photo © 2012 Ben Bernhardt
“Music is my channel of authenticity. I know I'd only be telling half the truth without it” writes Tracy Grammer. Her music and her life story, (it's hard to separate the two,) is the stuff of perseverance, of loss and reclamation, both anchor and drifting vessel in the face of the unexpected, having suddenly lost her musical partner Dave Carter so early in life, she has since continued to both honor his legacy and to create her own, and it's the “creating of her own” that she talks about here. What shines through her words is the hard fought but well-worth-the-fighting wisdom of one of the most enduring, irreplaceable voices in American folk music. Most of us know from personal experience that music can heal, but it can also teach and guide us, show us the way or one of the many ways, like a tour guide of the soul, such is the music, the life and the poetry of Tracy Grammer.
AHC: Do you consider music to be a type of healing art, the perfect vehicle through which to translate a feeling, a state of rupture, hope lost and regained? As a listener of music I have this impression, I wonder, as the artist, the creator, do you have this feeling about the transformative power of song?
Tracy: Absolutely. As a songwriter and musician, I am always in awe of the power of song to heal and transform us. How does it work? The transformation happens on two levels. First, there is a burst of pure energy and raw emotion. It could be something joyful or tragic, something curious or topical. But the first transformation is going to be from that pure internal energy into music, with the writer as conduit, channel, and composer. If it never went any further than this, and the song was never shared with an audience, the song would still have healing potential. Getting a song out is a cathartic process, and there’s much to be learned if a writer can get out of his or her own way and trust what comes to be meaningful, true, and wise. It usually is.
The second level of transformation is what you’re talking about — the effect on the listener. No matter what kind of song it is — happy, silly, angry, blue — if it feels true and relatable, it holds great medicine. The medicine can come from the content of the song in the case where, for instance, a solution is revealed, or hope is restored. But mostly, I think it comes from something more basic: the feeling that someone has articulated what we could not, and we are no longer alone.
AHC: What has this journey, this life in music been like for you, the highs and the lows, and what life lessons do you feel you've picked up along the way?
Tracy: Well, my life in music has been marked by joy, fear, sorrow, adventure, international travel, feast AND famine, and the love of many people who helped me along the way. It started with Dad playing guitar in the evenings, and the family singing along to favorite 8-tracks: John Denver, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Charley Pride, and Jim Ed Brown, to name a few. Then there were two ladies named Jan on Jutewood Street. One gave me a violin, the other gave me lessons, and this kickstarted my string career. I sang in elementary school musicals, then played in local and regional orchestras through high school. Neighborhood kids remember hearing me humming to myself as I walked, or singing Pat Benatar and Olivia Newton-John at home, full volume, with the bedroom window open. Fair to say the music was pretty much always in me.
I joined Dave Carter’s band in 1996 and felt like I met my soulmate in song. Our duo broke off from the band around 1997 and was swept onto the national stage in a hot hurry. Looking back, I think it’s because he just didn’t have much time here. Dave died in 2002, a heart attack in our hotel room. By then, we’d played most major festivals, had recorded three albums, and had toured with Joan Baez. For all that, though, I had never played a solo show. It took everything I had — and I do mean everything — to get back on the road and become the performer I am today. Thank God for Donny Wright and Jim Henry, both of whom accompanied me in those rough early “new” duo shows. Looking back, it’s a little hard to believe I got through that time. But of course I did. It’s what you do. You push on.
What I told everyone then remains true now: “I do it for love.” And the day this stops being true is the day I'll quit.
What have I learned?
That Life is shorter and longer than I thought it’d be.
That there’s always more to learn about playing, singing, and writing.
That you don’t have to be famous to change the course of someone’s life with your art.
That even though I *can* drive 3,100 miles in three days, it doesn’t mean I should.
That it’s better to travel alone than with the wrong company.
That the size of the audience does not matter. Connect with one, and you’ve done your job.
That a sweet potato and some steamed greens are the perfect pre-show meal.
That I never want to be in such a hurry that I don’t have time to pull over and enjoy what’s happening on the side of the road — a field of sunflowers, that first view of the ocean, a small town carnival, the great redwoods, for instance.
That money makes things easier but it’s not everything.
Water is everything.
Woods are everything.
Critters are sacred.
The stars are everything.
And home is everywhere.
AHC: What first drew you to music and what was your early musical environment like growing up?
Were there pivotal songs for you then that just floored you the moment you heard them?
Tracy: My dad played guitars and was my first singing partner. We’d get the neighborhood kids together and open up the songbooks and have ourselves a little hoot in the early evenings. Happy memory in a sometimes volatile household.
I got a violin at age 9 and spent hours in my room either playing or singing along with my parents’ 8-tracks and LPs. We weren’t a Bob Dylan/Joan Baez family. We spun Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Lynn Anderson, and The Monkees on the turntable, along with lots of country — Oakridge Boys, Bellamy Brothers, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Cash, Statler Brothers, Don Williams, Hank Williams, Willie & Merle.
Pivotal songs, as a kid? BJ Thomas “Raindrops.” Tanya Tucker “Delta Dawn.” Willie & Merle “Pancho & Lefty” (which I perform). Olivia Newton-John’s part on John Denver’s “Fly Away.” “If I Could Talk to the Animals” from my jewelry box. “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” used to scare the sh*t out of me! Look before you leap / Still waters run deep / And there won’t always be someone there to pull you out… As a kid I found this totally ominous for some reason!
