Last year, the city of Austin, Texas declared Jan. 17 to be "Carrie Rodriguez Day." A few of the singer-songwriter's friends showed up for the festivities. Since she was on the road this year on what would have been Carrie Rodriguez Day, she didn't mark the occasion in any special way. That's not to say she doesn't appreciate the gesture.
"It was just really sweet," she says of the party the city threw. "I went down to city hall and they gave me a certificate and I played some songs. The best part was when I got the certificate, I went to my grandmother's house and gave it to her, and she was so proud. It's great that Austin supports its musicians as well as it does. They really value their musicians. I'm not the only one to be blessed with a day. It speaks a lot to the city."
Rodriguez is plenty deserving of whatever accolades she receives. Over her decade-long career, she's performed with American roots icons such as John Prine, John Mayer, Alejandro Escovedo, Los Lonely Boys, Bruce Hornsby and Los Lobos. She's a regular on NPR programs devoted to roots music. She's regularly nominated for Americana Music Awards.
But she might not have launched her career had it not been for a seminal moment in Cleveland. After graduating from high school, Rodriguez moved from her native Texas to Oberlin to study violin, which she had played since age 5, at the Oberlin Conservatory. The transition was a difficult one.
"It was quite a shock for this Texan," she says. "In fact, I remember this funny thing. I like high heel shoes and boots. I had my mother ship them up to Oberlin. They came and my roommate was like, 'Oh Carrie, you have no idea what's coming.' Then, the snow hit, and I had to wear snow boots for four months. The weather was shocking."
She also started listening to old-time country music and that, in a way, helped her rediscover her roots.
"I would play along to old Hank Williams and Willie Nelson albums," she says. "I realized when I left Texas how important Texas music was to me. I needed to leave to understand how much it meant to me."
During her freshman year at the conservatory, Lyle Lovett played the Lakewood Civic Auditorium. A friend of her dad's, he invited her to the show and told her to bring her fiddle. He let her sit in with his Large Band during sound check.
"I realized that it was what I wanted to do," she says. "I didn't want to be in a symphony orchestra. I wanted to be in a band where I could improvise and groove and it was at that moment when I made that change in my head and started looking for schools that would be a good alternative to Oberlin. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't in his concert. I was not good. I sat in on some tune and just ate it. I was horrible. But it was inspiring, and I watched the show and was so mesmerized by his fiddle player and what she did."
So Rodriguez transferred to Berklee College of Music and started playing the fiddle. After graduating, she teamed up with Chip Taylor and toured and recorded extensively with the veteran singer-songwriter. She eventually assembled her own damn band for the 2010 live album Live & Circumstance and last year's studio effort Give Me All You Got.
But she recently went in a different direction and started recording and touring with guitarist Luke Jacobs. He backs her on her latest album, Live at the Cactus, an album recorded at the Austin club last summer. The disc veers from moody folk tunes ("'50s French Movie") to sneering ditties about tearing up the town ("Devil in Mind") and somber waltzes ("Lake Harriet").
"It's my favorite format so far that I've done in all my years of touring," she says of playing as a duo. "Because it's just the two of us, we can do anything with dynamics that we want. We can bring a tune to a dead stop in the middle and pick it back up. Our communication skills have grown from all these gigs and years on the road. We can look at each other and know what we're going to do. It's fun to make music like that. Not having a larger band, there's more pressure on me to be the main soloist, which has been really good for me. When it's time to rock, it's up to me. I like that."
She says the decision to release a live album rather than a studio album was an easy one.
"Luke and I put 14,000 miles on a rental van in the U.S. touring last year," she says. "I don't know how many shows we played. We went from coast to coast. Then, we went to Europe and did the same thing. It felt like a great time to document what we were doing. Ten years from now, it'll be great to have this document. Something about this duo is helping me connect to the audience more than any other group I've been a part of. I don't know if it's just the immediacy and the stories come through a little more clearly and the heart of the music goes directly to the people. It's a give-and-take thing with the audience. It's helping me connect to other people. I wanted to capture that. It's raw. It's just the two of us. There's no fixes. This is what we do."
The audience is so quiet during her performance, you hardly know anyone is in the crowd.
"The crowds have been great," she says of the current tour. "The place we played on Saturday is called Artistsphere. It used to be an IMAX theater. It's this dome-shaped theater, almost you're like in a fishbowl. I've never been in such a quiet place. You can hear people breathing. There was some poor guy opening a bag of chips. It was rough. We could all hear him. I love to create an environment where quiet is part of the show. It's like we're all in this movie waiting to see what's going to happen next, me included."
One critic called Rodriguez the "hardest working woman in American roots music." Given the tight touring schedule she's maintained for the past decade, it's a fair assessment. So how does Rodriguez feel about that?
"Tired," she says with a laugh. "I'm grateful for all the opportunities. I'm really happy on a stage playing music for people. Even though it's a pain in the butt to get from point A to point B most of the time, when I'm on stage, I'm so happy so it's worth it. The hard-working part is all good."