A musical force equipped with the soulful vocals of Janis and the guitar slinging skills of Stevie Ray, Carolyn Wonderland reaches into the depths of the Texas blues tradition with the wit of a poet. She hits the stage with unmatched presence, a true legend in her time.
She’d grown up the child of a singer in a band and began playing her mother’s vintage Martin guitar when other girls were dressing dolls. She’d gone from being the teenage toast of her hometown Houston to sleeping in her van in Austin amid heaps of critical acclaim for fine recordings.
Along with the guitar and the multitude of other instruments she learned to play – trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, lap steel – Wonderland’s ability to whistle remains most unusual. Whistling is a uniquely vocal art seldom invoked in modern music, yet it’s among the most spectacular talents the human voice possesses.
That vocal proficiency was well-established in the singer’s midteens, landing her gigs at Fitzgerald’s by age 15. She absorbed Houston influences like Little Screamin’ Kenny, Albert Collins, Lavelle White, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, Little Joe Washington, “borrowed” a car to sneak out and jam, ended up swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt at Houston’s Local’s on White Oak, got involved in the underground theater scene becoming the first “Photochick” in Jason Nodler’s “In the Under Thunderloo” and soaked up touring bands like the Paladins, Los Lobos, and the Mad Hatter of Texas music, Doug Sahm. Her music played in television series such as “Time of Your Life” and NBC’s “Homicide.” The Lone Star State was as credible a proving ground for blues in the 1980s and 90s as existed, especially in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, and Lou Ann Barton all in their prime. By the following decade, Austin’s blues luster thinned, but Houston, always a bastion of soul and R&B, boasted the Impferial Monkeys with the effervescent Carolyn Wonderland as ruler of the jungle.
In the early 1990s Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone’s in Austin. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club’s post-Stevie Ray Vaughan stable, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, after a run in with black ice and a semi that wound young Miss Wonderland in the hospital, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium. Besides, Doug Sahm had told Carolyn while they were signing autographs together at the High Sierra Music Festival she ought to move to Austin, as it was the land of free guitar lessons. She was there in months.