Singer, violinist, guitarist, and reluctant songwriter Tracy Grammer will forever be associated with Dave Carter, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who in 2002, at the age of 49, died of a heart attack in her arms. Together, Grammer and Carter had become a phenomenon on the folk circuit, performing Carter’s highly symbolic and quasi-mystical music in ways that suggested their deep devotion — not only to the music but also to each other. Though he’s been gone more than 10 years, Carter still inhabits a large part of Grammer’s artistic life. Her most recent album, 2012’s Little Blue Eggs, is a collection of previously unreleased material recorded during the duo’s five-year relationship.
“I feel like when I met Dave and started singing his music, I connected with something in myself that I hadn’t had access to before,” Grammer explained in a phone call from her home in Pennsylvania. “Spirituality — I didn’t know what to call it. But it was something deeper, something that resonated so strongly that I knew that I couldn’t stop doing this work and still feel whole. It felt right. It completed the picture.”
Grammer, who plays solo at Gig Performance Space on Friday, April 12, still performs much of Carter’s music. His presence is palpable when she sings, probably because the two were so close and because fans associate her voice and violin with his lyrics. And while Grammer has occasionally stepped away from Carter’s legacy, recording songs from others as well as her own material, fans can’t help wonder when she’ll stake out her own territory. “People come up to me and say I should move on. From time to time I get the feeling that I should move on. But the truth is, I didn’t get into music by tooting my own horn. It’s never been about me being a great singer-songwriter. I took a big plunge into what I believed in when I started doing Dave’s music with him. And if I make a life of that now, I’d be OK with it.”
Grammer was born in Florida, but her family relocated to Orange County, California, when she was 3. She took up classical violin at 9. “No one ever had to ask me to practice,” she recalled. “I would just get lost with it and play for hours.” Her father played electric and lap steel guitar, and sometimes neighbor kids would come over to watch him play and sing Beatles songs as well as John Denver and Willie Nelson tunes. But she wasn’t exposed to much folk music. “I’m still embarrassed sometimes when people come up to me and start quoting some of these great folk songs. And I have to look at them with this blank stare because I don’t know them.”
While studying English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Grammer was introduced to Curtis Coleman of the New Christy Minstrels. “He was the first person with some musical credentials to listen to me sing and say, You could do this. I was amazed and didn’t believe it, but I was secretly wondering if he was right.” It was 1996 when she first met Carter, after his appearance at a songwriters’ showcase in her then home of Portland, Oregon. They recorded their first album, When I Go, in 1998. Grammer took a largely instrumental role, singing on only one number. Their next two recordings, Tanglewood Tree and Drum Hat Buddha, not only won them accolades as a duo but established their music, all written by Carter, as something new in the world of folk.
“When I started out with Dave, he was already taking the music to a completely different place. We didn’t know what we should call it. We thought we might call it Americana chamber music. We both had classical experience. It was country music with a little polish, a little shine. Folk music opened the door for us and let us in. The world embraced us as that [folk artists], so we started making ourselves right at home.”
Carter’s lyrics are unique in that he drew from a variety of sources for his imagery. ”Dave was a huge fan of [mythology scholar] Joseph Campbell, and he was always trying to write [into his lyrics] this larger mythological thing that would resonate at a universal level, that would ring true to everyone’s experience.”
The two were asked to join Joan Baez’s spring tour in 2002, both as an opening act and as part of Baez’s backing ensemble. Baez also performed some of Carter’s material. It seemed the Carter-Grammer duo was on its way to big things. The two were often mysterious about their personal relationship, describing it as a “musical marriage.” Grammer has since said they were a romantic couple, though not without their share of complications. Then, after a July morning run, Carter came back complaining of chest pains. He was dead within hours.
Grammer takes exception to descriptions of the experience as tragic. “Yes, it was a big surprise to me. I was young. He was the first person that I was so close to to pass away. We were friends, business partners — together 24/7. It was very rough at first. But I don’t see it as a tragedy. It’s just life. There’s no changing it.”
What fans didn’t know at the time was that Carter was conflicted about his gender identity and was in the beginning stages of changing his sex. “He shared that revelation with me in 2000. ... That was a struggle. I feel like I mourned him twice. I had this fairy tale of getting married. He said he’d had these feeling since the eighth grade. What do you do with that?”
Grammer admitted the information was a shock but said the two were able to continue their relationship. “When I first heard about it, I was fascinated, then upset. I didn’t grow up in a community where I ever heard of such a thing. When he saw how upset I was, he said, Never mind. I love you too much to have something come between us. So we pretended as if nothing happened, and nobody was happy. Then he started to pursue it behind the scenes. At first, I didn’t know he was taking hormones on the Baez tour. In that period we had our sort of reconciliation. I think it was the night before he died that he said to me, You just need to be my friend and stop pushing and let it happen. I was glad we had that talk. We even had a whole plan for the unveiling. He was going to release one more manly ‘Cowboy Dave’ album, and I would introduce myself as a solo artist. Then he would go change and we would come back as an all-girl band, calling ourselves The Butterfly Conservatory. He would be she and that would be that.”
Grammer has dealt with Carter’s death by performing tributes and recording his music. But she also covers the works of other songwriters as well as performing a tune or two of her own, notably the title track from her 2004 release The Verdant Mile (written with frequent musical collaborator Jim Henry). Its chorus goes, “And so I walk this verdant mile/Of memory with you/The gentle arms of eden/And the mountains get me through.”
Grammer, sounding of two minds when it comes to original music, admitted that songwriting can be difficult for her. “I’m sort of lazy if it doesn’t come in shazam style, a thunderbolt of inspiration, and I have to work at it. It’s hard to sit still and write. To do that you have to focus and think. I’d rather sing great songs written by great writers than something mediocre that I wrote.”
She may have stumbled on a way to stay close to Carter’s legacy while cutting a path for herself at the same time. A songwriter acquaintance who saw one of her concerts, complete with all the storytelling it involves, suggested that she turn it into a stage show about her relationship to the songwriter. “I’m attracted by the idea. I could pay tribute to Dave like I want to do and then also do something separate, try some new stuff like people want me to do. On the other hand, Dave’s music connects me to so much of myself. I can’t let it go, but at the same time, I want to move on.” ◀
▼ Tracy Grammer
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12
▼ Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.
▼ $20 at the door; www.gigsantafe.com