Carolyn Wonderland By: Dale Martin
She was born in Webster, Texas, near Houston, on November 9, 1972. Her given name was Carolyn Bradford, but once she started making a living in the music business, Bradford gave way to the more fitting Wonderland surname. While female blues singers from Texas will always be compared to Janis Joplin, just as male guitar players will indefinitely be linked to Stevie Ray Vaughan, it’s not her voice that first got her noticed, it’s her amazing guitar prowess. “I’ve been playing since I was about 8 years old,” recalls Wonderland. “My mom played guitar and I loved listening to guitar playing. Growing up in Houston I had the luxury of going to see any of the shows I wanted. I would go see Townes Van Zandt when I wanted to but the guy that changed my life was Little Screamin’ Kenny. I was always just floored when I saw him because everything he played was just so right on. I eventually got to play music with him and many other great Houston musicians. I guess I was in the right place at the right time and not getting into too much trouble. I learned from many people, now when I hear myself on tape I know who I’m trying to play like.”
She relocated to Austin in 1999 and after losing her apartment lease, became virtually homeless for about two years. Carolyn never called her situation homeless, preferring instead to say she was ‘van-full,’ which was her home while she toured constantly. “I bartered with friends for laundry and shower privileges,” she explains, “and I made sure to never stay with someone long enough to wear out my welcome.” As success came her way, Carolyn is an avid supporter of ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless). Along with her band ‘The Imperial Monkeys,’ she released five albums beginning with ‘Groove Milk’ in 1993. Going solo in 2001 with ‘Alcohol & Salvation’ and following it in 2003 with ‘Bloodless Revolution,’ her status as a Texas guitar slinger was beginning to solidify. That’s when Bob Dylan entered the picture, and Ray Benson.
Benson was at the historic Backyard outdoor theater in Austin to meet his hero, Bob Dylan. When the legendary songwriter appeared, he had one request. Did Ray know Carolyn Wonderland and could he get her there pronto? Benson located her, but there was a problem, she was in Houston. Needless to say, after a very fast road trip, when Dylan stepped off the stage Ray introduced him to the petite guitarist. She soon signed with Benson’s Bismeaux Records and released ‘Miss Understood’ in 2008, which finally captured in the studio what live audiences already knew. The just released ‘Peace Meal’ expands on the same formula, hand her a guitar, point her to the studio and get out of her way. The leadoff track, ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,’ is a rare Janis Joplin tune that the Texas gal recorded in a friend’s living room in 1962. She tackles the Robert Hunter classic ‘Golden Stairs’ and easily takes ownership of the tune. Homage to Dylan is witnessed by a scorching version of ‘Meet Me in the Morning,’ and a nod to her Houston influences is presented on ‘Two Trains.’ “The beauty of working with Ray,” explains Carolyn in a recent interview, “is that he knows how to make good music. We get to take our time and try lots of things until we have enough songs to tell a story.” Benson can be credited with polishing her car, but she had a classic car before he got there.
Always the humble artist, Carolyn may very well be the best guitar player in Texas, which is a bold statement. After all, Texas produced a few other six string slingers you may know, i.e. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller, Leadbelly and Billy Gibbons. Seeing her play is basically a religious experience, with the guitar seeming to be a permanent body attachment, never to be removed. In person, she is mild and grateful, and a strong advocate for the rights of others. As her website explains, “I speak not with guns but with flowers.” Her life is one of constant motion but one of positive energy. A recent marriage to writer comedian A. Whitney Brown added a loving partner to the mix. “I help carry her amp” is a quote he loves to use when asked what he brings to relationship. These days, it’s good to be Carolyn Wonderland.