Thursday, October 14, 2010

For a Song: Crocodile Man

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: Crocodile Man


In thinking about this week’s For a Song post, I decided that I was in the mood for a song by Tracy Grammer, with or without Dave Carter. I wanted to avoid duplication, so I needed to see which of their songs I had posted here previously. I was amazed to discover that I had only posted two songs up to now, Carter and Grammer’s I Go Like the Raven and Grammer‘s Mother, I Climbed. I also wanted to see which songs had been posted on Star Maker Machine. There, I defer to my friend Susan, who knows their story well, and always does a great job with their music. Once again, I was in for a surprise. Susan has done 10 posts on Carter and/or Grammer, but neither of us has ever covered the song that introduced me to their work in the first place. So it’s more than time for a post on Crocodile Man.

I live in New Jersey, within broadcast range of WXPN, a public radio station in Philadelphia. In the spring of 2001, they started playing this wonderful song. It had a talking blues feel on the verses, and a sung chorus. The speaker and singer was a young woman who filled this tale of running way to join the circus with first a sense of wonder, and then, as reality hit the narrator, with a sense of the seediness of it. Yet, through it all, that sense of wonder never quite goes away, and the narrator never succumbs to despair. All of this is told over a driving beat and a great hook. In a just world, Crocodile Man would have been a huge hit.

As I heard more of Carter and Grammer’s music, I began to wonder about the dynamics of their partnership, musical and otherwise. Of course, it was none of my business, and I never asked when I had the chance. As 2001 continued, I heard more of their songs on the radio, and I liked everything I heard. I found out that Dave Carter did all of the writing, and sometimes took lead vocals, while Grammer sang lead or backup, and added fills on the fiddle. In the summer of 2001, WXPN held a music festival and had them as performers. Of course, they did Crocodile Man, and the crowd loved it. They also did a song that was so new at the time that they hadn’t named it yet, and the asked for suggestions for a title from the audience. Later, I caught up with them offstage, and struck up a conversation about what to call the song. Dave Carter had something he needed to tend to, and he disappeared into the performers area. But Tracy Grammer stayed with me and continued the conversation, which proceeded to go to some interesting places. (For the record, the song was Mother, I Climbed. My title was Open Your Gate.)

In 2002, while they were on tour, Dave Carter died of a heart attack. Grammer disappeared for a little while, and then reappeared, playing and recording songs that Dave Carter left behind. I had no chance to see Tracy Grammer again until this past summer, at Falcon Ridge. I reminder her of our previous meeting, and she remembered me. That made my day. Also at the festival, Grammer debuted a song that she wrote. It was as good as anything in her catalog, and I hope that this means that she will begin to record her own songs.

Looking back on that conversation in 2001, I think I realize something. During the time that Carter and Grammer were together, he handled all of the writing as I said. But it was Grammer who took the time to speak with me, and the song we were discussing might as well have been her work. And it was. I think that Carter and Grammer’s spirits had become so entwined that it was not necessary for Grammer to do the writng. And I think that Carter’s writing probably shifted as their relationship grew. We live in a cynical age, where this kind of love is dismissed as corny. But this was one time when it really happened. It has taken me all these years to understand that.


Susan said...

Hey, Darius -

Beautifully written - I have a few things to add. Dave was definitely the lyric and melody genius, but Tracy's drive and attention to detail were responsible for them entering songwriting contests, getting radio airplay and garnering booking/management - her business acumen allowed him to be the "people person". He always said that his dream was to continue to write the songs and have Tracy sing them all - perversely, that dream came true...

Re: Crocodile Man: they told the story of having Tracy sing into a Dixie cup during the recording of that song - for the Dave Carter tribute at Falcon Ridge a few weeks after Dave died (July 2002), Chris Smither learned and sang the song and it's gone on to become one of his signature tunes (I've said that's who Tracy was channeling so many years before... :-)

When I presented Dave and Tracy in a house concert in May 2001, Mother I Climbed was brand-new (Tracy was reading from a lyric sheet) and they were trying to think of a title then too - they said they might call it Dark Womb (big whew that they didn't!)...

Susan said...

P.S. Dave also called Tracy his "partner in all things" - that speaks volumes as well... <3