Carolyn Wonderland

“The more guitar you play, the more you sing, the better you get,” says award-winning Texas guitar slinger, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Carolyn Wonderland. Since performing her first professional gig at age 15, she’s never stopped singing and making music. Her music includes a bold mix of timeless original songs and reinventions of some of her favorites, ranging from blistering electric blues to deep, heartfelt ballads to cosmic country to soulful Tex-Mex. Every song is fueled by Wonderland’s forceful yet melodic Texas-flavored guitar work and her full-throated, heart-on-her-sleeve vocals. She’s recorded ten previous albums under her own name, including four produced by famed musician Ray Benson, founder of multiple Grammy-winning band Asleep At The Wheel. Wonderland, who spent the last three years as lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, now joins the Alligator Records family as the first female guitar hero in the label’s storied 50-year history. Her spine-chilling, soul-deep singing matches her guitar prowess note for note. And she has a knack for writing songs that sound like instant classics. Her Alligator Records debut, the Dave Alvin-produced Tempting Fate, is the next chapter in Wonderland’s remarkable story, one that is already overflowing with countless and colorful once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

On Tempting Fate, Wonderland delivers ten riveting songs, including five fiery originals (and one co-write with her Mayall bandmate Greg Rzab). On every song—from the searing, guitar-heavy Broken Hearted Blues to the tender and poignant Crack In The Wall to the very Texan love song for her boot collection, Texas Girl And Her Boots, to the politically-charged Fragile Peace And Certain War to the take-no-prisoners version of the Grateful Dead’s Loser—Wonderland throws herself completely into the music. Her shining duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on Bob Dylan’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry redefines the song. Her explosive guitar work and commanding vocals on John Mayall’s The Laws Must Change makes his song hers.

In addition to her longtime road band—bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance—who anchor every song, guests on Tempting Fate include Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel guitar, Marcia Ball on piano, Shelley King on background vocals, Jan Flemming on accordion and Red Young on organ and piano, with producer Dave Alvin playing guitar on three songs. “I can’t wait to share the new album,” says Wonderland. “I got to record a dream list of songs and play with a dream list of people. And Dave really got me to kick the doors in. And it’s hip to be on Alligator. If you could see my record collection, it’s full of Alligator albums.”

Alvin told writer Michael Corcoran, “I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues that incorporate bits of folk, country and even psychedelic riffs, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling. Her ability to move from intimate, whispery gentleness to earth shaking, Saturday night bar room loudness, always impresses me, both for the obvious gifts of her vocal range but also how well she uses it to advance the drama or the story of the song. I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keep them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”

Carolyn Wonderland, born Carolyn Bradford in Houston, Texas in 1972, grew up in a house full of music and instruments. She first starting making music at age six, and by eight had decided, in her own mind, that she was a musician. After she scratched up her mother’s vintage Martin guitar by imitating Pete Townsend’s famous windmill move, she was forbidden from using a pick. Because of that, she developed her aggressive, distinctive finger-picking guitar attack. Her early influences include her mom, Houston guitar legends Albert Collins, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, and Little Screamin’ Kenny, as well as blues and soul vocalist Lavelle White. Singing came naturally, as did learning to play just about every instrument she got her hands on. She plays trumpet, accordion, lap steel, piano, and mandolin.  She’s a whistler, too. Her renowned whistling can be heard to great effect on her song, On My Feet Again.

By age 15, she was performing at Houston’s famed Fitzgerald’s club, playing solo or with friends. As a 16-year-old, she found herself swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt. She formed her first band when she was 17, and began proving herself on the tough, competitive Houston club scene. A year later, she joined forces with famed Houston musician Little Screamin’ Kenny and formed The Imperial Monkeys. Before long, Carolyn Wonderland And The Imperial Monkeys were swinging high on the vine, touring as far as Utah, New York and South Dakota, and winning every music award Houston had to offer. A booking at Austin’s famous Antone’s club left a strong mark on Wonderland, who moved to Austin in 1999 at the urging of Doug Sahm (who told her, “It’s the land of free guitar lessons”). For two years she traveled with her band in her van, and stayed with friends in Austin and on the road, trading chores for meals and lodging. “I wasn’t home-less,” she says. “I was van-full.”

