Carrie Rodriguez - taking a Chip off the old block
The annual South by Southwest convention in Austin, Texas is an opportunity for musicians to put themselves in the shop window. Literally, in the case of Carrie Rodriguez – or so it appears.
Back in 2001, Rodriguez was playing fiddle in a country band who secured an unofficial SXSW gig in the salubrious sounding Cheapo Records in downtown Austin. Chip Taylor, the songwriter responsible for Wild Thing, Angel of the Morning and a whole catalogue of others, was in town and happened to drop into the store. Impressed by the band’s fiddler, he invited Rodriguez to play on his next gig.
At least, that’s the way Taylor tells it. Rodriguez’s version has a mutual friend, Richard Price, the sometime bass player to Lucinda Williams, acting as go-between and suggesting that Taylor check out Rodriguez at Cheapo Records.
"Chip’s version sounds better," says Rodriguez. "But whatever way you look at it, it was a lucky break for me because I was fresh out of music college. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was playing round dance halls and bars, which was okay for the short term. And suddenly I get to go off and spend five years making records and touring and learning to write songs with a master craftsman."
It was, perhaps, inevitable that the Austin-born Rodriguez should take up a career in the arts. Her father, David, is a singer-songwriter. Her mother is a painter and her grandmother spent most of her adult life as a painter, too, before publishing her first book at the age of seventy. Lyle Lovett is also a family friend who was very encouraging to Carrie as her ambitions changed from occupying the violin chair in a symphony orchestra or teaching classical violin to playing something more rootsy.
"I never saw myself as a singer or writing songs," she says. "I’d played with the Austin Youth Symphony and the Austin Civic Orchestra in my teens and was actually in my first year at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio when I went to hear Lyle’s band in Cleveland. I got to play a little bit with them and I decided that what they were doing was way more fun."
Andrea Zonn, the fiddler and singer-songwriter behind this year’s opening concert at Celtic Connections, was playing in Lyle Lovett’s band at the time and after speaking to her, Rodriguez decided to change courses. She left the prestigious Oberlin conservatory and moved to Berklee College of Music in Boston which although probably better known here for its jazz department, has nourished numerous roots music talents including Gillian Welch and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
During her time in Boston, Lovett arrived in town for a gig and invited her to play with his band again. By then she’d been working on traditional fiddle styles and playing country music and she acquitted herself well enough to think she’d find work as the fiddler in a band. Until Chip Taylor came along with other ideas.
Taylor took her on as a musical partner, encouraging her to sing and get involved in writing the duo’s material.
"Chip really had to drag the whole singing thing out of me, and I’m really glad that he did because I started to really enjoy it," she says. "The same goes for songwriting and I can’t think of a better person to learn this from than Chip because he’s so great at simplicity and sensuality. I mean, look at Wild Thing."
With the release last year of her first solo album, Seven Angels on a Bicycle, Rodriguez moved centre-stage and now has her own band, although she’ll continue to work with Taylor off and on. Even after sharing the platform with Taylor for five years and taking her turn at singing lead vocals, she concedes that she finds being in the spotlight very difficult.
"It’s challenging because I’m now the person that the audience has come to see," she says. "But again I learned so much from Chip that I have a lot of his experience I can draw on. So if I have a scary moment, I just think to myself, Now what would Chip do here?"
Apart from the songwriting and performing lessons that came naturally through working with Taylor, there were other spin-offs – like being able to approach her favourite musicians to play on her album. One of these is Bill Frisell, the jazz guitarist whose own repertoire ranges from Aaron Copland to Madonna and Muddy Waters and who inhabits the gospel and mountain music styles of Seven Angels on a Bicycle to the manner born.
"Bill’s been one of my heroes for ten years or so and we brought him in to work on our last duo album, Red Dog Tracks, so I got to know him a bit," she says. "Then we actually did a week in Germany about a year ago where he and his band backed Chip and me, and that was fantastic. He’s so enthusiastic about music and the thing I noticed most is how much fun he has playing. And that’s the way it should be. If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be up there playing for other people. With my band we’ve developed this mantra that we chant in the dressing room: We’re gonna have fun. Then we do."
From The Herald, May 3, 2007