Tracy Grammer stays the course
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 31, 2003) – A year ago last Friday, Dave Carter returned from his daily jog to the western Massachusetts motel where he and his musical partner Tracy Grammer were staying while waiting to perform at the Green River Music Festival complaining of chest pains. Within minutes Carter collapsed in Grammer’s arms, dead of a massive heart attack just three weeks shy of his 50th birthday.

In the weeks that followed, Grammer gained comfort from the outpouring of love and support that greeted her at folk festivals like Philadelphia and Falcon Ridge – where she performed again last week – where her appearances were turned into tributes to the late, great Carter, who was one-half of one of contemporary folk’s most beloved and fastest-rising duos and the writing talent behind the cryptically dense but deliriously modern country-folk songs the two sang together on albums like the terrific “Drum Hat Buddha” (Signature Sounds), their last.

“I went through a very dark period after Dave died,” wrote Grammer – who performs on Friday night at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on a double-bill with Jeff Lang at 8:30 -- in a recent e-mail interview. “But following my first incredibly shaky solo performance in Cambridge, Mass., I noticed two things: 1) this was going to be more work than I thought; and 2) the fans were behind me, regardless.

“In an open letter to fans shortly after Dave’s death, I told them, ‘We have to keep this music alive,’ and asked them to stay the course with me. I made a promise to continue. I didn’t feel I could back out, even though I questioned my ability to do the songs justice. But onward I go. I made that promise, so I at least have to try.”

Grammer has committed herself to carrying on Carter’s legacy by continuing to perform his songs, in spite of harboring occasional self-doubt.

“I have trouble acknowledging myself as performer even though truly I’m living my dream,” she wrote. “I’ve met some of my heroes -- Mary Chapin Carpenter, most recently -- and have sung Dave’s songs with them. Still, I’m uncomfortable thinking that any of this is for me at all. Somehow, it takes the sweetness and importance out of it. Isn’t that crazy? But it’s true. I’m enjoying myself, certainly, but I feel much more comfortable in the role of messenger or a missionary. I didn’t grow up with any kind of faith or religion, but I feel like I found one in this music.

“That said, there are days -- even yesterday -- when I doubt my ability to do this mission justice. I’m packing the van and heading out for Falcon Ridge, and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is insane! How can I do this without Dave?’ I remember that duo chemistry, that joy, the spiritual connection and that musical marriage and know that I will likely never find that again. But it doesn’t mean I should stop trying. There have
been days when I felt like I conjured him on stage. I got a glimpse of what was, I saw him nodding from a back corner with a silly grin on his face saying, ‘Go baby, go!’ I’ll go on stage a thousand times to see that again, just once.”

But Grammer’s sense of mission clearly stems from her love of Carter’s songs. “The first night I saw Dave Carter play, I thought, ‘The world needs to hear this music,’” she wrote. “His music filled me with a clarity of purpose like I had never known before. It was an epiphany, it was revelation. I met him on the way out the door that night and we quickly bonded. I had found something to believe in. His music -- eventually our music -- became my mission.”

It’s a legacy of which Grammer also feels protective. “Folks are starting to cover Dave’s songs, but I notice they change the words and they change the melodies,” she wrote. “This troubles me somewhat, knowing how hard he worked on the details. He researched, labored, polished, chipped, refined, and kept working on songs even after they had been laid to tape. I feel like I’m the one who really knows how the songs go; I’m as close to Dave the musician as people are going to get now. I understand the inspirations and evolutions the songs have seen. I was there for many an ‘A-ha!’ moment, and many a re-write. These songs are under my skin and I have made the kind of investment in them I don’t expect other singers and interpreters to make. If I want people to know about Dave Carter the songwriter, singer, performer, I must stay the course. I see this.

“One of Dave’s favorite things to say during interviews was that he hoped someday I’d sing all the songs and he could just go live in a trailer and write. This isn’t to say he didn’t enjoy performing -- those who saw him know what a natural gift he had -- but his heart was really with plumbing the depths of the collective unconscious and pulling out the poetry and music that would reveal and heal us. As for me, I’ve held on to a dream
since I was in the thirrd grade. The dream was me on stage, singing my heart out under the bright lights -- I can still see it in my mind’s eye. Dave knew about this dream and wanted it to be reality. I knew about his dream and was working toward that reality, too. And so here we are. I’ve seen the bright lights, and they are, for the most part, a beautiful thing. And I wonder about the trailer, and whether he found it, and what he’s writing

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 31, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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