Blues artist Carolyn Wonderland has been a force in Texas music for nearly two decades. She spent her formative years inside Houston's dingy blues clubs, soaking up the sounds of great Texas artists before eventually playing alongside her idols.
In the late 1990s, at the urging of Texas trailblazer Doug Sahm, she landed in Austin where her modern take on the blues has flourished. "Mr. Sahm led me to the land of free guitar lessons and soul diving in Austin," Wonderland says.
With her fiery red hair, equally fiery guitar playing and sultry power vocals, Wonderland often conjures comparisons to famed female rock stalwart Janis Joplin. It’s a comparison, says the performer, that can be a blessing and a curse.
"Growing up in Texas, young girls learn to only sing Janis' songs in private," Wonderland says. "In public would be silly, as no one can do it better, and few can do it justice."
"If you are a non-opera singing woman from Texas, you will get saddled with that comparison," Wonderland says.
"I used to think it was merely lazy journalists (Texas + girl + singer = Joplin). Turns out, it's a universal reference. I can think of far worse things to have said about oneself, but nobody can ever live up to such expectations."
Although she doesn't attempt to become Joplin, Wonderland has found a way to incorporate the pioneer's work into her repertoire as of late. "I avoided doing all things Janis until covering 'What Good Can Drinkin' Do' on Peace Meal," she says.
"Growing up in Texas, young girls learn to only sing Janis' songs in private. In public would be silly, as no one can do it better, and few can do it justice."
Peace Meal, Wonderland's latest record, was released in 2011 and features an up-tempo cover of the Joplin-penned blues tune that originally appeared on Big Brother and The Holding Company in 1967. Wonderland first performed the song in 2009, after being tapped by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to sing on an American Music Masters program honoring Joplin.
"I was scared out of my mind," she says. "Everyone knows the hits, but I wanted to walk in a song she wrote. That night I decided that even though I couldn't do it better, I'd like to try to do justice to one of the songs she wrote." Wonderland sang "What Good Can Drinkin' Do" the next night — without rehearsal — at Levon Helm’s Ramble.
Joplin comparisons aside, Wonderland finds influence in plenty of Texas artists, past and present. "I am mostly influenced by my band. Cole El-Saleh and Rob Hooper keep me inspired and in stitches," she says.
She also cites Eddy Shaver, Vince Welnick, Jerry Lightfoot, Uncle John Turner, Stephen Bruton and Scott Daniels — a group of friends and heroes who have passed away.
"Still," says Wonderland, "the most lasting mark on this band's soul comes from our chance to meet and play with Levon Helm, his band and family, at his home in Woodstock."
When it comes to women in music, Wonderland says she's confident in the future of the Texas scene. "I am loving new CDs from Warren Hood (featuring the righteous Emily Gimble!) and really love Wendy Colonna's latest, Nectar," she says. "Ginger Leigh's Amazing is super kick-ass, and when I want to dance and cry, I go for Shelley King's Welcome Home."
And for those burgeoning women in music, Wonderland has one piece of advice. We dare, in the best way, say it summons the spirit of Joplin.
"Be cheap. Be happy. Music is its own, and often only, reward. It is not a competitive sport. It is a collaboration of players and listeners. Welcome to the cauldron!"
Carolyn Wonderland plays The Kessler with Guy Forsyth on December 12.