Wonderland released Alcohol & Salvation in 2001 on a tiny local label. The self-released Bloodless Revolution followed in 2003, and brought her new fans, along with local press and radio attention. Her growing reputation as a hotter-than-fire live performer kept her touring calendar full. Then one day in 2003, legendary musician Ray Benson was having lunch with his friend Bob Dylan, who had heard Wonderland’s music. Dylan asked Benson, “Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She’s something else.” Dylan wanted to meet Wonderland, so Benson got her number from a mutual friend and called her in Houston, telling Wonderland to get to Austin immediately to meet Dylan. She drove the 165 miles in record time, and they had great fun jamming that night. They’ve crossed paths since, sometimes jamming, sometimes just talking about music (“He’s a real musicologist,” she says of Bob). Dylan once asked Wonderland to write bawdy answer lyrics to his already-ribald Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, and all but fell over laughing when she played the newly rewritten song for him. “Sometimes he’ll just call,” Wonderland says. “I haven’t changed my number.”

Wonderland’s first Ray Benson-produced album, Miss Understood, came out on Benson’s Bismeaux label in 2008. Upon its release, the mayor of Austin declared “Carolyn Wonderland Day” throughout the city. Benson produced her next three albums, Peace Meal in 2011, Live Texas Trio in 2015 (both on Bismeaux) and Moon Goes Missing (on Home Records) in 2017. According to Benson, “Carolyn’s got that unbelievable, incredible voice, one of the great voices of our times. She’s got the range, the emotion. She’s also an incredible guitar player and a great person. The combination is disarming and totally real. That’s magic.”

The popular and critical response to Wonderland and her music has been nothing short of amazing. She’s appeared on Austin City Limits, NPR’s Weekend Edition and NPR Music’s Mountain Stage. Features and reviews have run in publications from The Los Angeles Times to The Boston Herald. Her music has been heard on FOX-TV’s Time Of Your Life and on NBC’s Homicide. She appears, playing on stage alongside Bonnie Raitt, in the film The Road To Austin. She’s won multiple Austin Music Awards and was inducted into the Austin Music Hall Of Fame in 2020. She’s jammed with musicians including Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, James Cotton, Los Lobos, Vintage Trouble, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Levon Helm. Helm invited her to begin all of her tours with a performance at his famous Ramble in Woodstock, New York. “He always refreshed and recharged us before we hit the road,” Wonderland says.

In 2018, legendary musician and bandleader John Mayall chose Wonderland to be lead guitarist in his band, The Blues Breakers. She became the first woman to ever hold that position. (The all-star list of Mayall’s legendary guitarists includes Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.) She toured the world with Mayall, once playing 50 shows in 60 days in 19 countries. She’s also played with her own band all over the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Canary Islands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Japan.

In addition to her performing and recording with her own band, Wonderland has collaborated with a number of other artists, including Jerry Lightfoot’s Band of Wonder (featuring the Grateful Dead’s Vince Welnick), The Loose Affiliation Of Saints And Sinners (with Papa Mali, Guy Forsyth and others), and James Williamson (The Stooges). She can also occasionally be found singing and playing in Sis Deville, the Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, the Austin Volunteer Orchestra, the Texas Guitar Women, and the Woodstock Lonestars.

Wonderland also works tirelessly for a wide variety of charitable and social causes. She has often donated proceeds from her music to benefit organizations including Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood, Farm Aid, NORML and the M.D. Anderson Children’s Art Project. She is a founding member, along with Marcia Ball, of H.O.M.E. (Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers), which provides emergency financial assistance to older Austin-based musicians in need.

Wonderland married her husband, humorist A. Whitney Brown, in a ceremony on Austin’s Doug Sahm Hill, performed by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, and documented in The New York Times’ “Vow” section. Nesmith, who had previously produced a song for Wonderland on her Peace Meal album, says, “When she goes into that mode where she decides to grab the heart of the song and hold it up for everybody to see, it’s just so searing. Nothing can be this raw. Nothing can be this real.”

The Boston Herald describes Carolyn as “a dollop of Janis Joplin, a slice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a big load of soulful individuality. That’s Wonderland, a seething-hot Texas singer-guitarist. And she can write, too.” Now, with Tempting Fate and a major tour in the works, Carolyn Wonderland is excited to get back out on the road and reconnect with her fans and friends. “We will play dang near anywhere that’ll have us,” she says. Of her chosen profession, the effervescent Wonderland told NPR Music’s Mountain Stage, “I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart, but it sure is a good time.”

