Miss Understood

Let's hear it for Carolyn Wonderland

Miss Understood
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

"It's the famous story, that I was out at the Backyard, hangin' with Dylan," booms Ray Benson jovially from his cell phone. "He goes: 'Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She's something else!'

"Those were his exact words. 'She stuck out. She should be nationwide! What's she doing?'

"'Playing shitty clubs in Texas,' I told him.

"So I called her up in Houston and said, 'Dylan wants to see you.'

"She drove 100 miles an hour here, and when he got off stage at the Backyard, he invited her down, and they jammed. That was a great little bit of hype."

As leader of the world's premier Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, Benson knows music but admits that when it came to Carolyn Wonderland, he was an odd guest at the tea party.

"I love what you do," he pitched her. "I'm not known as a rock & roller, but I know this music, and I know what to do with you."

Wonderland couldn't refuse Benson's godfatherly offer. She'd grown up the child of a singer in a band and began playing her mother's vintage Martin guitar when other girls were dressing dolls. She'd gone from being the teenage toast of her hometown Houston to sleeping in her van in Austin amid heaps of critical acclaim for fine recordings Alcohol & Salvation, Bloodless Revolution, and most recently, Miss Understood ("SXSW Platters," March 14).

The music-industry path ran through a dense, black rabbit hole, and Carolyn Wonderland's promise sometimes reflected darkly through Austin's looking glass. Maybe it needed viewing from another angle.

Imperial Monkey Business

Carolyn Wonderland, 36, sits in Maudie's on South Lamar with chips and hot sauce and Chalupas Compuestas on the way. The turquoise of the eatery's porch frames her wine-colored mane, much bolder than the soft brown eyes above a dappling of pale brown freckles. She gazes off with a Cheshire grin at a Downtown skyline changing nearly as rapidly as her life.

"My pawpaw was a real good whistler," she offers. "Whenever The Andy Griffith Show came on, it would be a three-part whistle harmony. The problem is you can't look at anyone because you'll laugh, and if you laugh, you can't whistle. I close my eyes."

Along with the guitar and the multitude of other instruments she learned to play – trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, lap steel – Wonderland's ability to whistle remains most unusual. Whistling is a uniquely vocal art seldom invoked in modern music, yet it's among the most spectacular talents the human voice possesses.

"My grandfather could call birds. After he passed, I tried to imitate bird sounds, see if I could get them to come near me. Toward the last part of my stay in Houston, there was a birdcall I didn't recognize. I started giggling because I realized it was a mockingbird imitating a car alarm. It was so strange, so urban."

Wonderland whistles the alarm to illustrate the scenario, and her note-perfect performance causes a customer at a nearby table to check the parking lot for his car.

That vocal proficiency was well-established in the singer's midteens, landing her gigs at Fitzgerald's by age 15. She absorbed Houston influences like Little Screamin' Kenny and soaked up the Mad Hatter of Texas music, Doug Sahm. The Lone Star State was as credible and fertile a proving ground for blues in the 1980s as existed, especially in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, and Lou Ann Barton all in their prime. By the following decade, Austin's blues luster thinned, but Houston, always a bastion of soul and R&B, boasted the Imperial Monkeys with the effervescent Carolyn Wonderland as ruler of the jungle.

In the Monkeys, she rattled cages everywhere she went and wore her crown with panache. A six-minute video clip of 20-year-old Carolyn and her band taking on Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me" in 1992 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKvz0Ez3uCg) is testament to her youthful confidence and swagger. Her vocal pyrotechnics in the first two minutes might well ensure her a finalist slot on American Idol today, but back then, it was all in a night's work. In a segment for a TV news show, the baby-faced singer sports bleached-blond hair dipped like a paintbrush in hot pink as she opines like a seasoned vet (www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ_fpepzM-M) and sings "Anyway."

The Monkeys didn't exactly play for peanuts and started copping top honors at the Houston Press Music Awards with cheeky blues-rock that churned country, surf, cumbia, jazz, and zydeco. Frontwoman and band caught the eye of two whose interest would change their lives.

"I was in Houston," recalls Susan Antone, "reading an article in the paper about her. I looked at her picture and said to Cliff, 'She's right for the club.' Nineteen years old with pink hair and playing the hell out of the guitar. We fell in love with her."

Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone's. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club's post-SRV stable of the early 1990s, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium.

Salvation, Revolution, and Understanding

Living in Austin renewed Carolyn Wonderland's focus on her multiple talents, underlining luxurious vocals with fine guitar work, trumpet, and piano, as well as that remarkable ability to whistle on key. A series of each-better-than-the-next discs began with Alcohol & Salvation in 2003 ("songs about booze and God; records are a time capsule of what happened that year"). Her music played in television series such as Time of Your Life and Homicide.

