The Flowing Waters of Lake Jefferson
Folk Plus airs Saturdays from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm on WJFF, Jeffersonville, NY

Interview with Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Aired November 20, 1999

Last weekend (November 13, 1999) I attended the North East Folk Alliance where several hundred musicians, promoters, DJs, agents and venue owners gathered. One of the highlights was meeting and hearing a live duo whose album I had received unsolicited early this year. When they appeared on DJ lists every one was raving about them. They were one of the last big buzzes in the "discovery" of new folk. Two unknowns from Portland Oregon. The writing was mythical and the music haunting. The CD was called, When I Go and the artists were Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. In February there was a full-page review in the LA times touting their excellence. I asked them about their reaction to the article.

Tracy: Tell it Dave

Dave: Well we were pretty surprised about it. We thought we'd get a little blurb in the LA Times. We thought they'd look at our CD and say "Yeah we liked it, it was pretty good" WE hoped they'd say that. Then we get this huge full-page article in the mail. I was amazed! Now we carry it about with us around the country as sort of a trophy, like "Look somebody thinks we're good" (laughing).

ON AIR TALK:  I was not surprised by the size of the spread. Daveís writing is refreshing and their unobtrusive sound gives the words the attention they deserve. Here is a taste of Daveís tune "Kate and the Ghost of Lost Love" as he explains how the song came to be.

Begin the songÖfade it out somewhere after Tracy begins

Dave: Well the way that song came to be written is, that I was watching a friend's trailer down in Oklahoma. He lived in this trailer way out in the woods. Land is really cheap in Oklahoma, especially in the rural area. He'd had a trailer out there for just about forever and built a wood acroutements around the trailer, like he had a porch out front with a porch swing. So anyway, he was gone off overseas on some kind of journey and he left me there to watch the place. There was nothing to do. The TV reception was real bad and he didn't have any books I wanted to read, but he had a video tape of the Marriage of Figaro, the entire opera by Mozart. So I spent days just watching the Marriage of Figaro over and over again and I didn't talk to anybody for a long time, I was out there all by myself with no telephone. I would get kind of drowsy and you know how when you are by yourself for a long time, youíll think I'm crazy, but the voices of your memory and your dream world start to become louder and louder. I think that is why people get a little nutty when they live off by themselves for a long time. But anyway I woke up one day out there in the trailer and I was kind of like living in this Marriage of Figaro universe, only I was still playing folk songs: I was playing Woody Guthrie songs to myself. So I went out and sat on that porch swing and started swaying back and forth and kinda fell in this trance. I had my old crummy classical guitar out there and was playing along. That melody came to me. First it was that melody that walks up the scale (vocally demonstrates) so I don't know it was kind of an impressionist mix match and I hear that other melody going along with it right at the same time. It all kind of... well, the combination of the mosquitoes, locusts all around, bees around the sound of the porch swing creaking, all that mixed together and having been emersed in the Marriage of Figaro for a few days. That is kind of where that song came from. It took me a long time to figure out what it was gonna be about. The music definitely came first.

Angela: Defining it?

Dave: But I felt after singing it for a long, long time, "Yeah, I feel like I'm at someone's gate, some woman's gate and I'm entreating her - let me back in that melody rises (demonstrates) You never quite...that romantic ideal you reach for the goddess but you never really get there you always fall fall back... and then you try again. But I wanted to have her, the other melody her saying "I wanna let you in, I wanna let you in but you slip away, you slip away"


ON AIR TALK:  Another writer would have quit. The story could have been the man at the gate yearning for his love. That could have been the song, he could have stopped there. Many of the writers at the folk conference last weekend would have stopped there. I asked him what made him go on and add the womanís part to the tune.

Dave: Well the Marriage of Figaro is full of these beautiful duets and trios and Mozart was the very natural composer and things just popped out of his head at light speed. He didn't think about it. He was there. He would write these parts that way. So he was almost a folk singer really in a lot of ways. So I was definitely hearing the duality of it right from the beginning. I had the strong impression I'll say that there needed to be two parts. There needed to be this one side, and then I heard that other melody descending when the other one ascended and vice versa and so I wanted...I knew it had to be both sides. So as soon as one side came out then I knew the answer had to be in there. And at the end it took me a long time, I mean I had the song, I thought finished for a couple of years actually and then one day I realized- oh no - at the end they had to come together. There has to be an emotional denouement where they come together. That is how the conclusion of the song came out and it was clear from a dramatic music point of view that at the end they had to rise and fall together and they both fall with that "Sweet Kate" and I knew it was the ghost of lost love was gonna whisper to her. I don't know where it came from all I can tell you is the sequence of how the ideas came.

