If you don’t know Melissa Carper’s music, you really ought to. Her recent solo album, Daddy’s Country Gold, while not bluegrass, is the kind of traditional country that bluegrass fans will appreciate. Bass player Dennis Crouch produced this album, and plays on several tracks as well.
She plays a wicked 1957 Kay bass, and has a voice that will occasionally remind you of a young Dolly, Patsy, or even Billie Holiday–but is uniquely hers.
(I’ve created an “All Things Melissa Carper” Spotify playlist. You’ll find a nice mix of country, bluegrass, old time, and country swing there. Take a listen.)
On June 10th, I was lucky enough to share some Zoom time with her and ask her a few questions.
Maggie: Are you in Arkansas?
Melissa: I’m actually in Texas right now. My girlfriend Rebecca [Patek] and I moved back here last fall. Before that, we were in Nashville for two years and then before that Arkansas. I’ve lived in Arkansas on and off for a good part of my life.
Maggie: Are you in Austin?
Melissa: About 40 miles outside of Austin, on a farm.
Maggie: Nice. What kind of farm are you on?
Melissa: It’s an organic veggie farm. It’s a small farm, but they do CSAs. I work four mornings a week. It is kind of a work-trade thing for living. Sometimes it feels hard if the weather’s not nice, but in general it’s just good to do a little physical labor and be outside.
Maggie: What’s your musical background?
Melissa: My family started all us kids pretty young. We started singing for church and we’d learn gospel songs and sing them at rest homes when we were just little kids. Then when I was 12, we started the family country band. We would play in clubs like American Legions, Elks, Moose, and VFWs. It was my mom and two my brothers and myself. We played a bunch of old country music. I started in the orchestra program in fourth grade on upright bass. They had half-size basses for kids, so I started that pretty young, too.
Maggie: My husband is an upright bass player, and he wants to know about your bass.
Melissa. It’s a 1957 Kay. It’s taken a beating over the years.
Maggie: I’ve seen you also play banjo and guitar.
Melissa: I play a little bit of claw hammer banjo, and then I play rhythm guitar. I haven’t really tried to get go beyond that. I’m in a duo, Buffalo Gals Band, with my girlfriend. I’m playing a lot of banjo and guitar because we’re just a duo. When we’re a trio, we’ll get a guitar player so that she can be on fiddle and I can be on bass.
Maggie: I also saw that on your recent album, Daddy’s Country Gold, that Billy Contreras played fiddle. How did that come about?
Melissa: Yes, he did quite a bit. Rebecca was on a couple songs, but Billy did most of it. For that whole album, there’s a bunch of Nashville musicians. Billy’s just incredible. He did some really cool things–he actually overdubbed a lot of those parts. There’s something like four different fiddle parts that he overdubbed.
Maggie: The first time I heard about your latest album was on NPR on New Music Friday. I knew about the Buffalo Gals Band, but how did you decide to do a solo album?
Melissa: I’ve only made one other solo album, back in I think 2014. It was more old-time music and kind of sparse. I’ve kind of always wanted to make a solo album that that was more orchestrated, and pick my country and swing tunes and put them together on one album. I’ve got a lot of my songs scattered all over band albums, like Carper Family albums and Buffalo Gals, and then also Sad Daddy, which is another band I play in. It’s kind of a dream album really. I just went for it and hired some amazing musicians to be on it.
Maggie: How has the past year kind of affected your practice?
Melissa: I would say at first I was stressed out by the situation. Even though I had extra time, I didn’t feel very creative. I wasn’t really writing during the first four or five months, when we were just staying home. Then when we actually moved to Texas, and I felt like my creativity started flowing again, and I started writing songs again. Now I’ve been writing, getting material ready for our next album. But, how has it affected my practice? You know, I’m not a very good practice, I hate to say. I never did practice regularly. I’ll get in phases where I do, but I don’t think it’s affected it in in a negative or positive way as far as practicing goes. Just slowing down with the schedule was kind of nice at first, and it made me want to not get too busy again, and be a little bit more particular about what kind of shows I take. I think it also made me appreciate playing music for a living and appreciate the gigs and the people that come to the shows. I realize how important it is for people to have music in their life. I think I have a new appreciation for it. We started playing gigs as soon as we could again.
Maggie: What’s your process for songwriting? Where does it start?
Melissa: Almost always with the lyrics, then the melody comes. I’ll get a first line or a phrase and then a melody naturally presents itself with that phrase. Then from there, the song just kind of evolves and the lyrics and the melodies evolve together from that point on. Occasionally with clawhammer banjo, I’ll be picking out a melody first and then I’ll put some words to that melody but that’s not my typical way of doing it.
Maggie: What’s the music scene been like for you lately?
Melissa: We actually played through the winter. Even when we moved here in the fall, places were starting to open up again. In September, there were a lot of places still closed but there were enough places opening up that we started playing quite a bit again. Then there’s a lot of outdoor venues here, too, which is nice. I’d say within the last month, things are feeling pretty much back to normal. There’s a lot of people going out to the shows now again.
Maggie: Fortunately, there has been streaming.
Melissa: Yeah, a lot of streaming shows, but that’s all right–it’s been our lifeblood. We did live streams up through April. We kept doing live streams that helped get us through.
The live streams were kind of a cool thing to add into our performances and that allowed us to reach out to our international fans and fans that live far away, and get some more fans from the live streams that would have never seen us otherwise, so that the livestream thing was pretty cool.
Maggie: What projects or performances are coming up for you?
Melissa: I’m about to go to Nashville to do a Nashville album release.
Maggie: I see you’re going to be at Station Inn in Nashville next week.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s going to live streamed, too. It’s a great venue. I’ll have a lot of the folks that were on the album playing with me, so I’m excited. Then after that, doing just a short tour around–going up to Indiana and Illinois. Then I have a few other things in that area in July. We do have a Sad Daddy album that we’re going to release early next year. Sad Daddy is actually more bluegrass than what Daddy’s Country Gold. I do write bluegrass and old time. The Sad Daddy album is more like bluegrass and old time, some of it even sounds a little jug band-y, too. It’s a four piece, and Rebecca is also in that band, and then there’s a banjo player and a guitar player. That band’s based out of Arkansas. We’re going to start the pre-orders and all the promo stuff in November, so that’s kind of getting close. I’ve been dreaming about my next little album–I’ve got the material for it, and might be able to squeeze that in this this year.
One of my many favorite songs on Daddy’s Country Gold is a song called “Would you like to get some goats?”. So, I had to ask…
Maggie: Here’s a silly question for you: Do you have goats?
Melissa: I don’t actually. I wrote that song “Would you like to get some goats?” when I was dating somebody that wanted a goat farm. It was her dream to have a goat farm, so I wrote that song for her. She actually contacted me recently and said she finally bought some goats.