Carrie Rodriguez has built a career on defying stereotypes. The Austin-born singer/songwriter/fiddler transitions seamlessly from the hillbilly twang of songs like "Never Gonna Be Your Bride" to soulful Spanish ballads like "La Puñalada Trapera," a song popularized in the 1950s by her great aunt, famed Mexican bolero balladeer Eva Garza.
Rodriguez's music itself is just as tough to pigeonhole. "It's a mixture of a lot of different things," she says. "It's sort of folk-based—the songs are fairly simple, rootsy kinds of songs. Country music definitely finds its way into my music, and rock. I listen to a lot of jazz and world music as well, so I think those elements are floating around, too."
A conventional life was never in the cards for Rodriguez. Besides her great aunt, musical and artistic influences came from both sides of her family. When Rodriguez was a child, her painter mother would blast opera music while cranking out a mean Maria Callas impersonation; her father, acclaimed Texas singer/songwriter and activist David Rodriguez, would then sing her to sleep at night with political folk songs.
Rodriguez started playing violin when she was 5 years old, and eventually found her way into fiddle music. A scholarship took her to the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but the school's strict concentration on classical styles was far too restrictive for a musician who preferred sitting in her dorm room and playing a fiddle along with Hank Williams records to practicing Tchaikovsky in the rehearsal rooms. She soon transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but the real turning point for Rodriguez was an impromptu jam session with family friend Lyle Lovett, who invited her onstage to perform with his band during a sound check in nearby Cleveland. She never looked back.
Lovett would invite her to share the stage several more times, but is was a fateful in-store performance in 2001 that would truly launch the young fiddler's career. Rodriguez was backing up alt-country/roots artist Hayseed at Austin's Cheapo Discs when legendary songwriter Chip Taylor wandered in. (Even if you don't know Taylor's name, you know his songs; they've been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and even Kermit the Frog.) The acclaimed writer of American standards like "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning" wasted no time in approaching Rodriguez about a possible collaboration. The two were soon playing shows together; several albums would follow.
"At that point I had never really done anything except play fiddle and I thought that was what I wanted to do with my life—be a sideman for somebody," Rodriguez says. "Chip got me to sing a little bit of harmony in addition to playing fiddle in his show and pretty soon that led to duets and all of a sudden he wanted us to make a duet album together. That led to more duet records and many years of friendship and writing songs with him, which is really an amazing thing. I never imagined myself writing with a legend like Chip."
Rodriguez released her first solo album, Seven Angels on a Bicycle, in 2006, while she was still in Taylor's group. Though Taylor was instrumental in helping her realize her debut album, Rodriguez has "stepped out of that comfort zone," she says, with her latest album, She Ain't Me. Her second solo effort features songs co-written with artists like Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Semisonic's Dan Wilson.
Next month she'll head back into the studio to record an album of covers with producer Lee Townsend, and she's working on songs for her third album of original material.
Rodriguez is currently devoting herself to a grueling tour that finds her playing gigs as a solo artist as well as performing as part of a duo or trio. Though her tour has felt the sting of the economic downturn, it isn't slowing her down.
"People are still going to see music, and I'm so grateful for that and I'm still going out there playing, but it does affect how I can tour," she says, citing pricey baggage fees for her band's instruments and equipment. "It's almost like having two extra plane tickets just for your guitars. So it's kind of made me have to downsize the band. That being said, though, I'm actually kind of enjoying the challenge of finding different ways to tour. Playing in smaller tours has taught me a lot about how strong my songs are or aren't. The truth is, anyone should be able to get up there and sing their songs by themselves if they're good songs."
Besides her headlining shows, she's also opening for—and performing with—John Prine, which she says is "one of the best things I've ever done in my musical career so far. Every night I get up there and think, ‘What did I do to deserve being up here? I must have done something great in my past life.'"
Maybe, but she's doing some pretty great things in this one, too.