Later songs that wowed me (in no order):
Mary Chapin Carpenter: “It Was Only a Dream”
Kate Bush “Experiment IV”
Shawn Colvin “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”
Sugar Hill Gang “Rapper’s Delight”
Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto”
Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody"
And most of Dave Carter’s catalog, though “Gun-Metal Eyes” was the first.
AHC: Do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
Tracy: Yes. Not particularly strong. But I’d gotten a four-track and added some tupperware percussion along with harmony, which made the process fun. I guess I was always something of a producer.
AHC: Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Tracy: This list changes like the weather. Longstanding: Mary Chapin Carpenter. Bach. Suzanne Vega. Shawn Colvin. Gilbert & Sullivan. And of course Dave Carter.
AHC: What do you think makes for a good song, as you're writing and composing, is there a sudden moment
when you know you've found the right mix, that perfect angle of light, so to speak?
Tracy: If it makes me cry, I’ve hit on something for sure. But sometimes, I just write write write until it feels done and then when I perform it, that’s the real test. I can tell instantly whether the song is worthy or has missed the mark once it’s exposed to the light of audience scrutiny, and it really doesn’t matter what the audience says. *I* know. I can feel what’s not true.
AHC: What are your favorite on-tour, on-the-road memories?
Tracy: That afternoon we were driving on a two-lane outside Kauffman, Texas when Dave shook up a Chocolate Soldier and it exploded all over the inside of the rental car.
That moment when I took the stage at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival after Dave died and 10,000 people stood and cheered, and then wept with me, for five solid minutes.
Singing “Gypsy Rose” in a tiny, dark club in Hiroshima, with Miyuki Kahler and her daughter Karen adding beautiful harmonies behind me.
That moment, after my first show with Jim Henry, when I asked him whether he’d had a good time, and he said, most emphatically, “No!” (13 years later, we still play together.)
When my grandma came to see me sing with Joan Baez. And really, that whole Baez experience. I could go on and on.
Leading my first songwriting workshop at Camp Ned in 2015, and hiking to the Continental Divide the Monday after. What a one-two punch of greatness. That’s how you do it, how you make a life and a LIVING on the road.
AHC: Could you talk about your involvement with the project RealWomenRealSongs?
Tracy: Cary Cooper invited 21 women all across the US to write a song a week for 2014. Cary provided prompts and we posted our performances of these fresh, new, in some cases unfinished, songs to a dedicated YouTube channel, which is still active. I was hesitant to get involved because even though I had hundreds of bits and pieces, I didn’t have a history of actually finishing songs. In fact, at that time, I had only finished one. “The Verdant Mile” was recorded ten years prior in response to my grief over losing Dave. That was it. My one song.
Also, I was just scared. I can’t write like Dave Carter. Nobody can. And nobody should. But back then, I was so worried about being compared to him, worried about falling short of some impossible standard I’d set for myself, worried about letting people down, that I was almost too paralyzed to start. But I did it anyway.
I went through a pretty major life upheaval in May of that year and ended up moving from Pennsylvania back to Massachusetts. It was harder to write songs after that. I was just too sad and out of sorts. But I managed to log 17 songs total, which was great considering where I started. :)
Prior to RWRS, I had sung Dave Carter’s songs almost exclusively. I’m grateful Cary pushed me to participate because singing my own songs and sharing my written voice has changed my life for the better. And it’s changed others’ lives, too! I recently heard that one of my songs helped heal a years-long rift between a father and his daughter just before that father passed away. We were talking about medicine — there it is. I may not be the master of myth, poetry, and craft that Dave was, but I have been journaling since I was 9 and I know how to dig down to the truth. When the work is honest, it will connect.
AHC: In a world that is moving faster and faster, for better or worse, I think that really good, tried and true music helps orient us to our times, slows us down and brings us back to ourselves, folk music is a great example of this. When you set out to write an album of songs, how much does 'where the world is' in its current moment, culturally, politically, otherwise, influence the kinds of stories you set out to tell?
Tracy: I don’t feel qualified to speak to the weather of the world. I don’t try to make big statements about the times we’re living in. And I try, at every turn, to avoid absolutes because I have learned there really aren’t any. I decided a long time ago that the world is simply too big for me. So I focus on the world inside my heart, and the one just outside my proverbial door. I speak to my experience because that is all I really know to be true.
AHC: Do you have any words of advice for young musicians and singer-songwriters out there who are trying to find their voice and their way in this world?
Tracy: Be humble. You meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down.
Be curious and pay attention. The world is full of stories that want telling.
Say it the way you say it. We each have our own quirky languaging. Use yours.
Eat healthy. Sleep enough. Exercise. Drink water. Get your face in the sun. Repeat.
Have faith. If you show up armed with the truth, you’ll connect. There is an audience for everyone.
Don’t worry about what you think the world needs from you. There’s no controlling the response to art, trends are like tides. Stay true to You and you will prevail. Keep working.
Make it fun. Get lost, take side trips, write outside your genre, collaborate with strangers. You never know when sparks will fly.
AHC: Do you have any new projects in motion you'd like to tell people about?
Tracy: I’ll be making an album this winter for release in early 2017, and it will include at least four of the RWRS songs.
I’ve been working on a memoir about my time with Dave Carter and have begun reading drafts in a new performance format I call words+music. Readings are interspersed with songs. The show has a theatrical flair and a living room feel and is not only for fans of folk music — the stories, which touch on issues like transgender identity, courage, grief, bad British accents, and road life, appeal to people navigating various thresholds and transitions. words+music dates are marked on my tour calendar at www.tracygrammer.com/
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.