Even though Tracy Grammer doesn’t think of herself as much of a songwriter, she’s certainly had enough life experience that, if she decides in a few years she wants to focus on writing her own songs, she’ll have plenty of fodder. Her musical partner, Dave Carter, died suddenly from cardiac arrest in July, 2002, at a hotel where the couple was staying near Northampton, Massachusetts. He was 49, just three weeks shy of his 50th birthday.
Grammer was born in Florida but grew up in southern California and got her musical education in northern California at UC Berkeley. She lived in Portland, Oregon, for a number of years, but moved east to western Massachusetts in 2005 to continue working with her new musical partner, Jim Henry. She appears on Saturday, September 26, at the Concerts on the Crossing in Titusville.
Grammer’s latest release is a self-produced, self-released EP compact disc, “Book of Sparrows,” but her earlier release, “Flower of Avalon,” is dedicated to her former musical collaborator, Dave Carter. The two had just finished a tour of theaters with Joan Baez when Carter had his heart attack and died in her arms in the hotel room. He had just returned from jogging.
Grammer comes from a musical family. “My dad played music all his life, but not professionally,” Grammer says in a phone interview from her new home base, sharing Henry’s house just outside Northampton. Her father was a butcher and her mom a housewife for a time, but then they formed their own home-based business, selling baby bedding supplies, and they all pitched in. She has a younger brother who lives in northern California.
Given that her parents were both musical and entrepreneurial, it stands to reason they weren’t going to discourage Grammer from taking on an entrepreneurial job like traveling folk musician. She studied classical violin in high school and sang informally at family get-togethers when her father would get out his slide guitar.
She says she likes to tell people she was raised in southern California, but that she did her real growing up in Berkeley. “Growing up in the suburbs of southern California, it was mostly middle class and upper middle class and mostly white, but going to school in Berkeley, there were all different kinds of people from different ethnic groups, different kinds of music, and there was a huge range of economic status, so I really appreciated the time that I had there and what I learned about people and the world while living there.”
She says it took her eight years to get her four-year degree, and she was working a lot through that time. “I finally figured out if you got a job at the university, you could get two-thirds off your tuition.”
She became involved in the club and coffee house scene in Berkeley in 1992 and met a songwriter, Dave Noble, and they began dating. “He was my entree to that world in Berkeley,” she says, noting she really got her start singing at karaoke nights in Modesto. Her brother was living there, a cow-town east of the Bay area, so she spent some years there working with him during breaks from college.
“By the end of one summer I met Curtis Coleman, who used to be in the New Christy Minstrels and was a friend of our dad’s. He was doing these singer-songwriter gigs around town, so we went to see him, but not a lot of people came, so sometimes my brother and I were the only people in the audience,” she says. But Coleman encouraged her to sing more. “I also had a big crush on Curtis, so it was all part of my Modesto experience.”
‘When I finally met Dave Noble, I felt a little more confident about my singing,” she says. She was dating Noble and moved with him to Portland, Oregon, in 1996.
One night Noble took Grammer to a songwriter’s night at a bar, run by the Portland Songwriters Association, where people would get up and sing two or three songs each. “At the end of the night, Dave Carter came in and when he came in, the room got real quiet and everyone was hushed. He apologized for coming in late. My friend Dave Noble nudged me and said, ‘You’re going to love this guy.’” Indeed she did, and within a matter of weeks she began working with Carter.
After literally bumping into Carter after his set had concluded, on the way out of the bar, Carter saw she played violin and according to Grammer, said, “‘You want to be in my band?’ So we had a five-piece band, and we often outnumbered the audience, and there were a bunch of gigs that we did where the only one who could do the gigs was me. So Dave asked one night, ‘Can you sing?’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s try it.’ We started to sing together at rehearsal, and we realized we had something special.”
Carter and Grammer were off and running. Their harmonies and stage presence were so strong, one gig led to another, and soon they had made several cross-country tours of clubs, coffee houses, and festivals. They attracted the attention of the older, seasoned veteran Baez, who took them out on her U.S. tour of theaters.
Although they weren’t married and had an on-again, off-again relationship, “Dave was my favorite person in the whole world,” says Grammer. “I mean, this was a guy I spent every day with, in the car, at the hotel, every day, on the road, and it was a huge loss for me on a ton of different levels,” Grammer says of Carter’s sudden death.
Carter and Grammer released two albums for the Signature Sounds label, “Tanglewood Tree” in 2000 and “Drum Hat Buddha” in 2001. Both were critically praised and both received widespread college and public radio airplay.
In 2003 Grammer began working with singer-songwriter Jim Henry, but it wasn’t easy to work or tour with him while she was still living in Portland, so she moved to the Northampton area in 2005. “Dave and I had talked about moving out here, so I finally did, and almost every day I drive by the hotel where Dave died, and when I’m sitting at the Starbucks in the morning it’s right next to the funeral home where I last saw him,” she says.
As a touring contemporary singer-songwriter, Grammer has found the going is easier on the east coast, where one doesn’t have to drive 700 to 1,000 miles between gigs. Boston is within 250 miles, as are New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, all places friendly to folk singers. “Here you can drive 200 miles and be making good money,” she says.
Her current release, “Book of Sparrows,” includes a Dave Carter song, naturally, but also includes covers by Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. The album was recorded in Henry’s home studio.
Will she include more of her own songs on her next release? “I haven’t really completed a lot of my own songs, and I really only have one song to my credit. I think of myself as a writer and as a musician, and I am having a major block about marrying these two things together.
“For some reason, I haven’t been able to write many songs of my own, and maybe it’s just I’m so in awe of Dave Carter’s songwriting, the pressure to write something of that caliber is simply too great,” she says.
If she weren’t out on the road, singing Carter’s songs and the songs of other folk and popular performers, Grammer says she would be at UC Berkeley, getting her master’s in creative writing. “Or, I might be working in publishing. But what I do really well is working as a cheerleader for other people’s great work. I feel I’m a pretty good judge of talent, and I can sniff out talent pretty well. I heard something beautiful with Dave [Carter], and I did whatever it took to make sure he got heard, and that’s the kind of job I like and can do well,” she says.
So for now, she’s putting her songwriting career on hold and continuing to promote the musical legacy of a brilliant lyricist, Dave Carter.
At her Concerts at the Crossing show, “there will definitely be some Dave Carter songs, and because I’m going through a lot of his memorabilia right now, so I will tell some stories about my time with Dave. The solo shows I’ve been doing are very casual.”
In addition to Carter, of course, Grammer names as songwriters who have influenced her Princeton-raised Mary Chapin Carpenter, as well as Shawn Colvin, Richard Shindell, and Suzanne Vega. “Another songwriter I really like is Andrew Calhoun. All of these people have a gift with the language and a gift with a story. And that’s what brings me in.”
Tracy Grammer, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville. Saturday, September 26, 8 p.m. An evening of acoustic music with singer, songwriter, and recording artist. Her most recent release is “Book of Sparrows” featuring cover songs of Paul Simon, Tom Russell, Kate Power, and Dave Carter. Meg Hutchinson opens the show. $23. 609-510-6278 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.