Carrie Rodriguez just might be the hardest-working woman in American roots music. The Austin, Texas-born-and-raised singer-songwriter plays the fiddle, but doesn’t fiddle around.
After finally taking a brief respite from the road over the holidays, when she was able to enjoy two of her favorite things — cooking and eating — Rodriguez was back at it this month.
Upon hearing that Ruthie Foster and Marcia Ball were among 20 Lone Star Staters scheduled to perform at the Black Tie & Boots inaugural ball presented by the Texas State Society, Rodriguez said, “OK, sign me up,” and was “ready for anything” at the party thrown along the banks of the Potomac.
That’s not surprising coming from the adventurous Rodriguez, who seemingly is either always on tour or in the studio. Last year took her to such exotic locales as Kiruna, a Swedish mining town 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and Belgium, where she appeared to promote a record by Erik and Sanne Van Neygen, a folk-singing couple who convinced her to be their producer. That first-time experience with “basically the Sonny and Cher of Belgium” was “very exhausting and exciting at the same time,” an exuberant Rodriguez said over the phone on a rare off day in Austin a week before Christmas.
Her own January 22 release, Give Me All You Got (Ninth Street Opus), is an example of Rodriguez at her freewheeling best, an inspired mix of passion and energy that captures the spirit of her feel-the-burn live shows.
The classically trained violinist and Berklee College of Music graduate who once preferred to play it safe rather than let it loose in the studio, releases her inhibitions on 11 tracks, almost all of which she wrote or co-wrote.
Working with her touring band members and Erik Deutsch (piano, Rhodes and Hammond B3) and Don Heffington (drums and percussion), along with Lee Townsend, her manager and producer on her previous solo record, while reconnecting with Chip Taylor, one of her first collaborators, raised the comfort level considerably.
“You’re on a clock and it costs so much money and you’ve got these amazing musicians around you,” Rodriguez said of the recording experience at Fantasy Studios. “You don’t want to screw it up. You just want it to go well. I think having the band be guys that I’ve played with for years, they’re my closest friends and basically family. Having them play on the record really helped and just maybe the years of being on the road are starting to add up.”
While appreciating the history associated with the renowned recording facility in Berkeley, Calif., that opened in 1971 (Studio C was built expressly for Creedence Clearwater Revival), with clients as diverse as Santana, Chris Isaak, Journey and Green Day, “you can definitely imagine a lot of debauchery going on” during its heyday, she added, laughing.
Recorded mostly live with few overdubs over a two-week period last spring, Give Me All You Got allowed the evolving Rodriguez an opportunity “to close my eyes and give it all I had. I’m proud of that fact. It’s not perfect sounding because of that. There’s plenty of bumps and glitches, but that’s part of it, that’s part of performing.”
Songs such as “Brooklyn,” “Lake Harriet” and “Whiskey Runs Thicker Than Blood” take a pleasant, upbeat approach to provide intimate, honest details of a radiant woman who is experiencing a rebirth in the prime time of her life. A working and personal relationship with guitarist Luke Jacobs, whom she first met while touring with Romantica (the band he founded with Ben Kyle), seems particularly fulfilling.
The two officially kicked off seven weeks of touring the country January 22 with a CD release party in Austin that will be followed by long drives through Texas, the Southeast, the East Coast, Colorado (February 16 at L2 Arts and Culture Center in Denver), the West Coast and Midwest.
Rodriguez, who also plays tenor guitar on the album, is a joy to see in concert. Whether backing up Alejandro Escovedo, opening for Los Lonely Boys or headlining with a band that has included Jacobs, Hans Holzen (guitars) and Kyle Kegerreis (upright and electric bass), the electrifying Texan does give it all she’s got and has become one of my favorite fiddlers.
That’s why it was especially pleasing to hear Rodriguez say she played more fiddle on this album than she has in the past (only three cuts on 2008’s She Ain’t Me, for example). Offering stellar work on two versions of the best cut (the opening “Devil in Mind” is reprised as an improvisational instrumental), her fiddle is also a key element on “Get Back in Love,” “Cut Me Now” and “I Don’t Mind Waiting,” the sweet duet she co-wrote and sang with Jacobs.
Trained to read notes off a page and lacking confidence in the past to record more spontaneously, Rodriguez made the most of this play-it-by-ear opportunity.
“Yeah, it was fun, too, just to be able to take solos. I think maybe because I’m trained as a classical violinist, I still have these sort of insecurities. In the live performance, (those insecurities aren’t) really there and I go for it, for better or for worse with my soloing,” she said with a laugh.
Knowing that association with the instrument is an important component in building her fan base, Rodriguez is paying attention to them as well. “That’s another comment I get a lot when people come to the live show. They’re like, ‘Wow, I love hearing you play the fiddle. I didn’t even know you played.’ ”
Just before making her record, Rodriguez’s producing duties with the Belgians possibly provided the proper motivation to put the fiddle in her own hands more often. Assembling an all-star cast of Texas greats that included Lloyd Maines (father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines) on guitar and Earl Poole Ball (Johnny Cash’s piano player for 20 years), Rodriguez played fiddle on nearly every track of Erik & Sanne’s Austin-recorded project with a title translated as “The Fantastic Expedition.”
Give Me All You Got also marks the rejuvenated return of Rodriguez as a songwriter. While she did pen “Fire Alarm” with Ben Kyle on their 2011 We Still Love Our Country EP of mostly covers, that creative process was basically put on hold after She Ain’t Me, her second solo studio album that included writing collaborations with Mary Gauthier and Gary Louris.
