Carolyn Wonderland is the sound of Texas. But don’t try to fence her in. Even though her boots are firmly planted in the Lone Star State, she’s a free-ranger, lassoing a variety of styles she hogties into her own inimitable take on twangy, bluesy honky-tonk, hand-plucked and feisty.
Wonderland’s hand-plucking technique came out of necessity after being fussed at as a young sprout for aping Pete Townsend’s windmilling on her mom’s prized Martin, the resulting scratches getting her banned from using a pick.
Bob Dylan embraced her back in 2003, getting Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson to hook ’em up for a face-to-face encounter that resulted in a jam, cementing their friendship. Benson went on to produce four albums for her from 2008 to 2017. John Mayall picked her up as his Blues Breakers lead guitarist in 2018, the first woman to hold that position, which lasted three years.
The Blasters’ Dave Alvin is the producer of her latest, Tempting Fate, her debut on Alligator, and Wonderland gives him credit for encouraging her to “kick the doors in.” But she doesn’t really need any help in that department — she’s been dismantling every joint she’s played in for decades, splintering the furnishings then redecorating in a Wonderland décor that drips soulful honky-tonk grease. She chronicles that journey in “Texas Girl and Her Boots.”
Her covers are bear traps, grabbing hold of you and clamping down with a vengeance. Her duet with Jimmy Dale Gilmore on Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is a loping cowpokers travelogue with some weepy lap steel courtesy of Cindy Cashdollar. Wonderland’s vocal interaction with Gilmore is a bluesy cowgirl’s dream come true, soulful Bonnie Raitt traces drifting through like smoke from a distant campfire.
Billy Joe’s Shaver’s “Honey Bee” has been in her setlist for a while, but this revamped version has a zydeco feel thanks to Jan Fleming’s accordion. Wonderland brings it back to Texas with her crusty, twangy bar band guitar romp.
Wonderland demonstrates the guitar skills that got her onstage with John Mayall with her fiery rendition of Mayall’s “The Law Must Change.”
Her originals are just as impressive. She wails like a soulful swamp thang on the bigfoot stomp “Broken-Hearted Blues,” accompanied by some slippery, venomous guitar strikes, like fellow Texan Teresa James with a touch of another notorious James — Etta — on “Fortunate Few.”
Wonderland’s unique guitar skills set her apart from other famous Texan string pullers, and her vocals recall the glory days of Texas female domination when Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, and Tracy Nelson ruled the roost. Her latest is a roof-rattling, take-no-prisoners soulful shout-out rooted in the past that still shines brightly into the future.