By Eleni P. Austin
Carla Olson has been earning her keep as a musician since her teens. The last couple of years have been particularly prolific. 2022 found her producing and performing Americana Railroad, a collection of rockin’ train songs that included heroes and friends like John Fogerty, Rocky Burnette, James Intveld and the Dust Bowl Revival. A few months later she and Stephen McCarthy partnered for their debut album, Night Comes Falling. It landed on plenty of critics’ year-end Top 10 lists. Now, she’s returned with Have Harmony, Will Travel 3, the third in a series that has her collaborating with old compadres and like-minded artists.
Carla, grew up in Austin, Texas, blocks away from the railway. A source of inspiration, the click-clack rhythm of the trains soothed her to sleep at night a had her daydreaming of more exotic and cosmopolitan cities in her waking hours. She took to music as a kid, starting with Classical piano and jumping over to acoustic guitar in order to emulate her earliest musical touchstones, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. By high school, she switched to electric guitar and began playing in local bands.
Following graduation, college and a brief stint in Italy, she returned to Austin and formed The Violators with (future Go-Go) Kathy Valentine. The friends lit out for Los Angeles as soon as possible. It was there they formed The Textones, a seminal, Roots-Rock combo that included ex-Dwight Twilley Band member, Phil Seymour (R.I.P. to both men, towering Gods of Power Pop), Not long after, Kathy was offered a spot as bassist for the Go-Go’s just before the all-girl Poppy-Punk five-piece hit the big time.
The Textones endured other line-up changes, but Carla persevered, refining a sound that blended Country, Folk, Blues and straight-ahead Rock & Roll. They began making a name for themselves in L.A.’s thriving club scene, gigging at venues big and small, like The Whisky, Madame Wong’s and The Starwood. One fan who was immediately entranced by Carla’s cool blonde beauty was none other than Bob Dylan.
He asked her to appear in one of his very first videos, “Sweetheart Like You.’ As partial payback, he gave her an unreleased song, “Clean-Cut Kid.” It appeared on The Textones debut, Midnight Mission, which arrived to critical acclaim and modest commercial success in 1984. Following their sophomore effort Cedar Creek, Carla stepped away from the band to pursue a solo career. Well, sort of…
Initially, she partnered with former Byrds frontman, Gene Clark for their ridiculously wonderful So Rebellious A Lover record. A groundbreaking Americana album (long before that term was coined) it drilled down on their undeniable earthy and ethereal vocal chemistry. But commercial success proved elusive and just as they were beginning a follow-up record, Gene died in 1991 at age 41.
In the last 30 years, Carla has successfully pivoted between production work (Davis Gaines, Mare Winningham, Phil Upchurch) She also teamed with former Rolling Stones guitarist, Mick Taylor for a couple of well-received albums, Too Hot For Snakes and Ring Of Truth. She stayed busy behind the scenes, producing and playing recording sessions with everyone from Barry Goldberg, Percy Sledge and Joe Louis Walker. In 2013, the first volume of Have Harmony Will Travel appeared, seven years later, volume two arrived, each a mix of favorite cover songs. In the interim, The Textones (including Kathy Valentine) released their long-awaited, third long-player, Old Stone Gang in 2013. Now, she’s back with a third volume in the Have Harmony series.
This time out, the album is split into two distinct sections labelled Guitars, Guitars, Guitars and Other Voices. The record is off to a rollicking start when she is joined by guitarist Craig Ross on the Broken Homes shoulda-been-a-hit, “In Another Land.” Strafing guitars, throbbing bass and kaleidoscopic keys are wed to an urgent backbeat. Carla’s vocals swagger with authority as she takes a smug womanizer to task: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, you’ll be an empty man in your broken home.” As the drums lock into a tribal tattoo, on the break, Craig unspools a spiraling solo atop wheezy Hammond B3.
Carla offers a distaff spin on a couple of British Invasion classics, The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” On the former, a cataclysmic beat coalesces around windmilling guitars, thundering bass and Carla’s feral vocals. Lyrics like “You took advantage of my trust in you when I was so far away, I saw you holding lots of other girls and now you’ve got the nerve to say that you still want me, well be, but you gotta stand trial,” takes an omniscient view of another duplicitous lover. As the arrangement gathers speed, Gary Myrick’s guitar solo revs and retreats, ricocheting through the calibrated chaos until the whole thing shudders to a halt.
On the latter, low-slung rhythm guitars collide with Texas guitar-slinger Jake Andrews’ squally lead guitar licks, downcast piano, rumbling bass, chunky percussion and a propulsive beat. Carla’s vocals display a hint of Jagger-esque snarl and revolutionary lyrics written 55 years ago feel tailor-made for these dangerous, divisive days: “Hey, think the time is right for violence revolution…” Electric sitar threads through the mix as Jake’s cyclonic solo reaches stratospheric heights on the break. As the track concludes, he confidently weaves little sonic fillips that suggest a subtle homage to Stones guitarists past and present, before powering down with aplomb.
