Dave Carter is from Oklahoma and Texas. His mother was an evangelical seeker of paradise who spoke in tongues and had visions of glory. His father was a man of science, resting uneasily in the logical perfection of mathematics. Carter studied classical piano from the age of four and eventually picked up guitar and banjo as well. He graduated college with a degree in music. He went on to study Jungian psychology, Shamanism and mathematics, and then realized he would “make a terrible psychologist.” Following a vision of his grandmother telling him to go to Nashville, he did just that. Thus, he found his calling.
Carter’s songwriting draws apt comparisons to Bob Dylan (particularly on the recording When I Go). Like Dylan, Carter’s poetry is rich and unruly, thick as forest brush. It takes effort to get through it sometimes, but the effort is rewarded by the view. “Love is an old root that creeps through the meadows of sleep/when the long shadows cast/thin as a vagrant young vine, it encircles and twines/and it holds the heart fast.” There is an earthy texture and rare air to the songs as if, like lightning, they arise from the earth into the sky, illuminating folds of land, watercourses, townships, forested hollows, grassy plains, cindered rail-beds, rutted and dust-blown or mud-gumbo roads. There are many voices here, organic and specific: characters hopeful or indigent, moral or merciless, always romantic—love- or lust-burdened ministers of their own peculiar gospel.
Carter has done for the landscape of the mind what Tom Waits did for Minneapolis, without as much gloom, and what Dylan did for Dylan, without the righteous indignation. He gave it a place with a palpable (southern) climate and called it home. His songs are hopeful, or eventually hopeful, in an Appalachian, Buddhist, cowboy sort of way. Similar to the way the Buddha explains how you get from realizing that everything is suffering to actually being free from suffering, Carter explains that all the songs on the recording Tanglewood Tree are “about penetrating illusions” and seeing that they are “phony.” Carter has an apparent affinity for the wayfaring stranger. His songs are about the trials and not about the paradise to come. It makes for lovely poetry.
Though Carter pens the lyrics and music, likely with a quill, it would be unfair to give him full credit for the songs, which are certainly the product of a dual effort. Tracy Grammer is the other half of the duality here. Carter often reflects a somber wisdom born of age-old acquaintance with life’s melancholy, if hopeful, realities. Grammer, for her part, infuses the music with a youthful lightness that seems to say, without words, and e.e. cummings said it best: “You shall above all things be glad and young./For if you’re young whatever life you wear /it will become you: and if you are glad/whatever’s living will yourself become.” Grammer speaks through music, with a tender violin even when a line is charged with bitterness. She sings a meadowlark’s light beneath words that are, at times, tragic and old beyond memory.
But Carter and Grammer are not all stark contrast to each other. Each has a bit of the opposite’s qualities, even as the yin and the yang have their dots of opposite color as they spin round each other. Carter’s lyrics can be joyful at surprising moments: “miller take me and miller grind me/scatter my bones on the wild green tide/maybe some roving bird will find me/over the water we’ll ride.” Grammer’s alto harmonies, in counterpoint to Carter’s story-telling tenor, can impart a pensive atmosphere like solemn revelations of conscience by moonlight. Her violin solos can turn like swallows in cool river air, or conjure the sorrowing shades of Civil War mothers.
Over the last five years, Carter and Grammer have recorded three collections of songs: When I Go (independently produced and recorded in Grammer’s kitchen), Tanglewood Tree (a masterpiece, like an Appalachian/Southern Sgt. Pepper), and Drum Hat Buddha (which brings Tanglewood Tree deeper into the present). Each recording has placed in the top ten on Best Of charts for their respective release years.