The Common Good
April 1994

Ready for the Road

by Karen Lattea | April 1994

Carrie Newcomer on faith, folk and fun.

In a time when rock-and-rollers are playing "unplugged," country-and-western singers are smashing their concert guitars, and the violin, upright bass, and mandolin may grace any stage, one thing is certain: The lines are blurring among American folk music and its rock, blues, and country cousins. Emerging musicians who draw on a variety

of influences have a unique opportunity to shine.

Folk musician Carrie Newcomer is ready. "Really early influences were Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian," she says. "But then again, I also grew up on AM radio, close enough to Chicago to listen to those wonderful soul stations. I just wanted to be one of Aretha Franklin’s back-up singers, you know?

"What you can call folk music anymore is really diverse," says Carrie, singer-songwriter and guitarist. Asked to define the folk tradition of which she’s a part, she says, "It’s about commonality. People from the genre tend to write very openly, approaching subjects that aren’t commercial. It can be something very personal, something political, something spiritual. Folk music tends to be about real human things on real human terms."

Warm and unpretentious, Carrie Newcomer is a talented and intelligent 30-something woman whose life has already given her much material for songs. "I’ve done a lot of different things to support myself along the way," she says. "I worked in a factory. And I’ve been a waitress way too many times."

Though pursuing music full-time now, she graduated from Goshen College in Elkhart, Indiana, with a degree in visual arts and a love for painting and small sculpture. Her musical interest began with the flute, but she switched to guitar in high school in order to sing as well.

"I started to write music and sing a long time ago," says Carrie. "I didn’t really do it professionally until later in college. I would sing in restaurants, coffeehouses, and bars—wherever they’d hire me as part of getting through art school.

"Right now I feel like I’m very fortunate in that I’m someone in the arts making their living in the arts. It’s a difficult thing to do."

As a single mother, Carrie knows just how difficult it can be, balancing her trips on the road with her mothering role. But mother and daughter, Amelia, age 11, seem fine. When Emmie goes with Mom to a gig, she’s cool as can be. Says Carrie, "For her, it’s just Mom singing. What’s the big deal? She says, ‘I’ve heard these songs. I heard her writing it.’"

Formerly lead vocalist and writer for Stone Soup, a folk trio, Carrie now performs solo more often. Sometimes she plays with a band called The Dorkestra, or with an upright bass in a small combo. She likes the variety, explaining that "there’s an intimacy you can get as a solo performer that you can’t get as easily with a band," but that "as a band, you get that wonderful interaction of people; the sum of the parts can be greater."

"Music doesn’t just go out from me," says Carrie. "In a good show, it goes out from me and then people send it back to you. There’s nothing more wonderful as a songwriter than when you feel like you’ve really connected, you’ve really given something, and it’s been appreciated or useful or healing."

PERFORMING recently at the Birchmere, a well-known club on the folk-rock circuit located in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Carrie was part of a singer-songwriter round robin format with Pierce Pettis, Sara Hickman, and Jimmy Landry. It was a wonderful example of what’s possible when the solo connection and interactive forum combine.

Dressed in a loose and simple black-and-white flowered frock, black tights, and black oxfords, Carrie pulled her hair back from her face and the dress up on her shoulder, smiled to the crowd, and launched into "Only One Shoe," the lead song on her new release An Angel At My Shoulder (Rounder Records, 1994). Warming up the crowd with this first song, she kicked her feet confidently in time to the music. By the end of the show, her sixth song in turn, something of Carrie’s personality had gone out from her and been warmly received by audience and colleagues alike.

"I feel like it was a wonderful dynamic be-tween the four of us," she reflects later in our interview. "They’re all very good-hearted people, all trying to keep their heads above the things that can pull you down in this business."

Like negotiating last-minute record company interest, which was the case with Rounder Records. Carrie had already independently produced her new release when Rounder got in touch. Angel is a tremendous follow-up to Carrie’s 1991 recording, Visions and Dreams (see "Worthy of Note," April 1992), but it’s been so long in coming that she already has enough material for the next release.

Comparing the two recordings, both of which reveal personal struggles and victories, Carrie says, "Visions and Dreams came out of a real difficult time for me. Overall, it is an optimistic album, but with a sense of, ‘We’re going to get through this better and not bitter.’ The new album, I like to think, is the next step. ‘OK, so I feel better and stronger and happier than I’ve ever felt. What did I learn through all this?’"

Tentative steps in relationships, faith, and hope are evident in the lyrics on An Angel At My Shoulder. And the complexity of life’s nuances is reflected in these intricate and varied songs. Says Carrie, "I write about all aspects of my life. Some of that’s political. Some of that’s personal. Some of it’s humorous. As I get older, I have more and more fun making fun of my own foibles. And part of it’s spiritual, too; my spiritual life is very important to me. I try to be personal without being self-indulgent. That’s a fine line to walk."

