By Michael May / American Public Media / March 15, 2008
It’s South By Southwest time in Austin, Texas. And right now, the streets are clogged with an event optimistically titled “The Million Musician March” — it’s a peace protest and wandering jam session that’s become an annual tradition.
Leading the march is Carolyn Wonderland, a singer, songwriter and mean guitar player who has a history of speaking out. She was kicked out of her high school for leading a protest.
But she’s all grown up now, and can do what she wants. She’s got a new album produced by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, and tonight at midnight she has her official South By Southwest showcase at the legendary club Antone’s.
Learning to Play Guitar
Well, I used to sneak around and play on my mom’s Martin when she wasn’t home, and I’d often get scolded or grounded for it if I hadn’t done my chores or if I hadn’t washed my hands after grubbing on it last time. I guess I was about 8 years old when I started really started writing songs on it, and wanting to play it every day. And I broke a string — I remember that very clearly, because I was so proud, I found the right gauge and strung it up. But I strung it up backwards. She didn’t find out for two days, and I never heard the end of that. So that Christmas, I got my own guitar.
An Attraction to the Blues
What first attracted me to the blues as a youngster playing guitar is that it was a chance to get to play with a group of people. You’ve only got so many chords, you’ve only got so many patterns you can do, but it’s what you do with those colors that make it. And that’s something that can’t be quantified in math, can’t be quantified on a chart — that’s your actual soul coming out… So that’s what attracted me to the blues.
Staying Close to Her Roots
It’s always been an evolution of the sound, always, but it’s never strayed from the first things that I heard. I mean, “Still Alive and Well” is one of the songs that we recorded on the new record, “Miss Understood,” and that’s one of the first guitar riffs that I ever went around the house on my mom’s guitar going, “Is this how it goes?” And she was like, “Why don’t you take up finger painting?”
Getting Kicked Out of School
I got thrown out of school for leading a protest on a campus after I was suspended for leading a protest at another campus. I was asked to leave right when I turned 17, they said, “Here’s the legal age where we can kick her out, and they did.” Getting kicked out of school? Well, it meant more time to devote to the guitar. I think it turned out OK. I don’t recommend it, but I think it turned out OK.
Hard-Headed Runs in the Family
My dad is about as hard-headed as I am. He was thrown out of school as well, so I guess it runs in the family. His advice was “Well, if you think you know everything, then you better get a job and prove it.” I was like, “OK.”
Playing in Biker Bars
A lot of the places that would hire me when I was underage were biker bars, by and far. It was never a consideration that I was a chick. And most of the folks there treated me like the dirty kid sister. Which was killer for me, I never had to wear make-up, I never had to do any of that crap. It wasn’t until I was on the road, I suppose, where I started to see a little change in treatment.
Always Something to Prove
Before you start playing, people might look at you odd — “Oh, great! Another strumming guitar chick… Don’t break a nail, honey!” Oh, boy howdy. But in a sense, there’s always something to prove to someone. So if it lights a fire under your butt, then good for it.
‘Van Full’ and Always on the Road
Part of living your dreams sometimes is realizing you have to live cheaply. And sometimes you go to extremes to prove something to yourself, and sometimes you put yourself out more than you have to and you give yourself the blues. For example, I was in my van for the better part of two years. It was partly by choice, and partly because there wasn’t a lot of money to be made making music. Or, at least, the way that I was going about it, I sure couldn’t find it. So that the result of that was just to go on tour all the time, and be OK with that. Even at the point where some people would have considered me homeless, I considered myself “van full,” because I always had wheels, and I was always on the road.
A Different Measure of Success
I love getting to play life. I love freaking out. When you’re playing, you don’t care. I really care more about what I sound like than what I look like on any given night. I’m not thinking. If it’s the end of the song, I always get surprised. “What song did we play? What song should play next?” I don’t usually have set lists, so sometimes I have to look around to the band. “We haven’t played this yet, right?” Because you’re outside of yourself. And to me, that’s success. It may never come with money, but it sure comes with that. You get to jump out there and do that all the time — it’s really lucky.