Diggin' Way Down Into Life With Carolyn Wonderland & A. Whitney Brown
For Valentine's Day, we bring you a snapshot of life at home with a blues musician and her comedy writer husband
Carolyn Wonderland can make her living room sing. On the walls of her South Austin home hang a multitude of instruments: bass, mandolin, archtops, resonators, acoustic and electric guitars – including one of her instantly recognizable Gibson Blueshawks.
"Do the thing, baby," prompts her husband, the humorist and entertainer A. Whitney Brown. With eyes that say, "Okay, check this out," Wonderland lets out a loud "hooo-eeeh" at just the right decibel and hertz to make all the strings vibrate and the wall come alive in a warm chorus of reverberating wire and wood.
"Kinda," she shrugs.
An old glossy promo photo of the boom-boom-boogie bluesman John Lee Hooker, autographed in a way where it appears he added an extra letter to Wonderland's name and missed a letter of his own, presides over the room.
Just a tick under 11 years ago, Wonderland and Brown dressed in white and got married on Doug Sahm Hill in Downtown Austin. The late Mike Nesmith, of Sixties teen rock superstars the Monkees, officiated the service – having been ordained with priestly authority by clicking through some forms on the Universal Life Church website.
Wonderland, who Brown refers to as "an international woman of mystery," spends a lot of time gigging the world. For the last four years, she's played with 88-year-old British blues wizard John Mayall – her lead guitar duties being a position once held by the likes of Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Last week, Samuel L. Jackson had come out to their show in California and hung out afterward: "He's a real good singer," she notes. More often, the Houston native is leading her own band, which last fall released the scorching, striking, Dave Alvin-produced LP Tempting Fate on blues paragon Alligator Records.
So, when she's not on tour, what's a typical day in the home of Austin's most interesting couple?
Brown: I work in the yard and she works doing her endless paperwork for the band – trying to get everybody paid.
Wonderland: Or hollering out the door when I make a fresh pot of coffee. I'll say, "Come inside and have a break!" We'll smoke a reefer and I'll play some more guitar.
Brown: I love it.
This simplified summation of their daily life belies the little universe I've stumbled into, buzzing with fast-paced conversation and blooming with interests indulged to the max. There is a distinctly homey essence to the situation though, exemplified by Wonderland blessing me with a bowl of homemade tomato soup. It's delicious, there are little bits of sautéed onions in it and I suspect the tomatoes have been roasted. As she negotiates her way around Brown, bowls of soup in hand, Wonderland says: "My beautiful man, right behind you."
It's adorable, prompting me to ask: What do you call each other around the house?
Brown: "Hey baby!" "Love you, baby."
Wonderland: It's true. And we whistle at each other like birds on occasion when he's way far out in the field.
The two-story home, which they share with a pair of cats – the elderly Hannah and the big, orange Prints, who hangs out on a leash in the backyard because "he objects to the existence of dogs" – has been Wonderland's since 2009. She hard-earned it, after years of living full time in a band van.
"The funniest thing to me, it was a touring vehicle so we'd take it out on the road and then afterward I'd have empty nest syndrome from the band leaving the van," she laughs. "It was weird."
Every home has a creative hotspot. Where does inspiration strike here?
"In the kitchen," Wonderland responds doubtlessly. "We're all about experimenting – digging way down into life. Sitting around cooking together is always fun. Whitney will tell me about his project and I'll tell him about mine and we'll say, 'Hey, here's this weird thing. What do you think about this?'
"He may disagree. He may say it's the backyard."
Garden of Eden
Out their front door, you're in the city. Out the back door, you might think you're at a small Hill Country ranch. The Wonderland-Brown backyard opens into pristine nature. They can thank Mary Moore Searight, an elderly, pistol-toting Austin landowner who fought off development and, in the Eighties, donated much of her 344-acre property to the city under the stipulation that it became a park.
This is Brown's domain. A volunteer steward of the land, he clears invasive species like privet and chinaberry, turned an old dumping ground of cement into a stone fence – reminiscent of something you'd see in Ireland – for capturing water, facilitates the growth of mulberry trees, and manicures the cedar. It's beautiful enough to host a wedding – or at the very least a pagan ritual – but primarily his efforts are functional: focused on native plants for birds and butterflies. Homemade birdhouses give shelter to owls, tufted titmice, and song sparrows.
Back toward their home, culinary mushrooms fruit out of bins in a grow house and a potted garden awaits a variety of hot peppers that'll grow this spring – eventually to be harvested into a orangish-red hot sauce that's fruity and fiery as hell.
"So many musicians have gotten used to this," Brown says as he uses a professional filling machine to load me a bottle of their Backyard Pepper Sauce™. "You know hot sauce is good for your voice because it mimics trauma but doesn't cause any harm. So all the healing resources of your body go to that area to fix it up, but there's nothing to fix – it just makes it better."
Did you study horticulture or something? I ask through burning taste buds.
"I'm self-educated," he informs me. "I never finished high school."
Raised in mid-Michigan, Brown says he was arrested for robbery in eighth grade, sent to a boys training school, and his family dissolved. As a teen, however, he hitchhiked to Canada, fell in with the hippies, spent three weeks at Woodstock, and experienced a paradigm shift.