ON AIR TALK:  We discussed overproduction a bit and how I feel so often with other CDs as if I need to dig to get to the core of the song, and yet they gently present me with all that is necessary. Here are Daveís thoughts on that.

Dave: It might be, that you know, Tracy and I are into folk and country music from way back, but we also both of us have a lot of classical training and in classical music the rests are as important; it is a big thing you learn, "Play the rests, don't just play the notes." I know that, a lot of people today that don't understand classical music I mean actually whether it be from northern India or Europe or whatever or Asia or Africa, the thing about classical musics which really are just folk musics that have become really stylized. The thing about them is that you really focus on details. You focus on details, you get this really wonderful it seems, I hate to say focus on details and it's microscopic. It's like you are looking at one little little bitty tiny thing but really what you are doing is magnification and that as the magnification goes up you realize that there is. What did Krishnamurti say? ..."that the ocean is contained in a drop of water" and so I think that that is the approach that Tracy and I took. Even now when we started producing this CD we had people who wanted to help us produce it and we had to say "no, don't play so much, no that shouldn't be on there." We couldn't get those people really honestly wanting to help us - we couldn't get them to see if you put 5 billion instruments on there you are taking away you are not adding anything.

But the old CD, When I go, we were just lucky because we had no money. This current CD that you have now- itís a good thing we had that attitude because we certainly couldn't pay anybody to play on it with us.

Tracy: Thatís right.

Dave: We made it in Tracy's kitchen, so we had to keep it pretty minimal, but thatís fine by us.

    "Frank to Valentino"

ON AIR TALK: Their first release was called Dave Carter with Tracy Grammer, because they appeared to me to be certainly a duo. The recording was made early in their career together. Here Tracy recalls first seeing Dave and how the collaboration bore the "with Tracy Grammer" note.

Tracy: Well, I think my thinking about it was you know, these are Daveís songs and he had just won all these awards, you know, Kerrville, Napa and Wildflower. I felt like they were his babies and itís his recognition but it should be noted that I make some contribution so the with Tracy Grammer was on there...but now we have changed it to and.

ON AIR TALK: Tracy saw first what the rest of the United States is hearing now, the special qualities in Dave. She talks about how he stood out among the others in the Portland area at the time

Tracy: I just saw in Dave, I had this feeling like somebody needs to hear this man. He was in Portland playing at these songwriter things and it was kinda small potatoes at the time and I thought, you know, this is truly a great thing. Out of all of the stuff that I'm hearing in town(and I was brand new to Portland at the time) I thought "Man!" This is what I want to do. He was playing with another partner at the time and I thought "Hmmm, how do I get in there you know?" Eventually it worked out. We kind of went through a band phase and whittled it back down to a duo. It has just been an absolute treat for me to be a part of this and to actually get it out there and help Dave get it out there.

Dave: I gotta say real quick as far as that name goes, that on our new CD Tracy sings a lot of the songs Its definitely more of a whole duo thing now. I just wanted to write the songs to tell you the truth. This being a performer has been more or less thrust on me (Tracy laughs) Tracy really likes to perform but for me, I just wanted to live in a trailer in the dessert...

Angela:  ...listening to Mozart on the VCR

Dave: Thatís right, that would be fine you know as long as...I thought Id know I had this ridiculous idea of how it was gonna work...Iíd write songs and somebody else would sing `em and Iíd just get checks in the mail. That would be great, that would be great. I mean I would be perfectly happy to phase myself out as a performer. Make the next record- "Tracy Grammer with Dave Carter" and then just "Tracy Grammer"..

Tracy: This is Daveís plan. (laughing)

Angela: Then...."Tracy Grammer singing Dave Carter"

Tracy: Dave Carter Songs...yeah...

Dave: (laughing) thatís right!

Angela: Kathy Mattea singing...

Tracy: I could see it.

ON AIR TALK: Knowing Daveís quality and Tracyís eye for it, I asked them who theyíd seen at the Folk Alliance that impressed them.

Tracy: You know we kinda just got here so we havenít heard anybody.

