Tracy Grammer – Beautiful dreamer
“On the one hand, he was just a sponge for information. And what he would do with that information is…well, he would go to sleep,” she laughs. “That’s how I used to write my term papers, so I sort of understand what he was doing. I think he would sort of cram, and then he would go to sleep, and somehow, in his dream world, things would begin to make sense. Melodies would come to him, and little snippets of lyrics. He was trained in transpersonal psychology, and he was trained in dream work, and he knew how to stay down in the dream world longer than you think you might be able to, and actually mine that realm for more information, or deeper meaning.
“He liked to say that he was always out and about with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the waking world, and I believe that. It was really important for him to stay in touch with that stuff over which he had no control, where he was just a traveler in his own dream space, kind of seeing what his brain was doing with all that information that he stuck in there. It’s pretty fascinating, the things he came up with.”
On Flower Of Avalon, Carter’s songs are framed in some of the most elaborate settings his work has enjoyed thus far. With help from co-producer John Jennings, Grammer assembled a cast of empathetic backers to flesh out the instrumentation, including Lorne Entress (drums), Mike Rivard (bass), and Grammer’s touring partner Jim Henry (dobro, mandolin, electric guitar). Grammer herself handles vocals, acoustic guitar, violin, and walkabout dulcimer. Jennings contributes guitar and bass on several tracks, and Grammer’s friend Rob Schnell provides additional percussion. Rounding out the ensemble is Mary Chapin Carpenter, who adds harmony vocals on three songs.
Other than the shimmery beauty of Grammer’s voice, what longtime fans will probably notice first about the album is the fullness of the arrangements. The multitude of layers and textures resulted partly from the freedom given to the players, but Grammer says she also steered deliberately toward a bigger sound.
“Most of the songs were things that we had performed, or that were on tape somewhere,” she says. “With some of them, I sort of re-arranged them, and fleshed them out a bit more. I made the arrangements a little more dramatic, I think, than they had been, because they were all just in their infancy. We hadn’t done any pre-production on them, so we didn’t really have a concept of how a band would sound on those songs. That’s sort of the work that I did, kind of during the first year of touring without Dave. I sort of got a feel for how they should be played, and what seemed to work well with audiences.”
High points include the haunting lament “Hard To Make It” (which, style-wise, falls somewhere between Patty Larkin and Cowboy Junkies); the majestic, hymn-like “Any Way I Do”; and the aforementioned “Phantom Doll”, a quirky, showtune-ish composition that brings to mind the recent work of Sam Phillips.
“I don’t know how to describe that one,” Grammer says of “Phantom Doll”. “Some people have said it’s like Django Reinhardt. I do know that at the time Dave wrote that song, he was really enamored with Rufus Wainwright. We were really in love with [Wainwright’s] sweeping melodies, and his sort of grandiose production, and everything. I think Dave was going for something like that, but of course he’s going to put his own twist on it, with that language.”
Another standout is “Laughlin Boy”, an Appalachian bluegrass stomp that’s the sole track not written by Carter. In fact, Signature Sounds has chosen the song — which was penned by Grammer’s friend, the poet Bill Jolliff — to be the first single. “Some people might wonder how that one fits into the picture,” Grammer allows. “What happened was that Dave and I heard that song at a house concert that we were playing. Bill Jolliff and his son, Jacob Jolliff — who’s a mandolin protege — opened for us and they played that song, and we fell in love with it. It wasn’t very often that Dave fell in love with other people’s songs and wanted to sing them, but this was a song that we had actually sung quite a few times, for encores and stuff, at our shows around the country.”
Grammer says she is already looking toward her next album, and has begun co-writing songs with Jim Henry. In addition, another album of Dave Carter songs is in the works: “Essentially it’s a re-recording of Dave’s first solo album, Snake Handlin’ Man, with a couple of new songs added,” Grammer says.
But it’s clear she is determined to establish herself as an artist in her own right as well. Reconciling the need to move forward with the desire to honor Carter’s memory continues to be a challenge, but Grammer has achieved an equanimity that bodes well for the future.
“Dave’s [memory] has been like a touchstone,” she says. “I would take a few steps forward from it, but then I would always feel like I had to run back and tag it before I could move a little further out. I struggled, for a while, because I didn’t know how far away I could get from that and still be OK. But at this point I feel like I don’t have to come back and tag that touchstone all the time, because it’s a fact — and it’s not going away — that Dave is gone. I don’t need to come back and revisit that all the time. I still incorporate Dave’s material as a big part of my show, and obviously…this album is all about his songs.”
Russell Hall lives in Anderson, South Carolina. When he’s not writing about music, he can generally be found either on a tennis court or on his trusty blue bike.