"I was headed for a criminal career and prison, then LSD completely saved my life – showed me the world was so much bigger than the anger I had inside," he explains. "It cured my anger and that cured my self-destruction. It made me realize how big and beautiful the world is and how I liked to make people laugh. Somehow I became a comedian."
Brown, of course, went on to be a writer and on-air correspondent for Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show. On both those shows, Brown developed a penchant for writing nine-second promo clips – the shortform nature of that work ultimately informing his current medium of public self-expression: Twitter. He's witty on that platform but even more potent outside of the 280-character framework.
Later, enjoying a cigarette and the improbably luxurious view from their second-story deck on which he and Wonderland built a fully functioning bar, Brown regales me with tales of his gnarly life and asserts his belief that people know when they're going to die. Being pretty stoned and having just lost a friend to an overdose the week prior, I told him I was actually afraid of death and I'd like to pretend, for the moment, that it isn't an inevitability. He appeased me with a well-placed Bible quote:
"Let the dead bury their dead. – Jesus Christ."
Jesus Christ indeed. All I could think was: This is a heavy cat – and he totally looks like he could play a cowboy in a movie.
"Well I thought he was awful cute and I got his email," Wonderland later tells me about the first time she met her future husband, in 2010 at a taping of Nesmith's Videoranch 3D during South by Southwest that she played and he hosted. "On our band's next drive up to New York I asked him if he wanted to get coffee ... but it took me three days to ask him that."
She says Brown followed up the date by sending her a thoughtful playlist of jazz that won her heart. Six months later they'd moved in together.
"I kidnapped him," she says.
Back in the living room, Brown espouses the brilliance of W.C. Fields – the early 20th century entertainment polymath. Like Brown, Fields was a comedian, writer, actor, and – most significantly – a juggler. Brown began his showbiz career as a juggling street performer in the Seventies, where he and other California jugglers would study 8mm films of Fields' routines. One of Brown's signature tricks was making it look like the ball was trying to escape midtoss, then snatching it out of the air and bringing it back into the pattern of lobs and catches.
"I could juggle five balls," he notes.
But you can't juggle anymore?
I'm actually confident that Brown can still juggle, but I've found that the best way to get someone to do something is to doubt them. Less because of my reverse psychology and more because entertainers entertain, within moments he's searching for three objects to juggle. On Wonderland's suggestion, he retrieves a set of wool dryer balls from the laundry and begins tossing them.
With a confident stance and pupils aloft, Brown has a cascade of balls flying in front of him. When one flies out of formation, he smiles: "Shit – I need to start practicing again." All in all it's impressive, but woolen dryer balls don't bounce and the trick he's trying to do involves dribbling them off the ground.
He disappears onto the back porch and returns with a gut-hooked machete – flipping it into the air and grabbing it midrotation with authority.
Sitting on the couch, Wonderland's eyes widen.
"Baby, I love you so much," she says. "Don't lose a finger."
I'm sitting down at their cozy dining room table and lessening my gravity with a cup of coffee, Wonderland's delightedly plucking one of the stranger instruments in her arsenal – a bass ukulele – for her friend (and our photographer) Todd Wolfson while Brown regales us with stories about people he's worked with: Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels, and Craig Kilborn. Out the window, the sun's starting to dip and, while I'm fascinated and envious of their lives, I do need to get back to mine. I came there expecting to do a proper interview but was instead sucked into their orbit where I felt like more of a vacationing houseguest than a journalist.
It was time to ask the only question I'd actually prepared in advance of the interview: What are your thoughts and experiences on artistic coexistence within a relationship?
"We come from different disciplines, but we still arrive at the same place," Wonderland replies, stopping short of explaining what that place is – because it's obvious.
She notes how Brown's writer brain can complement her music brain: "As a musician, it took me a minute to get used to the idea of editing something – which I got from him. When you write a song you think it is just that, but it doesn't have to be."
And sometimes you have to drag yourself through hell to write a great song – like recent Wonderland compositions "Fragile Peace and Certain War," an observance of Trump-era social hostility, and "Crack in the Wall," about child-family separation at the border – and it's nice to have a partner empathetic to a sometimes tormented writing process.
"Thank God Whitney, being a writer, didn't get his feelings hurt if I disappeared upstairs for days at a time, then came down all pissed off and went right up to write some more. If I seem depressed and angry, he knows that has nothing to do with us. That makes it beautiful."
"I don't think I've ever said this in front of Carolyn," Brown says, glancing over to his partner, "but I think her best songs come from her anger. And that's one thing we have in common because my best satire comes from anger at injustice. That's the best creative motivation and the best use of comedy for me – so we share that."
Wonderland smiles and redirects the light to another facet of domestic creativity.
"It's also good to be able to bounce silly ideas off somebody," she says. "If I can make him laugh I think it's a good day."
When you're an entertainer, or anything really, it can be hard to self-identify your purpose in life. So it's nice when someone else does it for you, like a neighbor who – during a recent visit to the Wonderland-Brown household – commended them on both devoting their lives to "inspiring other people."
"That's one way to look at it," Brown says, his contemplative expression giving way to smirking shrug. "But another way to look at it is ... we're carnies."
"It's true," Wonderland laughs.