Her just-released album, ‘Ramblin’ Soul’, is well-named
Austin fans of Melissa Carper consider her a mainstay of the local scene. She’s made her home on a farm near Bastrop with her longtime partner Rebecca Patek since 2020, yet despite just releasing her second solo album, Ramblin’ Soul, you don’t get the feel of any permanence.
“I’m still searching for a home, really,” Carper admits. “I’d like to buy some land in Arkansas, but one of the problems I always run into [there] is my music career often seems to stagnate a bit. I have to go back to being near a music city to feel like I’m going somewhere.”
She’s never had a problem going somewhere. Nebraska-born Carper began at a very young age.
“My mom, I think it was always her dream to be a vocalist in a band. So she had her family be her band. I was about 12 when I started playing gigs. We would play American Legions, Elks, those kinds of clubs. I had maybe one or two lessons on bass from somebody. But you know what? It’s not that hard to do really basic bass lines. What I was doing was pretty simple. I just learned the songs by ear. Both my mom and my brother played guitar. They taught me a little guitar, too.”
It was enough to make Carper decide to major in music. But before she got her degree, something else took over – call it wanderlust. Carper found herself living in Alaska, working in a fish factory. And then she drove with a friend down to the tiny Northwest Arkansas hippie haven Eureka Springs. At the time, Carper knew next to nothing about the place.
“My friend had vacationed there with his family and he thought I would like it. I’d actually just come out to him. He was the very first person I ever told that I was gay. That might have been the reason he thought I’d like Eureka because there’s a large gay population. It was really good for me to move there at that time because I could feel comfortable being who I was. It feels normal in Eureka, it doesn’t feel like it’s a big deal.”
Carper would make Eureka Springs her home base for the next fifteen to twenty years. She played in popular bands like Camptown Ladies (who made it on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion) and a wild bluegrass outfit called Mountain Sprout. But none of this meant Carper stayed put.
Carper would roam, living in New Orleans, Tucson, and New York City, but always returning to Eureka Springs. Eventually, in 2009, she made the move to Austin.
“I knew several people already that lived in Austin, my friend Gina Gallina was down there. We hung out in Arkansas a bunch, too. She was married to Wayne Hancock. So that’s one of the reasons I moved. I met more of the music community at a picking party, I actually met Jen Hodges and Beth Chrisman at this party for the first time when I was visiting and playing shows. And then it wasn’t long after that I actually moved down. I had a taste of Austin, and I had enough people I knew down there that it felt like it would be a good move to start fresh.”
Austin brought out the best in Carper. Escaping the hard-drinking Mountain Sprout, she would get sober and collaborate with many other songwriters on many projects (Sad Daddy, Buffalo Gals – her duo with Patek) but it was with the songwriting trio of Hodges and Crisman that she found the most success. The Carper Family quickly gained a widespread following.
“We started playing shows together and it did seem to be a magic combination. We could all tell that, our harmonies and everything just felt like it fit together perfectly.”
Yet at the height of their popularity, Carper bailed.
“I did. Yeah, we were getting really busy. We were doing a lot of shows and I started getting burnt out on the touring aspect of it. I was just wanting to go back to Arkansas. It happens over and over. It just has a pull for me that, you know, the country back there.”
Carper was needing change, a way to recharge the batteries.
“A big city. I just don’t like it all. You can feel the energy of everything that’s happening. And for me, it’s not peaceful enough to be around the busyness and the, you know, always the traffic. Just being in nature for me is a natural way of being. It calms me down.”
Yet after a short stint back in Arkansas, Carper and Patek would move to Nashville. It was there Carper met bassist and producer Dennis Crouch. Though Carper and Patek would make their way to their Bastrop farm during the pandemic, Carper would return to record with Crouch, who brought in a posse of Nashville’s elite to bolster Carper’s evocative songwriting. The result was Daddy’s Country Gold, her first solo record, released in 2021.
And now she’s back with Ramblin’ Soul, released November 18th on Americana mainstay Thirty Tigers.
Carper compares the two album sessions. “[Soul] was very similar actually to Daddy’s Country Gold because I did make it in the same studio, the Bomb Shelter in Nashville, with the same engineer and the same producers, Dennis Crouch and Andrija Tokic, and a lot of the same musicians – Chris Scruggs, Matty Meyer, Bill Contreras.”
Yet the albums don’t sound that similar.
“The big difference was stylistic, we were doing some different things going into R&B and soul. Andrija brought in these three backup vocalists that he uses a lot, and they’re just incredible – Kyshona Armstrong, Nickie Conley, and Maureen Murphy. And I really think that sets this album apart.”
Mentioning I hear a gospel feel makes Carper excited.
“Cool! ‘Ain’t A Day Goes By’ is sort of a gospel song. And the vocalists, they’re used to singing gospel, they do that quite a bit.”
Ramblin’ Soul is in many ways an ideal showcase for the combination of Carper’s breezy swing and vivid emotionalism. The album features a co-write from Gallina, plus covers by Odetta and Austin songwriter Brennen Leigh. But it’s unmistakably a showcase for Carper herself. And that is not a role she’s fully accepted.
The day I spoke with Carper, she was leaving on her tour, first through Texas and Arkansas (including her record release show here at The Paramount on December 2nd), then on the West Coast in early 2023. You can’t help but get the feeling that Carper is testing her confidence and commitment.
“It’s been difficult,” she admits, “to try to take, you know, lead. I was pretty comfortable in the Carper Family. I led one-third of the songs, and in Sad Daddy, I led one-third of his songs or less. And you know, I’ve been playing a bunch with Kelly Willis and Brennen Leigh and we do the same thing where we trade-off. That’s definitely more my comfort zone – not having all the attention focused on me and having to, you know, talk on the microphone. I’m still learning and I feel very awkward with it. I don’t want to be stuck [not liking] being a lead. I’d like to get comfortable with it. And so I’m pushing myself to learn how to do it.”
It’s a conundrum: the spotlight, the sidelines; inertia, movement; energy, calm – one this talented songwriter will continue to navigate – on her terms.