lot shes very cute on stage [laughs].
M.D. Ive heard you mention before that you get to see some of the songs for the first time right before you record them.
T.G. Well, Im familiar with them. Dave will present things to me for opinions, or maybe hell have a couple of options on a lyric, or a couple of directions that a song could go. So, hell come to me and say, "What do you think." I just fancy myself as the average listener. I seem to have pretty good intuitions about what people will like. His lyrics can get really dense and the references can get really obtuse, and sometimes Ill let him know. So, Im privy to the construction of the song, but its true that I didnt see the final words to "Love, The Magician" until I got up to the mic to sing it. In fact, the chorus changed a number of times before we ended up with "coyote." There were "bubbas" and all kinds of other stuff in there before the coyotes came along! I watch it evolve and then he kind of hits me with the lyrics. Then I make a run at it and do my best [laughs].
M.D. Songs are more than the music and words on paper. Something happens when they get out in the air.
M.D. Do you take the songs someplace different when you have had them out on the road for a while? Do they mean something different to you?
T.G. I think that it is more of a process of me uncovering what they mean. Many times I will be singing the words and I wont fully understand them. Ill understand that they are good poetry, and Ill appreciate the way they sound and feel when they come out, but I may not have listened all that carefully. Its not true of ever song, but some songs happen like that. This is probably going to sound ridiculous, but "When I Go," still just stuns me! Every now and then Ill have this realization about what Im singing and Ill be shocked with how beautiful it is. Its such a beautiful sentiment and Ill think about what it must have taken to write it. I have these revelations all of the time about the songs.
The songs evolve constantly. We hardly sing anything now from Tanglewood Tree the way we did when we recorded it. Everything changes a little bit. Some of it depends on audience reaction, some of it depends on our level of understanding of the songs. Depending on where we are in our lives, something will become more or less relevant, or we'll feel stronger or less passionate about something. Were not really after technical precision, or verbatim reproduction of the album. The songs live and breathe.
M.D. In pop music there are many songs with lyrics that are hard to understand, and I sometimes cynically think that there is very little behind the strings of images. Daves writing is a more purposeful mining of the subconscious, with his Jungian dream analysis.
T.G. I think I know what you mean. Hes got the best of both worlds. He has an inherent trust in his dream imagery. He trusts that the images and melodies that come to him when he is in that state are valid and worth building on. Yet, he can be so analyticalhis attention to detail in the words is incredible. Ive seen his internet list of bookmarks and hes got all kinds of dictionaries and thesaurusesthings that are antique and in other languages.
M.D. Which reminds me I could not find the phrase "garden gancy" ("I Go Like the Raven") in a very thick dictionary I have here.
T.G. [Laughs] I think it is a festivity of some kind. I dont know where he came up with that one. He comes up with all kinds of things and throws them in and you find yourself singing them and saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, what does that word meanIve never seen that one before." Sometimes hell hear a word in his head and he wont know what it means, and it will turn out that the meaning is relevant. Hell find a spelling of the sound that he has been hearing, that is a word and really does fit. So he has a lot of trust in the intuitive stuff plus the ability to work in an analytical realm. Its truly the best of both worlds for a songwriterhes a very lucky person.
M.D. When my wife and I were listening to "Ordinary Town," she marveled at your vocals and wondered how you could do that. It seems like each word has its own melody and note.
T.G. [Laughs] That was one of the hardest songs to sing. It goes everywhere at once.
M.D. Somehow you managed to get all of the words in, even though they are very closely packed. Do you change the lyrics somewhat as you sing them? I noticed that sometimes there is a difference between what is in the printed lyrics and what you sing.
T.G. I would say that the written way is always right, except that we were in such a hurry that we left out a verse of "The Power and the Glory" in the printed lyrics. There were some things that I got wrong, like in "236-6132," I think I said "fades and feints from view" and it should be "feints and fades from view." It wasnt intentionalit just came out that way and we didnt catch it at the time.
M.D. I see that once again you have done some recording in your kitchen.
