Dave would have been 54 on Aug. 13.
Dave Carter’s hair was out of control. A year ago, his musical partner Tracy Grammer had joked to me that their burgeoning musical career was “a little frazzling right now, just ‘cause it’s all sort of overwhelming. You can see it in Dave’s hair.” She laughed as she pointed at his frizzy, near-Lovett mane. “You want to know how we’re doing? Just check out the hair.”
On Wednesday night, at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, the hair was a sagging mushroom, a white man’s ‘fro. “He reminds me of someone I saw on TV, when I was a kid,” a neighbor mused. I tried to remember which one was the Monkee with the hat—Micky Dolenz, or Mike Nesmith? Dave was the Monkee without the hat.
He’d probably just not had time to see a barber. He and Tracy had been touring almost constantly since the 2001 release of drum hat buddha, both as a duo and as featured players in Joan Baez’s band. He expected to make some time soon, to slow down.
The Vienna show turned out to be their last. Afterward, the couple went to Massachusetts to prepare for Saturday’s Green River Folk Festival in Greenfield. Dave went out for a run on Friday morning and died of a heart attack at noon. He was a few weeks shy of his 50th birthday.
There were no specters of death in Dave Carter’s life: no excessive lifestyles (Dave once told me, “A lot of people would say that casually lighting up a joint every few hours is like walking in and out of the spirit's house without knocking, much less calling to say you're coming: You can have every expectation that he will take umbrage”), no personal dramas, no risky air travel. Nothing wilder in their lives than that hair.
On Wednesday, my friend and I got to Jammin’ Java late. Fortunately for us, the show was late as well. Dave and Tracy, on the few occasions when I saw them, spent a lot of time, onstage and off, conferring over nitpicky details. Tracy was a perfectionist. Dave was…well, Dave was Dave: avowedly mystical, a trickster serious to the core, someone with his fuzzy head always up in dreams.
When I first met them, at an interview last year for Dirty Linen magazine, I was struck by their complementary natures. Tracy, with affection and no trace of malice, could poke, without skewering, those clouds that seemed to emanate from Dave’s lofty brow. Even Dave often prefaced his statements by “This is going to sound a little weird, but…” Tracy was the one who talked about the fun of singing karaoke, her fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan. I’ve never met another folk musician who loved studio work like Tracy, who was classically trained—a violinist, really, not a fiddler—and who used her theatrical experience to add polish to the performance. She was—she is—firmly grounded, deeply talented, and seemingly utterly willing to live in Dave’s cloud-cuckooland without it engulfing and smothering her. He needed her as much as she needed him.
He was a creditable guitarist and banjo player and a better singer than he ever realized, but a truly gifted songwriter, adept at both melody and lyric. He was also a master salesman, though it’s not the first term you’d think of to apply to him. He created his own myth—“the Carlos Castaneda of American music”—both by what wrote and by how he presented himself.
At Wednesday’s show, I became antsy around the fourth time Dave introduced a song by saying, “This one came from this dream I had….” My exasperation was born of jealousy: What writer doesn’t want to be on God’s direct-mail list? The interview we began last summer had spun off into a few e-mail exchanges in which I found myself doing less interviewing and more wisdom-seeking. I let the discussion drop, believing that this wasn’t the setting to learn what Dave might have to teach.
I asked him, in one of those late e-mails, about his Chinese zodiac sign. An old press kit had revealed that Tracy was an “earth monkey.” Dave replied: “Tracy knows the answer to this one, too (I'd ask her this stuff but she's in Oregon and I'm in Colorado right now). I know I was born in a dragon year, but I don't remember what element. I think it might be fire, but maybe I just like the sound of ‘fire dragon.’"
It looks like Dave was a water dragon. His birthdate was in his obituary: He was born Aug. 13, 1952. He came of age in Texas and Oklahoma, the child of an evangelist and a mathematician. He attended the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He and his cello once hitched a ride from Merle Haggard. He taught English at the University of Oklahoma, to athletes—as he put it in his concert banter the other night, “English as a second language.” He settled in Portland, Oregon, playing in local bands and developing a legendary presence at open mikes. He claimed to have gotten serious about music after a vision of his dead grandmother. When he met Tracy in 1996, he found his cosmic twin. When I Go, recorded in Tracy’s kitchen, was released in 1998. Tanglewood Tree, which brought a signing to the prestigious acoustic label Signature Sounds, followed in 2000, and drum hat buddha in 2001. It was an astonishing trajectory, each album equally creative and successively more self-assured.
At Wednesday night’s show, Tracy explained that each of their albums had a “color scheme.” She saw the next one as blue and gold. The title was to be “The Moon and Seven,” but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell us what that meant. She spoke with us after the show about how she and Dave would be making some time in September to work on songs for the new album: “Dave can’t write on the road.” She said they’d be back our way in October to play at the Birchmere, where they’d last appeared with Baez.
We caught up with Dave on our way out. When one of us mentioned the Baez show, he told us of a joke he wished he’d made there. Joan had called the Reagan era “a great vacuum”; he said, “I should have said ‘No, the great vacuum was in the Hoover administration!’” He laughed broadly, a little self-deprecatingly.
“See you in October,” I said, as we waved goodbye. He turned his long-boned body toward the stage area, toward Tracy, and walked away.
Pamela Murray Winters
July 21, 2002