How Carolyn Wonderland avoided ending up a Janis Joplin wannabe
Carolyn Wonderland regularly draws comparison to Janis Joplin, and for good reason. They both grew up in Texas, they both have raspy, weathered voices, and they both sing the hell out of the blues. But Wonderland, who is every bit the blues guitarist that she is the singer, was given some advice early on to stay away from doing Joplin’s material, or else she’d end up doing it for the rest of her life.
“I took [the advice] to heart,” she says, “and didn’t do any Janis for years, except for maybe a biker funeral or things of that nature.”
Wonderland made an exception, however, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was doing a Joplin tribute.
“I said, ‘Well, fuck, of course I’ll do that,’” she says. She pulled out The Typewriter Tapes and worked up an arrangement of “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,” a Joplin original.
One of the most undeniably talented blues women of our time, Wonderland is part of a rich lineage that includes Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotton, and countless other early blues women who paved the road for contemporary artists like Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi.
A talented multi-instrumentalist—she even plays the trumpet—Wonderland picked up music early and learned to play guitar on her mom’s Stratocaster and Martin guitars. It was when she got expelled from high school for standing up against extreme right-wing policy changes, and started hanging out at the blues clubs, however, that she developed her own style—a soulful, rocking blues sound with Texas twang and boot-stomping swagger.
At the blues clubs, she learned at the feet of legendary Texas artists Little Screamin’ Kenny, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, and Miss Lavelle White, who Wonderland describes as “perfectly crass and classy at the same time.” She has such respect for White that she and some other Texas artists, including Marcia Ball and Ruthie Foster, created Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers (H.O.M.E.), an organization in Austin that provides housing aid and assistance for musicians in need.
“Miss Lavelle White’s our poster child,” says Wonderland. “We make sure she’s got a home and get grants to help other people stay in their housing.”
Wonderland’s activist streak runs through her music, as well. One of her fan-favorite songs is “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a song that prompts audiences and band members alike to light ’em up. Recently, she’s been performing the John Hiatt song “Take It Down.” From his 2000 album, Crossing Muddy Waters, the song is about taking down the Confederate flag, but it takes people a couple of listens before they get that. Wonderland sometimes wants to play it twice to make sure people get the message. Earlier this summer, at a festival in the South, an audience member came up to her after the show and said, “My grandfather died in that war for that flag.”
Wonderland’s response was that a lot of people’s relatives died on the losing side of a battle, and that her German heritage doesn’t mean she should fly a Nazi flag. She explains that on a trip to Germany, she saw Confederate flags. When she asked why, she was told that neo-Nazis aren’t allowed to fly the Nazi flag, so they fly the Confederate one instead.
“They find that the Confederate flag is right up with their sympathies for that particular battle,” she says. “It’s a surrogate flag for the Nazi flag … and that’s why we do that song.”
A veteran of the road—she’s been home for a total of 36 hours so far this month—Wonderland now lives in Austin. She calls the city the “home of the free guitar lesson” and says that on any night you can go see some of the finest players around doing their thing, and pick up some pointers.
With her blues indoctrination at the Houston clubs and the abundance of great musicians around her, Wonderland is a celebrated part of Texas’ vibrant rock and blues culture. She’s learned from countless other artists, but in the end, has developed a sound and style that is 100 percent Wonderland.
“You can wear your influences on your sleeve,” she says, “but eventually you’ve got to take your shirt off.”
WORLD OF WONDERLAND Carolyn Wonderland plays Moe’s Alley on Friday, Aug. 28. $15/adv, $20/door. 479-1854.