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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Grammer Plays Their Song
Sometimes the best way to honor the loved ones you’ve
lost is to keep doing what you were doing before you lost them. In
the case of singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tracy Grammer,
that is certainly true. She lost her musical and life partner, Dave
Carter, in July of 2002, to sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 49.
After taking about six months off from the road, Grammer realized
the best way she could honor her late partner would be to continue
to take his songs out on the road. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer had
been described by one critic as "one of the fastest rising acts
in folk music." The pair quickly caught the attention of folk
festival bookers and even the attention of the esteemed veteran of
folk music, Joan Baez. Baez insisted on touring with them in theaters
and larger venues around the U.S. and Canada.
Reached on her cell phone last week while she was driving through
Utah in the van she and Carter once shared, on her way to Massachusetts,
Grammer openly reflected on Carter’s sudden death from a heart attack
14 months ago.
"Dave had an uncle who died in a similar way, and his dad had
some bypass surgeries, but there no super young deaths like his in
his family," Grammer explains.
After Carter’s sudden death, Grammer says the first thing she wanted
to do was work out the grief with fans of his songs.
"I saw the grief as a door, and I realized there was a grief door
we all had to walk through. Within a couple of days of his death,
I was overwhelmed with E-mails from people saying how sorry they were
and how this affected them more than any other modern songwriter,"
she says. "The one thing I tried to do was take care of the fans
and so I shared my grief with them at a few select festivals last
Grammer was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival last August,
little more than a month after Carter’s passing, presenting workshops
and performing on the mainstage in a heartfelt tribute to her late
"I did one show a month. Then I stayed home for about six months,"
says Grammer, who makes her home in Portland, Oregon. "I laid
low and let my grief run its course, so I could cry when I needed
to cry. I took baby steps to coming back to the performing world,
because this job is so public, it was really important for me to sort
of fold in for a time."
In 2001, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer released "Drum Hat Buddha,"
an album that drew high praise from the critics and got them a secure
place opening shows for Baez and playing larger venues. The duo’s
earlier albums, which have all been re-released by the Massachusetts-based
folk label Signature Sounds, include "When I Go" (1998) and
"Tanglewood Tree" (2000).
Now back on the road, carrying on Dave Carter’s legacy, Grammer has
tentative plans to enter the recording studio in December. "There
are still estate matters to be to be dealt with, and there is a bit
of a legal mess being dealt with in terms of Dave’s songs," she
says. Although she does not yet have ownership of them, she expects
to have it in the coming months.
Their first big break, the deal with Signature Sounds, came about
in 1998 when she and Carter entered every songwriting contest they
could. "He won all of them," she says. At performances, "everyone
was asking, `Hey, man, where’s your CD?’ and so that summer, we recorded
`When I Go’ in my kitchen and the buzz came about fairly quickly.
Grammer sent copies of the self-produced, self-released CD to every
college and public radio DJ who requested one.
"By the time Folk Alliance came around in February of the following
year, everybody knew about the album and we were testing out various
labels," she says. "We sensed we had a great level of artistic
freedom at Signature Sounds, and the label believed in supporting
airplay for their artists. Some smaller labels don’t have a budget
Asked if she believes in an afterlife, Grammer says she’s still not
sure, but she knows she has gotten a clear message from Carter to
continue performing his songs everywhere she can. This is why she’s
back on the road. "A few days after he died, I was walking around
a pond in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I got to this point where I
felt like I had walked through a mist. I felt his presence and then
I just started to cry," she says. "I just got this overwhelming
feeling of sadness. But now, when I’m singing, I feel like he’s there
"After all, the energy has to go somewhere, and the question is
where does it go? To this day, when I’m singing, I feel like he’s
right there with me," she adds.
Grammer says she feels protected by Carter’s presence in the fifth
dimension. "I got rear-ended in the van really bad last week,"
she says, "but I wasn’t injured at all. It all could have been
so nasty. So I do feel like Dave and I are connected in a deep way,
in a way that defies a physical body."
"I’ve felt for the last year like I’m protected, everywhere I
go, and I feel like as long as I’m doing this work that’s true, singing
his songs, then I think the universe is going to stand behind me,"
While the real purpose of her current tour is to keep Dave’s songs
out there — she has only recently started writing her own songs
— Grammer says she’s having fun introducing audiences to some
songs of Carter’s that were never recorded or performed, as well as
the more familiar material from the couple’s three albums.
At her Concerts at the Crossing show on Saturday, Grammer will sing
many of Carter’s songs, and a few cover songs, but few of her own
songs, which are still works-in-progress for a forthcoming album under
her own name. Grammer, who sings and plays mandolin, violin, and guitar,
will be accompanied by Jim Henry, "who plays all kinds of stringed
instruments," she says.
"He mainly plays dobro and mandolin," Grammer says, "but
the audience will also get a lot of great stories that they haven’t
heard before and some covers. What I love to do is recognize great
writing, across any genre, to keep the show interesting and to keep
evolving as an artist."
— Richard J. Skelly
Universalist Church, Titusville, 609-406-1424. Mark Erelli opens.
$15; $5 child. Saturday, September 20, 8 p.m.
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