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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry Captivate Amherst, Foster Dave Carter's Legacy

Grammer photo
Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry's June 2nd concert at Amherst, Massachusetts' Nacul Center for the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society was her final local appearance as a Valley resident. To the community’s good fortune, Henry, a gifted guitarist and songwriter, will continue to grace our zip codes. Two days after the concert, Grammer moved from Greenfield to northeast Pennsylvania, framing nearly a decade of involvement in the Valley that began tragically with the death in 2002 of her partner and musical collaborator, Dave Carter. In a story that has become legion in the folk music community, the couple had traveled to the Valley to play the Green River Festival in Greenfield. Carter died after a run on the rail trail bike path near their motel in Hadley.

Since then, Grammer has devoted much of her artistic energies as an advocate and archivist of Carter's exceptional body of songs. An American original (with unique cerebral wiring and Ivesian radar into the byways of American culture), Carter offered a quirky take on small-town America through lyric excursions that were both quotidian and cosmic. For him, the artistic liaison with Grammer, an accomplished violinist and vocalist, sealed the musical deal.

Although they gig together infrequently these days, Grammer and Henry have played together since 2003 (from Fairbanks, to Florida, to France, she notes). The Amherst concert showed them to be musically symbiotic (they shouldn’t let geography come between them in joining forces more often).  Seated in close quarters, the audience of 75 was wildly appreciative—they knew  a dynamic musical duo when they heard it.  Grammer and Henry (a polished vocalist and masterful guitarist) proved above all to be ensemble players. Both emphasized mutual rather than individual musical outcomes. With technique a given, they placed a premium on musical nuance and emotional immediacy. As the evening progressed and the musicians and audience bonded, Grammer and Henry relaxed and played their best.

The hour and 25 minute concert alternated Carter originals with tunes from the American roots tradition, including songs by Henry. Home to Me, affirming his attachment to the Pioneer Valley, offered a light-hearted counterpoint to Grammer’s own impending departure. Sound of the Whistle Blow, also by Henry, merits status as an American roots classic.

The duo’s celebration of Carter, which spanned his career, underscored his versatility as a songwriter. Q.E.D.—the same dude who wrote Evangeline and Ordinary Town was the progenitor of Crocodile Man.  And Grammer and Henry also performed Gypsy Rose, an anchor song on Grammer’s latest album, Little Blue Egg, a collection of stripped down tapes, recorded in Carter & Grammer’s home studio between 1997 and 2002. Henry helped Grammer digitize and otherwise resurrect the recordings, which have garnered critical acclaim and considerable play on folk radio [yes, there is such a thing].

For Henry, the road ahead promises little down time with his commitment as Mary Chapin Carpenter’s guitarist for the third summer in a row. Grammer is focusing on festivals—Falcon Ridge, Oak Grove, and Kent. She’s also devoting energy to the Dave Carter Legacy project. A nonprofit venture with Folk Alliance International, the project will celebrate and disseminate the Carter canon. My recommendation to Grammer: Broaden your own repertoire and energize Dave’s legacy by searching out and performing songs by others who share his creative impulses and commitment to song. Candidates would likely be passionate about small town America and wordsmiths with the ability to resonate and surprise. But above all, they should be advocates of song as art. Listeners should respond: "That was unexpected and elevating!"

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