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Fiddling around, and opening for Los Lonely Boys in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen TimesTexas fiddler-singer Carrie Rodriguez is featured on the Acoustic Brotherhood Tour, coming to the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday, Feb. 28.
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ASPEN – It’s not likely many current Aspenites remember Carrie Rodriguez from her Aspen days. Rodriguez’s stint here was some 15 years ago, when she was a Texas high-schooler, and her stay lasted just nine weeks, the duration of the Aspen Music School’s summer session.

And if anyone did recall the petite, dark-skinned, curly-haired musician from the mid-’90s, it’s not certain they would connect her with the Carrie Rodriguez who performs Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Wheeler Opera House (showtime is 8 p.m.). Rodriguez made the jump from concert violinist to folk fiddler shortly after her time in Aspen, and that was only the first in a series of stylistic leaps in her career. When she makes her debut on the Wheeler stage – a venue she remembers warmly from seeing classical events there – Rodriguez, now 31, will be appearing as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, side player, fiddler, guitarist and interpreter of other’s material. And if her appearance last May at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale was any indication, a budding star.

She and her trio play an opening set as part of the Acoustic Brotherhood tour, and Rodriguez joins singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo as the fiddler in his band. Headlining the show are the Tex-Mex rockers Los Lonely Boys, and there is a chance Rodriguez will sit in with them for a song; a few nights ago, she was called up for a take on the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”

Rodriguez began classical violin training as a kid in Texas. But her father, the prominent singer-songwriter David Rodriguez, also exposed her to Texas swing king Bob Wills, and Wills’ fiddler, Johnny Gimble. She would also sit in with her dad, but those occasions only made clear the point that she was, at the time, a violinist at heart.

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“I played those things like a classical player,” Rodriguez said from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. “I didn’t know how to improvise. When I played with my dad, he’d have to sing melody lines for me to copy on the fiddle.”

In her one year at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio, Rodriguez found herself longing for the music she had heard back in her hometown of Austin. Also at Oberlin, Lyle Lovett, a friend of her father’s, invited her to join his band for a song during sound-check. The experience, especially hearing Lovett’s fiddler, Andrea Zonn, turned her head. She transferred to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and made the transition to fiddling.

Her playing caught the attention of Chip Taylor, a musician best known for writing “Wild Thing.” Rodriguez recorded four albums with Taylor and toured frequently as a member of his band. In addition to giving her some name recognition, Taylor pushed his protege to sing and write songs, two aspects of musicianship she had little experience with. In 2006 she released her debut album, “Seven Angels on a Bicycle,” an impressive, edgy piece of Americana with Rodriguez taking the lead role as singer and songwriter. She followed in 2008 with “She Ain’t Me,” which featured songs co-written by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, and Mary Gauthier. Neither album gave any hint of Rodriguez’s roots in classical music, nor were they especially fiddle-oriented.

“When I met Chip Taylor I was just a fiddle player,” she said. “But when I made my first record, I was thinking more like a singer and songwriter. I basically try to record a song however I imagine it. The instruments serve the song.”

One of the instruments that has seemed to fit in a lot lately is the tenor guitar, a four-string instrument that has become a big part of Rodriguez’s arsenal. But the fiddle remains prominent in her music-making: “Nowadays I play fiddle in my live show all the time. There are instrumentals; I take solos. But recording, don’t think about it so much. If it needs the fiddle, that’s great. But I’d never want to stick it on there just because I play it.”

Rodriguez does hardly any fiddling on “Love and Circumstance,” her new album set for release on April 13. Rodriguez herself focuses on tenor guitar and, even more, electric mandolin. But the heavy instrumental lifting on the album is done by a cast of top-flight musicians, including guitarist Bill Frisell and lap and pedal steel player Greg Leisz, who join Rodriguez’s touring band: guitarist Hans Holzen, bassist Kyle Kegerreis and drummer Eric Platz. Additional guests include singers Buddy Miller and Aoife O’Donavon and slide guitarist Doug Wamble.

While “Love and Circumstance” isn’t a fiddler’s album, it’s even less a songwriter’s album. Or at least, it doesn’t feature any original songs. Instead, Rodriguez – and producer Lee Townsend, known best for his edgy, wide-ranging work with Frisell – plucked songs by other writers, many of whom have some close connection to Rodriguez. “Steal Your Love” is by Lucinda Williams, a close family friend with whom Rodriguez has toured. “Wide River to Cross” is by Buddy Miller and his wife, Julie. “Rex’s Blues” is by the late Townes Van Zandt, who often played with David Rodriguez.

Possibly closest to her heart is “When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing.” The song was written by David Rodriguez, and while the wandering troubadour Gypsy Davy is a mythical character – Arlo Guthrie’s is the best-known version of the traditional tune – the story hits a soft spot for Carrie. Her father moved to the Netherlands when she was 16, and has made just one trip back to the States in 15 years.

The idea of an album of cover material, though, came through another family connection. For years Rodriguez has performed the song “La Punalada Trapera.” It was a song Rodriguez’s great aunt, Eva Garza, a well-known recording artist and Voice of America radio personality, recorded decades ago. It has become a concert favorite for Rodriguez, and she wanted to squeeze it onto an album. But she found that an old, Spanish-language tune just didn’t fit onto an album of her original material. “It felt like I was tacking it on to the end of the album,” she said.

So Rodriguez decided to build a covers record around the song. “And then it became a question of, If I were to pick a group of songs by other people, what would they be?” she said. In the end, she came up with songs that were familiar to her in one way or another (Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s For Dreamers,” which her dad used to play for her; Merle Haggard’s “I Started Loving You Again,” which she learned from Chip Taylor; “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams, one of the first folk-style writers whom Rodriguez admired). Lee Townsend brought in “Eyes on the Prize,” by the contemporary musician M. Ward.

When I interviewed Rodriguez last spring, she said she still felt “green and new as a songwriter.” “Love and Circumstance” allowed her to step back and take stock of where she is as a writer.

“I feel I got into writing songs in such an unexpected way,” Rodriguez, who moved back to Austin recently after nine years in New York City. “I got a lot of help from people. I felt I wanted to take a step back and assess the situation and think about what songs I wanted to sing and write. This album is a good template for what I want to do.”

The Acoustic Brotherhood Tour, launched by Los Lonely Boys several years ago, gives Rodriguez a chance to re-examine herself as a fiddler. Sitting in with Alejandro Escovedo pushes her both backward and forward.

“Playing the violin with him is so different than anything I do in my own show,” said Rodriguez, who has occasionally filled in for Escovedo’s regular fiddler, Susan Voelz, whom Rodriguez cites as one of her heroes. “He brings out things I haven’t done since I played classical music. He’ll get up in the middle of a song, for your solo, and demand you play something great.”

The tour also provides Rodriguez the chance to connect to a new audience. The crowds for the Acoustic Brotherhood shows are far heavier Latino than her usual fan base. She can tell by the response to “La Punalada Trapera.” English-speaking listeners tell her how pretty and sweet the song is; but Spanish-speakers have a more appropriate reaction to the song, the title of which translates as “”stab in the back.”

“Because it’s a horrible love song: ‘It’s all your fault!'” Rodriguez said. “You can tell they understand it.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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