“When I started with this whole thing, I was just playing the fiddle,” Rodriguez offered about a musical initiation that led to her Seven Angels on a Bicycle debut in 2006. “And to go from there to singing and from there to writing songs, it happened so quickly. I almost just ... it’s like I woke up one day and went, ‘What the hell, I’m a songwriter now? This is what I do? Am I really qualified to be doing this?’ So it was all incredible. But just after (She Ain’t Me), I really felt like I had to sit down for a little bit and analyze the situation.
“I think I just needed some time to think about, ‘Well what are the kind of songs that mean the most to me? And out of everything I’ve done, what do I like the most?’ ”
Love and Circumstance, the 2010 album of covers by many of her favorites, provided the necessary inspiration. Then Chip Taylor, Rodriguez’s former mentor, duet and songwriting partner, emailed her “I Cry for Love.”
Rodriguez recalled his message that said: “Carrie, I basically wrote this for you. This is your song and I think it’s gonna be a hit and I really think you should record it.”
Rodriguez not only did that, but also had a fruitful reunion with Taylor at the Americana Music Festival and Conference. They wrote “Sad Joy,” a song about “life and death and friends with illness and just heavy kinds of things” in about 10 minutes.
They also combined on “Devil in Mind” and Taylor, whose resume includes “Wild Thing” and “Angel in the Morning,” contributed “Cut Me Now.”
Their collaborative juices flowing again, Taylor invited Rodriguez to attend and play the Mean Bastard Festival in November, a two-day event in northernmost Sweden he began to honor an area that stays in total darkness for about six weeks beginning in mid-December.
“I flew all the way to the North Pole essentially to play like two gigs and flew home because I had a tour that started in Florida just a few days later,” Rodriguez said gleefully of a memorable trip on which she performed with Scandinavian musicians, became enthralled with the reindeer-herding indigenous people known as the Sami and met an Iditarod dog-sledding champion. “It was nuts but really amazing.”
And while promoting a new record hardly compares, Rodriguez had reason to feel exhilarated. She even took the time to indulge a writer who was curious to know what made a 5-year-old Carrie choose the stringed instrument that eventually put her on the national and global map.
First asked to rate her fiddle playing, Rodriguez hit a high note with a shrieking laugh.
“Like on a scale of 1 to 10? Oh, Lord. Well, I’ve been on the road with Mark O’Connor all week; it must be pretty low,” she said of a series of holiday performances where she actually played second fiddle to “one of my fiddle heroes” while also singing harmonies and lead on a couple of tunes, including “Winter Wonderland.”
“That guy’s amazing. Oh my God. Well, I guess the older I get the more I realize everybody ... I mean every musician who I’ve ever met has something they do that’s unique to them,” she continued. “It makes them special. It’s not necessarily something that I could rate. I know that the way I play the fiddle is different than the way I hear other people playing the fiddle. But it’s got its own thing. It’s kinda raw sometimes. It can be sweet, but it also can be really raw. I think it’s fairly emotional playing just because of my personality. ... Everybody has their thing.”
She cited other favorites besides O’Connor, including:
Johnny Gimble, using him as an example of someone who has their “own unique voice” and doesn’t have to be a classical violinist to be a great player: “Nobody plays like Johnny but Johnny. ... It’s very kind of behind the beat and he plays all these cool blue notes.”
Champ Hood, who died in 2001, was a co-founder and member of Uncle Walt’s Band with the late Walter Hyatt: “I just remember watching him and being amazed by the way he sounded. And he was pretty rough. Like he kinda played out of tune and screechy, but he was cool and he had groove. But I just remember, even as a 7-year-old, going to those gigs and just thinking, ‘Wow, how does he do that? I don’t know how to do that.’ ”
Alison Krauss, the crossover artist fronting Union Station who teamed with Robert Plant for Raising Sand: “I sometimes kinda wish I could hear more of her fiddle playing. Because when I do hear it, it’s super-raw. Which is interesting because her voice is so angelic. ... She plays some really cool fiddle parts on (Raising Sand’s “Nothin’ ”). Just very unique and unusual and emotive. And not pretty at all, which I think is cool.”
Rodriguez’s love for the instrument developed over time, but she had ulterior motives as a kindergartner at Casis Elementary School in Austin.
“I was really bad at nap-time,” Rodriguez said. “I would talk through the whole thing. And I already had a parent/teacher conference about it. I remember getting up to go to the bathroom and walking down the hall during nap-time and hearing the little squawky beginner violin playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is what I should be doing. Not laying in there bored.’ ”
She began taking lessons with a rented violin after persuading her parents, visual artist Katy Nail and David Rodriguez, the singer-songwriter who moved to Holland when his daughter was a teenager.
Though the pilot program that taught the Suzuki Method lost funding after one year, she continued studying through high school with her violin teacher, William Dick, and today considers him part of the family. “If there’s one person responsible for me having a career in music, it’s him,” she said.
Hearing violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman perform a Paganini Caprice at Bass Concert Hall in Austin was almost as impressionably significant. Sitting in the worst seats in the 4,000-seat auditorium, 5-year-old Carrie and her mother spotted an empty pair in the front row and raced down at intermission to grab them.
“And I just remember being mesmerized by him,” Rodriguez said, relishing another chance to retell a story that’s taken on folklore status. “(During the encore), he did something real flashy and fancy and I got so excited that I stood up and started clapping, which was not the right time to start clapping. (laughs) And everybody looked at me. And my mom — this is what I don’t remember — but my mother says that Itzhak looked down on me and just gave me a huge smile.”
With Give Me All You Got, Rodriguez will attract plenty of smiling faces while working to pull more listeners onto her bandwagon. Strings attached, of course.
Concert photo by Michael Bialas. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist.