The depths of the Texas blues tradition with the wit of a poet. She hits the stage with an unmatched presence, a true legend in her time.
She’d grown up the child of a singer in a band and began playing her mother’s vintage Martin guitar when other girls were dressing dolls. She’d gone from being the teenage toast of her hometown Houston to sleeping in her van in Austin amid heaps of critical acclaim for excellent recordings.
Along with the guitar and the multitude of other instruments she learned to play – trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, lap steel – Wonderland’s ability to whistle remains most unusual. Whistling is a uniquely vocal art seldom invoked in modern music, yet it’s among the most spectacular talents the human voice possesses.
That vocal proficiency was well-established in the singer’s midteens, landing her gigs at Fitzgerald’s by age 15. She absorbed Houston influences like Little Screamin’ Kenny, Albert Collins, Lavelle White, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, Little Joe Washington, “borrowed” a car to sneak out and jam ended up swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt at Houston’s Local’s on White Oak, got involved in the underground theater scene becoming the first “Photochick” in Jason Nodler’s “In the Under Thunderloo” and soaked up touring bands like the Paladins, Los Lobos, and the Mad Hatter of Texas music, Doug Sahm. Her music played in television series such as “Time of Your Life” and NBC’s “Homicide.” The Lone Star State was as credible a proving ground for blues in the 1980s and 90s as existed, especially in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, and Lou Ann Barton all in their prime. By the following decade, Austin’s blues luster thinned, but Houston, always a bastion of soul and R&B, boasted the Imperial Monkeys with the effervescent Carolyn Wonderland as ruler of the jungle.
In the early 1990s, Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone’s in Austin. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club’s post-Stevie Ray Vaughan stable, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, after a run-in with black ice and a semi that wound young Miss Wonderland in the hospital, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium. Besides, Doug Sahm had told Carolyn while they were signing autographs together at the High Sierra Music Festival, she ought to move to Austin, as it was the land of free guitar lessons. She was there in months.
Living in Austin renewed Carolyn Wonderland’s focus on her multiple talents, underlining rich vocals with excellent guitar work, trumpet, and piano, as well as that remarkable ability to whistle on key. Despite spending two years homeless (or as she puts it, “van-full,”) Austin has been fertile ground for Carolyn. A series of each-better-than-the-next discs began with Alcohol & Salvation in 2001 (“songs about booze and God; records are a time capsule of what happened that year”) 2003’s “Bloodless Revolution,” The Bismeaux Releases: 2008’s “Miss Understood,” 2011’s “Peace Meal” (recorded at Bismeaux and Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock,) 2015’s “Live Texas Trio”; and here we are with 2017’s “Moon Goes Missing.”
Carolyn also got to stretch out with other bands and notably appears in Jerry Lightfoot’s Band of Wonder’s 2002 release, “Texistentialism” featuring Jerry Lightfoot, Vince Welnick (Grateful Dead, The Tubes, Todd Rundgren,) Carolyn, Barry “Frosty” Smith (Lee Michaels, Sly & the Family Stone, Rare Earth, Soulhat) and Larry Fulcher (Taj Mahal, Phantom Blues Band). She has released many songs for charity, 2016’s “Room at the Inn” (iTunes) benefits Doctors Without Borders, 2013’s “Money in the Game” (featuring Marcia Ball and Shelley King) benefits Planned Parenthood, “the Farmer Song” from “Miss Understood” benefits Farm AID, “Annie’s Scarlet Letter” from “Bloodless Revolution” benefits NORML, 1997 Justice Records released Carolyn’s version of Little Screamin’ Kenny’s holiday lament, “Blue Lights” (featuring Ian McLagan) benefitting MD Anderson Children’s Art Project.
Carolyn’s first appearance on vinyl? She’s with James Williamson (Stooges) on the April 2014 Record Store Day single, “Open Up & Bleed” AND on the full LP inspired by that fun session, “Re-Licked” featuring Raw Power Era songs with cool and risky guests.
Her circle of musician friends and admirers broadened to include not only Ray [Benson, who produced Miss Understood] but also the late Eddy Shaver, Shelley King, and yes, Bob Dylan, who likened her composition “Bloodless Revolution” to “a mystery movie theme.” She appeared on the same taping with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings when she made her debut on PBS’ “Austin City Limits” (Season 35.) and had the thrill of her life when Bonnie Raitt joined her onstage for “The Road to Austin” concert film featuring Stephen Bruton and all his friends, got to play with James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and so many others at Antone’s, she and Erin Jaimes put together a benefit for Uncle John Turner and Johnny Winter insisted on bringing his band by to play, Carolyn’s wedding to A. Whitney Brown was officiated by Mike Nesmith (Monkees,) who serendipitously introduced them on set at VideoRanch in 2010. (there is a video of the two of them on stage together that day!) She began co-writing with locals Sarah Brown, Shelley King, Marcia Ball, Ruthie Foster, Cindy Cashdollar, and Guy Forsyth; sat in with Los Lobos, Levon Helm, Vintage Trouble, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard; and toured relentlessly for the past two decades, sometimes with luminaries like Dave Alvin, Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter, so far spreading her music in US, Europe, South America and Japan. She also claims membership in the all-girl Sis Deville, the gospel-infused Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, the Texas Guitar Women, and the Woodstock Lonestars.
Carolyn recently joined John Mayall’s Band as his guitarist and is balancing life on the road with writing time at home and on the way. She’s been touring for over 25 years and ain’t done yet. Come and see it at a show! (seriously, she’s perpetually on tour.)
Robert Finley’s singing is as primal as an alligator and sweeter than late-summer honey. And on the new Sharecropper’s Son, he uses his marvelously expressive voice—which can glide from a gut-deep growl to a soothing purr to a transcendent falsetto all in a single phrase—to tell the story of his life in song. The album’s 10 numbers, produced by Dan Auerbach for his Easy Eye Sound label and available on July 10th, are blues, soul, gospel, and rock-infused chapters from that life, weaving Finley’s own stories of picking cotton, country childhood, hardship on city streets, jail time, the pain and joy of love, the search for a better life and the dream of salvation into a spellbinding musical tale.
“I try to open up my heart and keep it real every time I sing,” explains Finley, who has lived nearly all his days in and around the farmlands and swamps between his birthplace, Bernice, and his current home, Winnsboro, in North-Central Louisiana. “We made this album after we all went on tour together, and we were ready. I was ready to tell my story, and Dan and his guys knew me so well by then that they knew it almost like I do, so they had my back all the way.”
You can hear that in how Finley and the band nearly breath together in songs like the gospel “Souled Out On You,” where the singer’s heart-piercing falsetto rings sharp and clear as an angel’s horn—underpinned by Auerbach’s fuzz-sweetened brown-butter guitar tone—and “Sharecropper’s Son,” where the musicians mine a deep, funky groove as Finley sings about his raising “out in the red hot sun, where the work is never done.”
Cut-by-cut, this follow-up to Finley’s 2017’s Easy Eye Sound release Going Platinum! bristles with the visceral energy that can only be captured by creatively charged musicians playing live and spontaneously in the studio. In addition to Auerbach, who dips into a deep well of styles and sounds throughout, the band includes Mississippi hill country’s Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, veterans of Junior Kimbrough’s and R.L. Burnside’s bands, on guitar and bass, respectively. They’re joined by other notables: keyboardist and songwriter Bobby Wood, who’s played a historic role in Memphis and Nashville music, drum legend Gene Chrisman and the equally legendary Louisiana guitarist Billy Sanford. And the line-up’s completed by a full horn section, bassist Dave Roe, who has decades of experience with Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, and John Mellencamp, and drummer Sam Bacco, who has a long resume in rock, country, pop, and bluegrass.
Of course, the fire behind the conflagrant performances on Sharecropper’s Son is Finley, who was so deeply in the zone throughout that his lyrics and vocal approach for two of the album’s songs, the autobiographical “Country Child” and his manifesto of love and struggle, “Country Boy,” were improvised as he and the band rolled tape.
Such untrodden terrain is just another of the many settings where Finley feels comfortable. “When we play live, I always leave room in the show for lyrics I make up on the spot while the band hits a groove,” he explains. “I guess the younger generation calls it free-styling, but for me, it’s just speaking from my mind straight from my soul. It needs to be something I lived, and then I can just tell people about it. One of the things I love about music is that, when I was a boy growing up in the South, nobody wanted to hear what I had to say or what I thought about anything. But when I started putting it in songs, people listened.”
Auerbach’s relationship with Finley began as a listener. He was knocked out by Finley’s talent at first hearing of Age Don’t Mean a Thing, the singer’s 2016 debut on Fat Possum Records. “His voice was just out of control, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get him into the studio,’ ” Auerbach recounts. So the next year he invited Finley to Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville to record a soundtrack for Murder Ballads, a graphic novel. And while Auerbach knew Finley’s voice was big, he had no idea that his personality was just as large.
“He walked in like he was straight out of the swamp,” Auerbach attests. “He had leather pants, snakeskin boots, a big country & Western belt buckle, a leather cowboy hat and a three-quarter-length leather duster.” The final touch was the folding cane the legally blind Finley wore on his hip, in a holster. “Basically, he was dressed for national television,” Auerbach adds.
The result of those sessions, which lasted only two afternoons, was Finley’s Easy Eye Sound debut, Going Platinum! That album was a jolting announcement of the arrival of a soon-to-be-legendary voice and talent, and lifted Finley’s career into the spotlight. Now, Sharecropper’s Son ups the ante with a band that—through sharing the stage and studio with the elder performer—has crafted an arresting and dynamic ensemble sound tailored for his eclectic musical interests. But perhaps more important, this is the first album Finley’s recorded that fully showcases his autobiographical songwriting—allowing him to open his heart and mind to the world. Except for the closing spiritual “All My Hope,” all the songs were written by Finley, with co-writing by Auerbach, Wood, and well-respected country songwriter Pat McLaughlin on various tracks.
“Robert is a truly great man, and writing with him—getting that kind of window to his life—was an amazing experience,” says Auerbach. “He’s legally blind and grew up working hard alongside his family on a farm and singing in the church. He taught himself how to play guitar. He was a helicopter repairman in Germany, in the Army, where he played and toured Europe with an Army band. He sang gospel and blues on the streets. He’s a highly skilled carpenter. He’s raised a family and his kids love him. And while he was doing all of that, he developed one of the most unique, powerful and poetic styles I’ve ever heard. And all of that comes through on Sharecropper’s Son.”
Although Finley has long been a potent artist, for most of the past 20 years, after his blindness led him to semi-retirement, he’s mostly been playing little joints within an hour’s drive of Winnsboro—like Riverside Coney Island, which specializes in boiled crawfish, and Enoch’s Irish Pub & Café, both in Monroe, Louisiana. But his ascent has been swift since he was discovered in 2015 busking on the streets of Helena, Arkansas. In addition to touring more than 10 countries in the wake of his two earlier albums, Finley was also a contestant on the 2019 season of the TV competition America’s Got Talent reaching the semi-finals and quickly became a fan favorite during his run. His daughter Christy Johnson, who appeared with Finley on the show, also provides some backing vocals for Sharecropper’s Son.
Reflecting on his new album, Finley says, “I want people to understand that I can’t be kept in a box. I like to do all kinds of music—everything that means anything to me, from gospel to blues to soul to country to rock ‘n’ roll. And I like to stand out and be different, and do things that reach young and older people. What I want everybody to know from my own experience is that you’re never too young to dream, and that you’re never too old for your dream to come true.”