And she’s good at it. "Playing With Matches" was written during the Gulf war, and it blends beautifully the personal and political—avoiding the "soapbox," which she knows "will turn people off sometimes." One verse says, "Wrote a letter to the president, but he said ‘God’s on our side.’ Prayed for peace but hurled us to war and ‘victory will be mine.’" The chorus follows: "Playing with matches, playing with fire, playing with the earth for our own desires. God’s not a gun that’s up for hire. Listen to the sound."

Those are the lyrics. But this song’s got such a catchy groove, I missed the words the first time through. During the interview I learned of Carrie’s motivation behind this song: "Things have been done in the name of God for centuries that I would have no part of. Both sides are saying, ‘God’s on our side,’ like somehow God’s saying, ‘OK, shoot each other.’" Layers of discovery exist here with each listening.

"In the City" comes out of an experience Carrie had in Los Angeles with a homeless man on Hollywood Boulevard. She explains, "He was singing and no one was listening. But he knew I was listening because I went by and he started singing to me. This song tries to bring it down to the realization that this is somebody’s baby boy, and somehow he’s sleeping on the street." Indeed the song’s opening lyric is: "Chalk one up for the street, put one down for the city. One more grown baby boy is sleeping on the sidewalk tonight."

The results musically on An Angel At My Shoulder are stunning. Our faith is inspired by such truth-telling.

THE COST MAY BE HIGH for such lyrics, for putting such beliefs into her music. But then, that’s part of the freedom of folk music—to write about subjects that aren’t commercial. What about the "cost" of being Christian?

"I think it’s been more difficult in the last few years to be a performing songwriter who’s Christian," says Carrie, "because the general public has a real skewed view of what being a Christian is these days. America’s fundamentalist movement is very loud and very active. I don’t really feel like it’s a spiritual movement. It’s a political movement, and it’s given a lot of us a bad name. I don’t think it’s always a very kind movement, or very much based in the kind of philosophy that I hold to."

Carrie concludes, "If you publish that, it would make some people really mad." Perhaps, but we come from the truth-telling tradition as well.

Carrie has also made choices in other areas of her music. She just started touring two or three years ago, once her daughter got a little older, and even now her tours are short and sprinkled with time back home. Carrie admits that means she sleeps less and makes less money, but the trade-offs are worth it.

"Being away from home is hard," says Carrie. "It’s exciting, it’s wonderful, it’s lonely. It’s all those things. I travel all over, and it’s been a real challenge for me being a woman traveling alone.

"Jimmy Landry joked at the Birchmere, saying, ‘They pay me to drive in my car. Singing is free.’ I always think that hauling my stuff is what they pay me for—singing is for free. I try to use the time usefully. I write when I’m in my car. And I should get an endorsement for Books on Tape!"

Business ethics questions arise as do the perils of performing. As a business woman, Carrie considers it important to treat her music associates fairly, and to be careful with her accounting and taxes. And as a performer, she says, "I find if I get competitive, I start losing focus on what I’m really trying to do. I pray all the time for discernment: What’s good and what’s wise?"

THE REWARDS OF HER work come just as easily to Carrie’s mind. And one of the most important is what will keep her forever in the folk tradition, regardless of increasingly blending music styles. Says Carrie, "Part of the folk deal is how sincere you can be. Being yourself is important. No one’s expecting you to go out and look or dress like Madonna. I find that a good thing. I can just be myself, and I don’t have to wear Spandex or else I’m out."

Drawing from and contributing to the spirit of musicians she notes as influential—Bruce Cockburn, Shawn Colvin, Pierce Pettis—Carrie says, "You read so many negative things in the paper. There is a lot of hard stuff going on, stuff that needs to change. But there are also some really good people. It’s restored my faith to find that there is a grassroots connection of really caring people all over.

"I know little groups of people all over the country now, little pockets of people who come out and listen to heart music. I knew they were out there."

We are. When Carrie was gracious enough to sing for the Sojourners staff after she completed the interview at our office, I requested a song she’d sung at the Birchmere, "There’s Nothin’ A New Dress Don’t Cure." She agreed, and gave this explanation: "You know, I try to live simply. I do. But you have a bad day, a bad week, and you call up a friend to go out and look for a new dress.

"You know the feeling—or at least the women always say, ‘Uh huh, yeah, I know.’ When you have a new dress on, you feel like a new person. And if it swishes, all the better. My daughter says, ‘Does it twirl, Mom?’

"Well, it happened to me one day. I did this with a friend. I laughed at myself, so I wrote this song to be silly about it." (At the Birchmere, after explaining the song, she asked, "What’s the equivalent for guys?" to which someone responded, "Power tools.")

Silly or serious; folk, rock, or roots, Carrie’s music connects. She’s stitching together the pockets of people who understand the lyrics to "Hold On" on An Angel At My Shoulder: "A hungry lion’s been prowlin’ outside my door these days, and all I shake my fist at it, it doesn’t go away....There are those who would put you down, smiling bastards who would keep you down. But there’s gentle souls who lift you up, and I have heard the voice of God say, ‘Hold on.’"

It takes a gentle soul to know one, and insight to give them a voice. Carrie Newcomer is ready.

Angel at my Shoulder. Carrie Newcomer. Rounder Records, 1994.

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