Tracy Grammer – Beautiful dreamer
The sudden death of Dave Carter in July 2002 forced Tracy Grammer to choose between two options, she says: either go on the road and continue to perform, or stop singing entirely. Adding to her dilemma was the fact that Carter — who Grammer described in a poignant website-posting to fans as her “soul mate and partner in everything worldly and otherwise” — had been the outgoing half of the duo, exuding onstage charisma while Grammer offered stolid, quiet support. In the end, the outpouring of encouragement from fans propelled Grammer to return to the stage quickly, but dealing with Carter’s death in a public forum was especially difficult during the first year.
“I felt like I was the conductor of the grief train,” says Grammer, whose fond memories of Carter are punctuated with a blend of sentimentality and laughter. “I would sort of go around the country and do my shows, and what would happen, invariably, is that as soon as I got onstage, and people recognized, for the first time, that Dave was not there, his death would become real, for everyone. It made his absence palpable, and people had a very strong reaction to that. They were weeping at the shows, and it was a very emotional time.
“I would say it was that way for the entire first year. But then the second year was entirely different. People were like, ‘OK, we’ve been through the grief door. What’s next? We want to hear what you have to say.'”
When Carter, at age 49, suffered a fatal heart attack, he and Grammer were entering a period of creative momentum and burgeoning commercial success. Two albums recorded for Signature Sounds — 2000’s Tanglewood Tree and 2002’s Drum Hat Buddha — had generated a buzz among peers who saw something uniquely sophisticated in Carter’s songwriting, and who saw, in Grammer, a musician and singer of dazzling versatility. On Flower Of Avalon, her first full-length solo album, Grammer pays tribute to her late partner by bringing to life nine previously unrecorded Carter songs. Just as important, however, the album unfurls as a portrait of an artist coming into her own as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and arranger.
“We used to perform some of these songs as far back as 1997,” says Grammer. “And some of them are things we were learning at the time of Dave’s death. There’s one song — ‘Phantom Doll’ — that we have only because we were rehearsing that song the day before Dave died. Byron Isaacs, of Ollabelle, and George Javori, of the Joan Baez Band, were going to be our rhythm section for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival the following weekend, and they were rehearsing with us. Byron recorded me and Dave playing the song, using his little hand-held tape recorder, and I think it was about eighteen hours later that Dave was gone.”
As Grammer tells it, there’s a bit of a storybook component to the way she and Carter met. Raised in southern California, Grammer was first introduced to music by her father, an amateur guitarist who often led the neighborhood kids in sing-alongs, following songbooks by popular artists of the day. “I would sit across from him and flip the pages,” says Grammer. “That was kind of my first exposure to something like a folk process — sharing music, and singing along with a bunch of people.”
At age 9, Grammer began studying violin, and throughout high school she played in the orchestra. While attending the University of California, she put the instrument aside for several years, but near the end of her time there she met Curtis Coleman, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, and began accompanying him at small shows around Modesto, California. Soon after that, she met singer-songwriter David Noble, and the two formed a techno-pop band called Juicy. That project was short-lived, but it did serve as a conduit to Carter, who Grammer met when she and Noble participated in a songwriters showcase in Portland, Oregon.
“Dave Carter got up there at the end of the night and did two songs, and I was just blown away,” remembers Grammer, who’s been based in Portland ever since. “He was accompanied by a girl — her name is Susan Martin — and I fell in love with the configuration. But more importantly, I had just come from UC Berkeley with a degree in literature, focusing on Native American women writers. So Dave gets up, and he plays this song that’s got a real strong Native American theme to it, and he’s using this real poetic language, and he’s so humble. He just looks like the nicest guy in the world. As far as I was concerned — it really happened this way — everyone in the room just disappeared. I was focusing on Dave, and I was focusing on the sound of Dave and Susan singing together, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do, right there. I love that.'”
Introductions were made after the event, and to Grammer’s surprise, Carter invited her to be in his band. Two years later, as a duo, she and Carter recorded their first album, the independently released When I Go. A rave review in the Los Angeles Times, along with a flurry of awards from various folk alliances and festivals, earned the duo a national following, and in 1999 Carter and Grammer signed a deal with Signature Sounds.
The ensuing albums garnered praise from a host of high-profile admirers, including Joan Baez, who asked the duo to tour with her in the spring of 2001. (Baez also added several Carter compositions to her performance repertoire.) Carter’s songwriting drew heavily from his eclectic background, which included studies in advanced math, the fine arts, and something called “the psychology of mystical experience.” Grammer has characterized his songs as having a country component, but with “language that’s really aggressive, and really poetic.”