Dave: Well we do have a lot of favorites - well our friend Darryl Purpose of whom we think very highly is here. So we would always recommend Darryl to anybody. Yeah, Annieís Lover, yeah I should tell that story. That is about Darryl Purpose. Darryl came to me sort of in a dream. I admire Darryl because there is something of a shaman in Darryl and something of the wanderer, and the kind of like rambling wizard dude which is what, I think, a lot of us guys aspire to be. But at the same time it is important to me to be responsible and I wanna have a good relationship with one good woman and all that kind of thing you know. So I was wondering how to do that. How can I balance those 2 disparate elements in my personality. Iím certainly not the only one that feels that way, so I was kind of obsessing on that and. one night Darryl Purpose came to me in a dream in a hat that is even more like his hat than his real hat that he always wears is. I saw him kind of as this mystical figure and he lived in the hills and he attended always to this woman that he lovedÖ and so I wrote this song about that. The next morning I woke up with this tune in my head and played this...and anyway a few weeks late I saw Darryl at the Kerrville Folk Festival around a campfire and I had written this song and the name of it was Annieís Lover and as it turned out Darryl had become deeply enamoured of a woman named Annie. So it was kind of a cool story.


ON AIR TALK: Dave admits that his introductions are part of the show and that he has stories for every tune he has written. Here he introduces one of his more poetic pieces called Lancelot.

Dave:  I can tell about that came to be written. Back in Oklahoma in the 8th grade I had to take a course called Oklahoma history which should not have been a boring course at all, but they found a way to make it boring in fact they found lots of ways to make it boring. They were really good at making things boring at public school in Oklahoma. I took that class in the spring and it was real warm there. It is always warm there in the spring after a certain point. It was a little pre-fab building and it wasnít air conditioned or anything so I would drift off to sleep or as I like to entertain myself with the conceit that I was drifting off into trance states but really I was just falling asleep right there on the desk and so I was off in one of my trance states and I woke up at one point and I come to find out that Iím in the middle of an essay test. It was my first exposure to the essay test. Fortunately one of the questions was sufficiently open-ended enough that I could write anything I wanted to. The gods of history came to me and they told me this story about this little town called Broken Bow in Oklahoma and there really is a town called Broken Bow in Oklahoma, it is right on the border on the Red River between Ok and Texas. Around 1910 - 20 when Oklahoma was coming into being, they explained to me how Lancelot came to Oklahoma and so I wrote that on the essay test. Didnít get a very good grade in the course, but I got a pretty decent song out of it. Thatís that song Lancelot.

Angela: Did you send a CD to your teacher?

Dave: I should you know!

Angela: The guy still alive?

Dave: Well he probably is. His name was Mr. Meeks. I remember there was something about Mr. Meeks that my friend Pat Cameron and I thought was really funny. We had these harmonicas and we would follow Mr. Meeks around the school blow our harmonicas. I donít know what that really meant, he would turn around and kind of nod at us and we would move on. He probably thought that we did that with everybody, but actually we reserved that only for Mr. Meeks.   I knew, I knew that it was a song about mortal love. About somebody, about two people whoís love was all the more beautiful because it was imperfect. They were flawed. And so it was the kind of love that had by nature transcended imperfection.

Here is Tracy Grammer and Dave Carter from their CD "When I Go" doing "Lancelot"


Dave:  If it were Gallihad and the female equivalent of Gallihad it would be kind of an uninteresting love maybe not really not love at all but like a machine whose parts fit together so perfectly well it would kind of oviate the need for any love there at all...kind of a self oviating love...anyway. The mortal love that Lancelot felt I knew that it had to be something like that. What I do when write songs is get off by myself for 3 days or more and obsess on an idea and I just write and write and write. Usually what I do is write 3 or 4 pages after I get to this state in which Iím kind of in a revelatory state you know. Iíll just start writing down all this stuff and it all just constilates on this obsession I've adopted whatever that happens to be. In this case it was Lancelot - that image of Lancelot riding into that grubby little old town and how he was gonna find love there after all his travels and all the ways he was broken down he would find, in many ways, the wrong woman, but they would be just right for each other you know? So as I thought about, that was a cool song, because in that song I didnít really write pages and pages and pages...I wrote 4 verses to the song, realized one was just not needed and I did a little bit of revision, wrote the whole song in 45 minutes. Its some of the best lyrics that Iíve ever been sent.

Angela: You were saying before that it would be fine with you...Tracy loves to perform, but youíd be happy sitting in a cabin somewhere. Iím wondering what qualities, what human qualities are at odds when you have to come out and do something like this (perform at the Folk Alliance) playing in front of all these people, or the performing vs. the writing end and then I wanted to know if Tracy writes too.