Walter Trout

All of us are broken. But no-one is beyond repair. It’s a philosophy that Walter Trout has lived by during seven volatile decades at the heart of America’s society and blues-rock scene. Even now, with the world more fractured than ever – by politics, economics, social media and culture wars – the fabled US bluesman’s latest album, Broken, chronicles the bitter schisms of modern life but refuses to succumb to them.

“I’ve always tried to write positive songs, and this album is not quite that,” considers the 72-year-old of an all-original tracklisting that rages and soothes. “But I always hold on to hope. I think that’s why I wrote this album.”

For the last half-century, however rocky his path, hope has always lit the way. The beats of Trout’s unbelievable story are well-known: the traumatic childhood in Ocean City, New Jersey; the audacious move to the West Coast in ’74; the auspicious but chaotic sideman shifts with John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton; the raging addictions that somehow never stopped the boogie when he was with Canned Heat in the early-’80s. 

Even now, some will point to Trout’s mid-’80s guitar pyrotechnics in the lineup of John Mayall’s legendary Bluesbreakers as his career high point. But for a far greater majority of fans, the blood, heart and soul of his solo career since 1989 is the main event, the bluesman’s songcraft always reaching for some greater truth, forever surging forward, never shrinking back. 

It’s a peerless creative streak underlined by the guitarist’s regular triumphs at ceremonies including the Blues Music Awards, SENA European Guitar Awards, British Blues Awards and Blues Blast Music Awards. The iconic British DJ ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris spoke for millions when he declared Trout “the world’s greatest rock guitarist” in his 2001 autobiography, The Whispering Years.  

If he were a less questing artist, Trout could mark time and dine out on those past glories, leaving the polemics and calls-to-arms to a younger generation. But that’s not enough, considers the still-hungry veteran. “I have to grow. I want to be a vital contributing artist. I don’t want to come out every night and play my first hit, Life In The Jungle. I feel young. I know I’m not. But in my head, I’m still 25, still wanting to get better and do something I haven’t before. I have more to say.”

As the pandemic burnt out, Trout got back to business: the career-long cycle of writing, touring and resting still as natural to him as breathing. But scarcely had the world’s turntable needles dropped on his latest album, 2022’s Ride, when Trout felt the first tingles of incoming inspiration. Alternating between his homes in the remote Danish fishing village of Vorupør and Huntington Beach, California – or sometimes even in the back of the van, still slick with sweat after that night’s gig – the twelve songs of Broken demanded to be born. 

“A lot of times I put on headphones, listen to music that gets me emotional, and then start just writing lyrics,” explains Trout of a process that still fascinates him. “I think these songs are as honest as I can be. The band came down to my house for rehearsals so we could just go in the studio and blow through this stuff.”

Kingsize Soundlabs in LA was the scene of the crime – a familiar Trout Band haunt that also hosted 2019’s Survivor Blues – and producer Eric Corne once again the man behind the glass. “This is our 15th album together,” calculates the bluesman. “Eric and I just have a way of working, man. A friend who came into the studio and watched us and said, ‘Man, you guys are like a machine’. It’s unspoken.”

A few collaborators joined Trout for the first time. “I thought my friend Beth Hart could relate to the title track, Broken,” he says of the warrior princess whose fiery vocals coil with his own. “With that song, I was looking at the world – especially what’s going on in the United States – but also thinking about my recovery from the things that happened to me. I had the first verse – ‘Pieces of me seem to break away/I lose a little more every day’. But it was almost too much for me to go back into that shit. So my wife, Marie, was able to help me with the lyrics – and she nailed it. The guitar solo, that’s maybe my favourite on the record. I tracked it with the band, one take. I wanted to see if I could beat it – but they wouldn’t let me!”