T.G. Well its called the kitchen, but its really the basement. Ive moved out of the apartment that was the birthplace of When I Go. But Im friends with the guy who moved in so I told him, "If I ever have to come back and do an album in this kitchen, is this alright with you?"
We have a nice little studio here in the basement of this house. We didnt add too much. This might be obvious from the way it sounds, but the violin on "Merlins Lament" has a very different quality to it, and that was recorded in our basement.
M.D. Im going to have to go back and check now!
T.G. I think the quality is actually perfect for the song. Its really close-miced and you can hear the bow being drawn across the strings. Its hairy sounding, kind of fuzzy, but I like it. I think that Dave did his vocals for "Gentle Arms of Eden in the basement.
We added some tracks to Darryl Purposes new album down there. He sent us some ADAT tapes and we played on it. He said, "Do whatever you want and send it to my producer." It was really fun and an honor to add to his project. Dave plays banjo and I play violin and sing a little backup. Darryl does a cover of "River Where She Sleeps," and I play shakers on it.
M.D. More people should cover that song. I love that line about "generations in her clothes."
T.G. Oh, yeah. I love that too.
M.D. Is your music being covered by other musicians?
T.G. There is a rumor that Chris Smither is going to be recording one or more of Daves songs, but we dont know which ones hes got his eye on. We heard this through various management chains.
M.D. Did you get to play with Joan Baez?
T.G. She was actually here at our house in early May for about three days. We are going to play the WSPN singer-songwriter weekend with her in Philadelphia, backing her up, playing some songs of our own and doing some songs all together. Eliza Carthy is going to share the stage with us too. We worked on something for that. Shes been doing "The Mountain" and has plans to record "The Mountain" and "When I Go," and a song called "Until We Have Faces" that Dave wrote for Joan and I to sing. Its an incredible song, based on the C.S. Lewis book, which was given to him by his friend Chris Nordquist. Well be doing some recording with her either late this year or early next year. Well help out with those songs and maybe have a hand in producing her next album, depending on how things go. Then theres the possibility of a tour on the East Coast during February and March of next year. I think that Richard Shindell will open that tour and we will be Joans band and then have a featured set in the middle of the show. She such a calm and centered and funny person too.
M.D. "The Mountain" is in Singout! and I play it myself when there is nobody around. It is really hard to sing. I havent tried "Ordinary Town" yet.
T.G. You know, its a constant struggle. When I listen back, Im happy with the way "Ordinary Town came out. There are so many considerations regarding phrasing and when you are going to emphasize something or lay back. Of course there is always the issue of intonationyou know, you actually want to hit the pitches!
M.D. I have one more question for Dave. Merlin figures prominently in this album.
T.G. "Merlins Lament!" I just love that song!
D.C. [Laughs] Well, he shows up in "I Go Like The Raven" too. Toward the end of his life, Merlin was enchanted by a sorceress. He was in love with this woman and gave her so much of his power that he was imprisoned inside a mountain in a cave, where they say that he lives to this day. I wanted to put the myth of Merlin into everyday life and what it would be for somebody who lived in a regular kind of place, but was in that mythological space as well. "I Go Like The Raven" is not particularly tied in with the song "Merlins Lament," but the raven is. "I Go Like The Raven" is kind of a goddess-oriented song. The raven is a trickster and a representation in Celtic mythology of a dark goddess. Its really a song about empowerment, how in ones heart, one might shift into the shape of a raven.
Its an attractive archetype for me, the dark bird of ill will. Its also the trickster, and the ability of shamans and witches to transform themselves into ravens and go flying off into the starry sky.
T.G. Theres also a raven in "236-6132." "The raven quakes in vain
D.C. while the lightening barks and flashes."
M.D. You have Casey getting a hit too!
T.G. You know, I have this fantasy about a missed opportunity in the studio. Where we sing, "and when Casey cracks the ball," I wish we had included the sound of ball being hit out of the park and the crowd going wildI can just hear that every time I sing that part!