Former Sheryl Crow guitarist Todd Wolfe partners with Carla on “Lead Me.” A Bluesy ramble, it toggles between a Gospel soul-shouter and a Rockabilly rave-up that shares some musical DNA with Elvis Presley’s early classis “Mystery Train.” Stuttery slide guitar is quickly supplanted by roiling rhythm riffs, agile bass, staccato handclaps and a choogling backbeat. It’s tempting to assume that lyrics like “Lead me out of darkness, lead me to the light, wrap me in the wings of the angels shining bright,” are the words of a sinner searching for salvation from a higher power, in order to avoid temptation. But as the song progresses, urgent entreaties shift from the spiritual to the secular, painting a vivid portrait of these precarious times: “Lead me from the bankers that stole my home away, take me off the street where I live both night and day, guide me to a place where they don’t spit or shout, help me turn my life around, just help me work it out/Lead me to a place where I won’t be outlawed, where my vote is counted and I won’t be ignored, lead me out of danger, tyranny, deceit, can you hear the sound of freedom’s marching feet?” Todd executes a lithe and acrobatic solo on the break that lifts the song into interstellar overdrive.
The best of the guitar songs, in fact the most thrilling song on the record is Carla’s tough-minded rendition of The Zakary Thaks’ epochal “Face To Face.” The Corpus Christi Garage band was, at best, a regional sensation in the mid ‘60s, but it’s hard to understand why they never hit the big time, since they mined the same musical territory as The Who and The Yardbirds. Distilling elements of Psych, Surf and Power Pop, the anthemic melody is powered by a pummeling beat, thrumming, over-under-sideways-down bass lines and chiming 12-string guitars. Carla enlists fellow Texan and legendary guitar hero Eric Johnson who kicks loose two epic solos that scratch, sting and scorch, threatening to spontaneously combust.
The second part of the record finds Carla partnering with some favorite vocalists. Harvey Shield and the late B.J. Thomas lend a hand on “(Just Like) Romeo And Juliet” and “Cool Water,” respectively. Two songs, “It Makes Me Cry” and “A Love That Never Blooms,” were co-written by Carla and ex-Hollies lead vocalist Allan Clarke. They also split vocal duties on “…Cry,” a mid-tempo groover that opens with lonesome harmonica, liquid guitar riffs, spidery bass, burnished piano and a loping rhythm.
As they trade verses, poignant vignettes emerge offering a stinging indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. Their vocals dovetail on the chorus, which cogently concludes change must come from within: “I’m looking way down deep within, and then I’m looking out, then I feel I wanna cry and feel I wanna shout, everybody sees, but nobody cares, how can we all just walk on by, leaving them to what might be, with no one on their side.” Former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber unspools a couple of moodily elegant solos.
“A Love…” opens with this cutting and sublime couplet: “From a garland of indifference comes the fragrance of deceit a bouquet of unfulfilled promises lay scattered at my feet.” Shawn Barton Vach shadows Carla’s lonesome ache on this floricultural lament, which is anchored by Laurence’s rippling arpeggios, nimble bass lines and a sturdy backbeat.
Carla leans on I See Hawks In L.A. vocalist, Robert Rex Walker, Jr. on “Stronger.” As his rugged tenor washes over her warm contralto, searing lap steel, lowing bass, plangent piano and wistful Wurlitzer lattice atop flinty bass and a tick-tock beat. The chorus takes the high road: “If I’m getting smaller, it’s because I’m leaving you today, if I’m getting stronger, I remembered what to say, it might be that I’m stronger, but not today.” But as their vocals intertwine, the song suffused with acquiescence and regret.
The record closes out with a tender triptych of sorts. Three live songs from 1987 featuring Carla and ex-Byrds vocalist Gene Clark. Their partnership had just taken flight with the album, So Rebellious A Lover, but before they could create a follow-up, Gene died of a bleeding ulcer, while battling throat cancer, at age 41. Armed with a couple of acoustic guitars, courtly notes echo and sway on “Gypsy Rider.” An ode to the open road, Gene takes the lead, forsaking love for the allure of adventure: “Gypsy rider sing your two-wheeled symphony, you know there’s nothing to explain, she should have known by now, you’re just a vagabond, you may never pass this way again.”
Del Gato is a not-so-veiled excoriation on the treatment of Native Americans. The nuanced narrative involves a young, 20th century warrior self-aware enough to know his days are numbered. Carla’s pliant harmonies wrap around some hard-won observations: “Structured political, our children they ridiculed, they teach them of sins and to lie, Their schools built by fools, but by breaking the rules, like a fox, I am forced now to hide, and I just ride in from a hard southwestern ride, my face torn by sand storms and pride.”
The set concludes with a pitch-perfect rendition of The Byrds chestnut, “Set You Free This Time.” Ragged guitars jangle and chime, and labyrinthine, almost Dylanesque lyrics like “I could never find a chance to choose between a way to win or a thing to lose” feel all the more bittersweet now, knowing that Gene wasn’t long for this world. An elegiac end to a fine record.
Carla relied on a wolfpack of pickers and players to bring her vision to fruition here, including Benjamin Lecourt and Mike Hemmert on drums, Jimmy Ashhurst, Tony Marsico, Paul Marshall, Lou Castro on bass, as well as Skip Edwards on keys, Mike Thompson on piano, plus James Intveld, George Callins, Jonathan Lea, Joe Read and Mike Clinco on guitar and the legendary Mickey Raphael and Allan Clarke on harmonica. Carla, of course, sang, played all manner of guitar and produced the album.
The music on Have Music, Will Travel 3 is all over the map, and that’s a good thing. British Invasion songs happily co-exist alongside tear-stained laments, Garage Rock anthems and one-hit wonders. Carla’s generosity of spirit shines through every track, whether she’s center-stage or ceding the spotlight to her talented comrades. It’s all too beautiful.