Her circle of musician friends and admirers broadened to include not only Benson but the late Eddy Shaver, Shelley King, and yes, Bob Dylan, who likened her composition "Bloodless Revolution" to "a mystery movie theme." She began co-writing with locals Sarah Brown, Ruthie Foster, Cindy Cashdollar, and Guy Forsyth; sat in with Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard; recorded with Jerry Lightfoot; and toured with Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter. She also claims membership in the all-girl Sis Deville, the gospel-infused Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, and takes aw-shucks credit for inspiring Amsterdam's annual WonderJam.

"The evolution of life shocks me all the time," Wonderland confesses. "When I think back on the crazy and beautiful things that have happened, it blows my mind, because I don't think I've done anything to deserve all these things. I'm still learning how to be appreciative and not be a jerk."

Jerks don't involve themselves with or support the wide range of socially conscious acronym organizations she does. SIMS, HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), MPP (Marijuana Policy Project), NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), WAMM (Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana), and ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), as well as Farm Aid, Seattle Hempfest, Million Musicians March, Cindy Sheehan, SafePlace, Front Steps, Star of Hope, Casa Marianella, and food banks are all beneficiaries of Wonderland's talents. She's a traditional folkie, and her socially conscious politics are on view in her music: Houston NORML uses her biographical "Annie's Scarlet Letter" as its featured soundtrack for public-service announcements.

Many of those second-chance and helping-hand efforts support women, families, and the homeless. That latter substrata of society is one that strikes close to her activist heart.

"I don't consider that I was 'home-less'; I consider that I was 'van-full,'" chuckles Wonderland with black humor about her nearly two years without a street address. "In that situation, I never went hungry in this town. And we were on tour so much it wasn't that radical of a change. I booked us a whole lot on the road."

She also bartered with friends, taking care not to spend too long at any one place by trading out household chores, cooking, and tasks in exchange for laundry and shower privileges.

"It felt useful that way," she explains, her slender brows furrowing in emphasis. "I've realized a lot of material things aren't quite as necessary as I thought they were when I was a kid. I once had goals of playing music and working other jobs for money so I could do that, but there's no time. If you set out to do that, then you're no good to anyone else as an employee. Any straight job was always back-burnered, and that made me feel bad. Anywhere I worked, it was like, 'Sorry, you're second choice.'"

Benson admires Wonderland's frankness in not making music her second choice.

"Musicians need two things: They need time for their craft – to practice, write, play – and they have to be out there hustling. Nothing had happened with Dylan. He doesn't like people talking about his stuff, but you know what? Too bad, Bob. I told Carolyn: 'Don't worry about budget. If you need to go in, go in. If we find a great tune, we go in and do it.'

"My luxury is owning [Bismeaux Studios]. It's not a great way to make money, but it's a great way to make music.

"And Carolyn's got that unbelievable, incredible voice, one of the great voices of our time, and that's not an overstatement. You can talk of K.T. Tunstall and other new chick singers of the last couple of years, but she's got the range, the emotion. Comparisons to Janis [Joplin] are always there since she's rooted in blues and R&B, but it's still rock & roll, and like Janis, Carolyn can take it into country. She's also an incredible guitar player and a great person, so humble. The combination is disarming and totally real. That's magic."

It was magic in the studio, too, as Miss Understood came to life, a canny mix of Benson's production, Wonderland's compositions, and select covers of Terri Hendrix, J.J. Cale, and Rick Derringer that punched her sound up a notch. As soon as the album roared to life, it was clear the singer-songwriter-guitarist-whistler had delivered on her long-awaited promise.

"What a thrill it was to have the Miss Understood CD release at [Antone's]," Susan Antone effuses of that night. "She stood there with her long, red curled hair and still played the hell out of the guitar, tearing it up as fabulous as always. I felt compelled to go on stage and say how honored we were to have her there, because I know what Cliffy would say, 'Let's hear it for Carolyn Wonderland.'"

Nowhere but Texas

The check's been paid and plates swept off the table. A handful of tortilla chips lies in pieces in the basket, eyed by a rogue wren perched on the porch railing as Carolyn Wonderland rummages her purse for her keys. She's off like the White Rabbit, a little late to the Capitol, where Shelley King is being installed as state musician of Texas. Even though there's no gig tonight, every day is preparation for the next show.

The proclamation from Carolyn Wonderland Day last February is framed. The big tour begins this summer, with dates to the East Coast and New York, then west to Oregon and California. In November, she's off to Amsterdam for another WonderJam. The accolades for Miss Understood are still pouring in with the Houston Press issuing a plea for her return home, but in June she's taping a segment for Austin City Limits. That very gig sums up her love and affection for the capital city.

"Here, it's like total camaraderie: A musician might be in a punk band Friday and blues band Saturday and picking during the week. Music doesn't sound like this anywhere else in the world."

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