Dave: Oh, well, Iíll say that I really, really like to be alone a lot. I like things to be quiet (he giggles). And I like to be , you know, I just really need a lot of time alone and I hardly ever get time alone anymore and its driving me, but I think in the beginning of December its gonna be a lot better. Right now is really an intense period, but we donít have too much to do in December and January. So as far as the things that are at odds; there is a part of me that is just dying -my whole life- dying to get his out, whatever this stuff is, I really want to channel this stuff. Its only, the circuit is not complete until other people hear it. Iím sure you as a performer you have been in this situation yourself where you know sometimes that youíll be in front of a good audience, all of your music and all of your words and all the things you do that just takes on a higher and more complete meaning. Then you get in front of a bad audience like in a bar where people are smoking, drinking, ignoring you and maybe people are sort of listening to but for some reason everything you do in those situations everything sounds bad. Iím sure thatís true of a lot of songwriter types or poets or whatever, It really is important to have that audience. So in a way, itís very gratifying to go out and do that, but itís just like anything else- everyday! All the time! Over and over and over again. I wish, Iíd like to live in a cabin alone- well maybe not entirely alone, but very quietly. Iíd like to live in the cabin and live a meditative life style and sort of work on the songs but not to the complete exclusion of performing. Id like to go out and play maybe 2 or (considering heavily) maybe (as if finally succumbing) 3 months out of the year but not contiguous months, so anyway, thatís my story. In my opinion as far as Tracy writing, well Iím just gonna let her answer.

Tracy: Well I should say first about Dave performing, for someone who so wants to be a recluse he is quite a magnetic performer. When he is on stage he really has this ability to draw the entire room and people outside the room to him. Itís really amazing. Dave often says that Iím the one who loves performing and he wants to be the recluse and its true that I love to perform, but I hardly speak on stage. If ever. Itís just kind of an interesting thing. Performing has always been a part of my life in a way. I started doing operettas when I was real young, in Elementary school, getting up on stage singing and speaking my little roles, and playing in orchestras, was a cheerleader. So the stage thing is familiar to me, and being up in front of an audience. But there is something about being on stage with Dave that I love so much. If I had to do this by myself, if I actually finish a song I started and actually had the guts to get up and play it for people it would be a very different thing for me. So really the magic is in the duo. It s in having both people on stage and just seeing whatís gonna happen with the chemistry that night, not only between us but with the audience.

    River Where She Sleeps

Angela: I have this feeling you guys donít know how good you are. The way you talk about doing your CD in the kitchen and kinda putting it out there and then "Wow" they wrote about us in the wow...

I think probably that each of you are talented enough to surface on your own but together there is a magic feeling that I saw when I saw you live, you can feel it in the room and I would think, I would think thatís addictive

Dave: I can say that working with Tracy is addictive, there is something I donít know what the thing is but just from the first time we were ever around each other, I knew I was never getting out of this,(lots of laughing) I mean that in a good way. You know I mean, since then a couple of times I've gone out and played little things by myself and stuff but it isnít the same Tracy and I together we just work together on every level. Not just in music but in other things. Like there is all this business you have to conduct. Together we can just cover this and get it nailed, separately we kind of fall into this malaise and donít get much done, but together we cover all the basis and get all this stuff done. Itís really greatÖ.About Tracyís writing. (Turning the conversation to a question that was left unanswered) She really is a very talented writer, but she starts songs and for some reason...sheís go 50 of the best songs you ever heard started. I know, she talks about not talking on stage but she started to do more stuff and talk more. We did this radio interview at another time today (Otto Bost) and I couldnít even get a word in edgewise, Tracy was talking the whole time and I was thinking yeah, all right

Tracy: I was giving you a break.

Dave: I think honestly that I see eventually I will be phased out.

Tracy: Yeah right (laughing)

Dave: On the new CD Tracy will be singing a lot of the songs.

ON AIR TALK: I asked them about he Portland scene. I had heard that they were shopping for a potential new home and was fishing for why. They talk about the grudge scene there and the focus on the ugly. Even though their title cut is actually about dying it is delivered in such a positive way that it is anything but morose.

