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Tracy Grammer debuts new songs at The Parlor Room

  • Folk-music veteran Tracy Grammer, of Greenfield, unveiled some new songs when she performed last Friday at The Parlor Room in Northampton. With her were Jim Henry, left, on mandolin, Lorne Entress on drums and Paul Kochanski on bass. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tracy Grammer’s new album, “Low Tide,” contains mostly original songs, a first for the longtime folk performer.



Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2017

Folk veteran Tracy Grammer has enjoyed a stellar career built on her voice, her fiddle and guitar playing, and her imaginative arrangements of other people’s songs — particularly the work of the late Dave Carter, her former musical and life partner, who died in 2002.

“I was always more comfortable banging the drum for Dave Carter’s songs, being a cheerleader, just like I was in high school,” Grammer told the crowd at The Parlor Room in Northampton last Friday. “I still have the skirt.”

But after releasing a number of albums and EPs since 2002, on which she sang additional songs by Carter and a few other songwriters, Grammer has spent the last few years writing some of her own tunes, which she debuted at The Parlor Room in anticipation of the release of her new disc, “Low Tide.”

Those songs, along with some Dave Carter tunes and a selection of other songs, got a warm reception from the standing-room-only crowd. Grammer was backed by her longtime collaborator Jim Henry on guitar, mandolin and harmony vocals, Paul Kochanski on bass and Lorne Entress on drums. All three played on her new album, which she coproduced with Henry.

Grammer, a onetime Shutesbury resident now living in Greenfield, opened the show with a couple Dave Carter songs, “Shadows of Evangeline” and “Ordinary Town,” the latter one of Carter’s most well-known songs: a portrait of the parochialism of a small community, a sort of musical version of Upton Sinclair’s “Main Street.” Then she began describing what led to her first album of original material.

Songwriting “was a pretty painful process, something I hadn’t expected to be doing at this point in my career,” she said. “But in 2014, I went through some difficult relationships, and some other things happened, so there was a lot to think about.

“It was a rich year for me in 2014,” she said with a rueful laugh. “Rich with sorrow and grief and a sense of ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”

In “Hole,” for instance, built around a minor-chord progression on her acoustic guitar, she sang about a love broken by her inability to moderate her intensity: “I never mean to but somehow I always spill the loving cup / It’s in some passionate exchange, it’s in the way I don’t let up.”

As Henry added some stinging notes on electric guitar, Grammer segued into the chorus: “Cause I bruise them, every one / There’s a hole in the palm of my love / I cut them; they run / Through the hole in the palm of my love.”

The slower “Were You Ever Here,” which Grammer gently fingerpicked on her acoustic, lamented the emotional distance of a former partner: “Tell me something you want / Tell me something you feel / I thought that was part of the deal … were you ever here?”

Some jokes, too

It wasn’t all sturm und drang. For “Forty-niner,” Grammer, as part of a songwriting project she was involved in at the time, visited a California casino, and she’s sketched an acid portrait of “urban Forty-niners” trying to strike it rich under the watchful eyes of security personnel. In its tumbling wordplay and constant rhymes, it has a distinctly Dave Carter-esque feel.

And Grammer lightened the mood with her own jokes, while adding that playing with a band — something she rarely does live — “gives these songs some new energy.” She also said she wanted to “show off the talent” of her fellow musicians by having them do a few songs.

Kochanski, the bassist, then took the lead by singing one of Jim Henry’s songs, the countryish “Drive-In Movie Picture Show,” while Henry sang a new song of his, the swing-flavored “Since You’ve Been Gone,” which he played on acoustic guitar.

Grammer showcased her chops on fiddle on that song and on a medley of fiddle tunes she and Henry have been playing for years. That instrumental back-and-forth — Kochanski chipped in with a great solo on bass — brought a huge ovation, which Grammer acknowledged before quipping, “Alright, that’s enough happiness.”

“That’s what you get for leaving the boys in charge,” Henry responded. “We don’t deal with our feelings at all — it’s all about having fun.”

Fans of Grammer and Henry — they played regularly as a duo for about 10 years after Dave Carter died, but do so only periodically today — know that their banter is a big part of their shows. On Friday, introducing one of her new songs, Grammer mentioned she’d taken a two-month tour this fall with her cat, including bringing the cat’s litter box in her car.

“I didn’t go on that tour,” Henry joked. “I’m not litter-box friendly.”

Laughs aside, the most poignant moment of the night might have come when Grammer introduced “Good Life,” a song she wrote in memory of her late father, with whom she had had a difficult relationship when she was younger, but one they patched up to a degree in later years through phone calls and emails.

“My dad was a dreamer, who didn’t really act on those dreams,” she said. “But the last conversation I had with him [in 2013], he was describing this peach he was about to eat, and how good it looked and smelled, and he was so in the moment … cancer can clarify things in that way.”

The song, written from the perspective of her father, ended with Grammer repeating the line “I had a good life” to a beautiful descending bass and chord progression on her acoustic guitar.

The Parlor Room show included some of Grammer’s other new songs as well as older ones like “The Verdant Mile,” a memorial to her time with Dave Carter, and “The Mark,” a song for which Grammer and Henry composed music to lyrics by Kate Cell; it’s something of a folk-rock anthem to which Henry added soaring lines on electric guitar.

Grammer closed with another classic she once performed with Dave Carter, “Gentle Arms of Eden,” and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” She and the band also did a version of “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond — one of the first songs she ever learned on guitar, she said, which she first picked up when she was about nine. She’d been inspired by her father, who was also a guitarist and would play for the family.

“In that way, maybe this is our song, my dad and I,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. 

For more on Tracy Grammer, visit tracygrammer.com. She and Jim Henry will perform at First Night Northampton on Dec. 31 at the Unitarian Society at 9:15-10 p.m. and 10:15-11 p.m.