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Blues singer-guitarist Carolyn Wonderland plays Riverhawk Music Festival

Carolyn Wonderland performs Saturday.

Courtesy of Todd Purifoy

Carolyn Wonderland performs Saturday.

SPRING LAKE — Considering how popular blues music is, it's puzzling why so few women choose the genre as an avenue to make their musical mark.

Carolyn Wonderland doesn't understand, either. But then, she realized early on that blues probably best fit her persona as an ardent, free-spirited woman.

"I was just floored when I first heard (blues)," Wonderland, 39, said by phone earlier this week. "People who play it are all kindred spirits of some sort. You can go into a club and see someone playing for 10 people the same way they would play for a thousand. That's the kind of musician I aspired to be."

The Austin, Texas, singer-guitarist has certainly made those aspirations come true. Often mentioned in the same breath as Lone Star State legends Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wonderland's fiery brand of blues has attracted great acclaim the past few years. Some wonder why it didn't happen sooner.

"There's a process to getting established, and I don't think anyone knows exactly how it works," Wonderland said. "You rely on your instincts and luck, pretty much."

Wonderland, the Saturday headliner at the Riverhawk Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, got her start while still in high school during the late 1980s, performing with local musicians in small, smoky clubs around Houston.

But it was a move to Austin in 1993 that allowed her to find a melting pot of musical styles she had been craving. She hooked up with several local bands and was playing nearly every night of the week. But the gigs didn't pay well. The loss of her apartment lease forced her to move temporarily into her van.

"Looking back, it wasn't all that bad," she said. "It got me motivated to focus more on developing what I ultimately wanted to do musically."

In time, Wonderland's sizzling slide guitar and gutsy voice became her penultimate calling card. Every blues club owner and festival promoter wanted to add her to the bill.

Wonderland's self-produced 1994 album, Bloodless Revolution, caught the ear of Asleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson, who told her he wanted to produce her next recording. The result, Miss Understood, was a breakthrough effort that showcased the breadth of her musical interests as well as her growing confidence as a songwriter.

Wonderland's pairing with Benson continued with last year's Peace Meal, which Wonderland called "a yearlong project that was a lot of fun to make."

Wonderland insists that she's never been concerned with a quick ride to fame. She and her bandmates — Cole El-Saleh on bass and Rob Hooper on drums — perform more than 250 concert, festival and club dates a year.

"I've gotten better at being willing to take chances on stage," Wonderland said. "People come in with high expectations, and it's cool when we're able to surprise them a little bit."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

Riverhawk Music Festival

When: Performances are from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. today and Saturday and from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Sertoma Youth Ranch, southeast of Spring Lake on Myers Road (off Church Road), just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line (off Interstate 75 Exit 293).

Admission: $30 today, $50 Saturday ($25 after 6 p.m.) and $25 Sunday at the gate for adults. $20 each day for teens 13 to 17. Children under 13 admitted free with a paid adult. Single-day parking is $5 per car. Weekend passes are available at the gate.

Information: Primitive camping is available for $12 per person per night. Festival information also available at riverhawkmusic.com.

Blues singer-guitarist Carolyn Wonderland plays Riverhawk Music Festival 11/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2011 2:01pm]
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