The “Mystery Lady” Tape

“Even in the darkest places, we are met by unexpected light, grace and help, honorable companions, and occasionally a miracle” — Carrie Newcomer

Carrie Newcomer. You are well advised to spend some time with her. It is one of those things truly worth doing.

The exact year escapes me now, call it late-1990’s. Bonnie and Max were away on one of their many adventures. I was taking care of the house, watering the plants mostly, as their home was designed with extended travel in mind. As I had done previously I went into Bonnie’s office to look thru their collection of audio tapes and albums. In one of the cassette tape drawers I found a tape with a label I have long forgotten, but it said enough to spark my interest. I took it back to the cabin and put it in my machine. 

The exact memory of that first listen is also long gone, yet I am certain I felt then as I do today about the artist whose voice I heard. The tape was not of great quality, being not a commercially produced tape; I suspect it was a 2nd generation copy of a tape or a copy made from a CD. But her voice was instantly compelling; strong, clear, expressive, down to earth. I immediately had an image in my mind of how she might look onstage at the Chautauqua Hall in August (where I used to work as the house lighting designer in the ’80’s). A rug on the wooden stage deck, she radiant in the white downlight with the dark blue toplight wash, maybe a bit of warm sidelight from the catwalks. 🙂

The music was good, the lyrics solid. Diverse topics, some serious, some humorous, some songs very moving with the kind of relationship romanticism I am such a sucker for. It was a well produced studio album with typical well played session instrumentation, her own guitar work strong without being overly virtuoso. Like her voice, clean and strong.

No name on the tape. When Bonnie and Max returned I asked her if she knew who the artist was. She did not, and in fact was unsure where the tape had come from. Bonnie being a touring musical artist herself her office drawers were full of music acquired from a lifetime of running in the national folk music circuit. So I listened to someone who I called “Mystery Lady”.

The same year I found it I gave it to Fergus, a friend and musician who also hosted a show on the local public radio station, KGNU, and asked him to try to find out who she was. After a few months with no success he returned it. So she remained the “Mystery Lady” for a long, long time. Up at the cabin access to the airwaves went dark to me when the repeater tower was moved, and I lost access to all radio broadcasts for many years, until the internet made it up there towards the end of my 21-year stay. I retired and headed south to Mexico at the end of 2013, and she was still the “Mystery Lady”, but in the years before I left I digitized and sweetened many of my old cassette tapes, including hers. So she stayed in my collection, albeit only the one album, and it has now been all over the U.S., Mexico, and Central America with me.

Then, in the summer of 2018, I find her. Twenty years later and I am housesitting in Arlington, VA. for 4 months. I am in the car running errands and I hear her voice on the radio, tuned into a local PBS station. I pull over as soon as I can and the magic happens: the DJ announces his playlist. She is Carrie Newcomer. Wow. Mystery solved. 

Subsequently I spent time researching her (not difficult she is well-known in many circles). Not only is she a very well-known musical artist but also a progressive and spiritual activist, with several humanitarian awards to her credit as well. She is prolific and still tours extensively. Her music has a depth and range of topics all over the map. I have now downloaded every album and have the great joy of listening to her over and over again. In these days of overwhelming bad news she brings a bit of sanity to my life, a way of focusing on what matters, on telling stories I want to hear.

That first tape I had labeled as “Mystery Lady” for all those years is titled “An Angel At My Shoulder” (1994). Curious as to how Bonnie Carol came to have it I continued my research and found that she and Carrie had both been in attendance at the same music festival one summer, so the assumption is that is where she acquired it.  Chance happens.

Author: RJMS

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