Another set of star guests supply the rocket fuel on two of the album’s most rocking cuts, I’ve Had Enough and Bleed. “Dee Snider from Twisted Sister put up a live cut of me on his Twitter and said: ‘Listen to this fucking guitar hero’. We started talking, became friends, he came into the studio and I knew I had to write him a song. So I’m thinking, ‘Well, he did We’re Not Gonna Take It’. So I wrote I’ve Had Enough. And it’s rockin’, big time. Bleed came about when we were pretty much done. My drummer Michael Leasure said to me, ‘Hey, Walter, you played with John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, this is your 31st album and you’ve never played a boogie. What’s the deal?’ So I said, ‘OK, fuck it, let’s do a boogie’. I can kinda play harmonica, but I thought, ‘Let’s elevate this thing’. There’s a young harmonica player in England who’s the best I’ve ever heard, Will Wilde. He has the soul and the power of Paul Butterfield, but couples that with blinding virtuoso technique.”  

Elsewhere, in a flash of telepathy, Trout discovered the line he was singing as a placeholder lyric for the cowboy blues of Turn And Walk Away had already been written by Marie (“I have a box of lyrics, and I find this piece of paper, in my wife’s handwriting, from twenty years ago and the first line says: ‘It never occurred to me that you would ever set me free’. It fit the song perfectly”). As for the blues tune, Courage In The Dark, Trout believes it took no more than ten minutes. “I was actually reading a book of poetry in the van, and the line was something like, ‘In a world of darkness, it’s a necessity that you hold on to your courage’.”

For the wistful Talkin’ To Myself, Trout took inspiration from the hits that crackled from AM radio in his youth, paired with a lyric about his habit of yelling at the hotel TV on the road, and a highly successful first attempt to play a vintage electric sitar (“Y’know, it’s ’66, you’re riding in your car, and Paul Revere and The Raiders comes on – I wanted this song to sound like that”). But on No Magic (in the street), he acknowledges the march of time. “I’ve been living here in Huntington Beach for 50 years. For decades, I knew everybody on Main Street: ‘Hey Walter, what’s goin’ on?’ But I took a walk down there recently and realised there’s a new generation, with their own Steinbeckian society, and I felt like an anachronism. So when I say there’s no more magic out on the streets now, that’s just for me.”

No words were required for the tender instrumental Love Of My Life (“Of course, it’s about Marie”), while the bluesman’s muse of three decades also inspired the gossamer balladry of I Wanna Stay (“I’m whispering that song – it’s meant to be as quiet and gentle and possible. That’s about the first time I made love to my wife”). The bright-eyed soul of Breathe was written by keyboardist, Richard T Bear and reimagined by Trout with a nod to the Faces’ heart-wrenching Debris. “I told the bass player Jamie Hunting, ‘I want you to play like Ronnie Lane here’. And I told Skip Edwards, the piano player: ‘I want Ian McLagan’. And they nailed it.”  

Then comes a wildcard, in the form of the scalded, spacey, spoken-word punk-blues Heaven Or Hell. “I met an old blind man on the street,” explains Trout. “I gave him a little money to eat, he started preaching, and I went back to my room and wrote a poem about what he said. I couldn’t sing it, I couldn’t fit it into music, so I told Eric, ‘I’m just gonna speak it’.”

For most of the new record, Trout reached for his battle-scarred Fender Stratocaster or Delaney signature model, plugging into his trusty Mesa/Boogie MkIV stage amp (no pedals required). But for the closing Falls Apart, he pushed the sonic envelope. “Anyone who thinks I’m just a blues guy, I’m gonna hit them with my version of Pink Floyd,” he laughs. “That outro has three different electric guitar rhythms, and two acoustic guitar rhythms in different inversions. Then there’s a Nashville-tuned guitar. Our middle child Biscuit, AKA Captain Buzzface, wrote the song and arranged and sang all the background vocals. I think that the kid wrote an epic song that is very fitting for the state of the world today. I have a hard time getting through that one without breaking down.”

With gallows humour, Trout notes that his new album opens with a track called Broken and ends with one called Falls Apart. He can’t deny the socio-political mood in the air, and as such, between those two bookends lie some of the most personal, bruised songs of his career (albeit twinned to some of his most rocking and defiant guitar work). Yet as the man says, as long as there’s love and music, there is always a light to guide us. “That Sixties idealism still burns in me and I want to make music that means something or helps somebody. I may be naïve but I’m ok with that. In the face of what’s happening in the world, I will stubbornly hold on to my idealism   and hope. I want to make music that matters…”