Dave: Thereís a lot of talented musicians in Portland. Itís really a post grunge scene. Its real trendy. Really. A lot of bands- thereís always gotta be something, and actually I confess that I like a lot of this kind of music but every band has an obscene band name or some weird - I donít know (we call out examples off mike) Yeah, and the subjects you know, its all completely about death and dismemberment and stuff and you know thereís not reason a person shouldnít do that music I guess and some of it is really good but you just get so tired of this constant attempt to outrage you. How can anybody who lived through the 70ís still have any sense of outrage of human behavior at all at this point you know, but its a lot of naive people trying to be over the edge on the edge artists. I donít want to say thatís all that Portland is. Plus a lot of those people naivete notwithstanding, they're really talented. But its very very trendy and at some point or other Tracy and I just got tired of the trendiness of it and we decided that we were just gonna do music that we really felt. We just wanted to do stuff we really felt and actually Tracy and I are the sorts of people that seldom feel like writing songs about gross stuff.

Angela: Like dying?

Dave: (laughing) Yea thatís right. Well the dying you know if its like a reason for it you know what I mean?

Tracy: I have to agree with Dave. There is a lot of tattoos, a lot of black and a lot of piercing in Portland scene. By those standards we donít exactly fit in, but they said, the acoustic scene is picking up in Portland. There are some good songwriter venues that are solidifying. I grew up in southern California and spent about 10 years in Berkley Ca. I went to school there, had my first actual band experience in the Bay area, I was with a sort of Electro pop band called Juicy

Tracy: I grew up in southern California and spent about 10 years in Berkley Ca. I went to school there, had my first actual band experience in the Bay area, I was with a sort of Electro pop band called Juicy. So in 96 I moved to Portland and I met David at the Buffalo Gap. Craig Cruthers hosts a songwriter in the round and he gets really great people locally and people who are passing through to play. Dave and I actually host something a place called the White Eagle, which is haunted. We have a monthly series and we do the same thing. We invite people who are coming through to play in sort of a little showcase, its not in the round its more of a showcase. Thereís a place called Sylviaís that has an acoustic night you know thereís different things going on. The songwriter thing, thereís a place called the Snake and Weasel where people can play on Monday nights in a showcase so just the fact that these places even exist whether monthly or weekly is a good sign for our scene because it wasnít like that when I got to Portland which was just three years ago

So, there is a lot of post punk, grunge stuff that I donít relate to at all and I canít even really say that I like it but Iím happy to say that the acoustic thing is really picking up. When we see our friends here at festivals or conferences we can actually with some confidence say "Come to Portland there will be something for you to do." Before it was that Portland is a bit of a black hole. That was what we were saying a year and a half ago.

ON AIR TALK: I knew that they were shopping for a potential new home and as they talk about it here, I say and you can hardly hear, that Dave can find somewhere else to hibernate. Since Iíd heard that they are looking for somewhere else to locate, I asked if they get into a town and sayÖhmmm I could live hereÖ

Tracy: We do this. Pretty much everywhere we go we think about it. Yeah we were hooked on Walla Walla Washington for a while. Itís a nice placeÖsmall, but nice.

Dave: About getting out of town, I might say that we would, even if the Portland music scene was the most just like the most wonderful place in the world and we were completely happy and fulfilled there, I donít think that we would stay because we really want to get out and play for everybody all over the place

Angela: And experience hibernating in a different spot?

Dave: Thatís right. I just want to play, if weíre gonna tour, if weíre gonna get out and play Iíd really rather do it, I think most musicians would, Iíd rather do it nationally than be stuck in one little area up there in the North West corner-

ON AIR TALK: Tracy mentioned that she hardly speaks on stage so I asked her to pretend he had laryngitis one night and she had to introduce and sing them all- So here she introduces their title cut "When I go"

Tracy: Iíve never really - I donít own these tunes so they are kind of hard for me to introduce, lets see Dave which one would you like me to...

Angela: No, no heís not helping at all.

Tracy: Oh, sorry, OK...Daveís out of commission? Well. I guess since we were talking about optimistic death songs, we will do one that we actually know has been covered at funerals. Yeah "When I go" our title track. [Itís] a very optimistic song - shamonic song. Its got a lot of North American imagery in it- I think a really moving violin line that Dave wrote for it that just keeps kinda coming back. I know that when he introduces the song he likes to say that he got this one from the banjo gods. They came to him in a dream as most of Daveís songs do, most of his inspiration. They told him that the banjo doesnít always have to sound so chipper like our friends who play bluegrass might think but that it could sound something like the click and clack of old bones. After this Dave would normally strum the banjo lightly so as to demonstrate (they both laugh) so from that we go right into "When I go"

Fade up in background, When I Go

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