Award winning musician Melissa Carper is heaven-sent and Arkansas bound
Written by J. L. James
Photography courtesy of Sad Daddy
The bass Melissa Carper manhandles stands nearly a foot taller than she. Her raspy, classic country voice scratches and rises through whatever country, blues, folk or bluegrass melody she’s created for whichever of the several musical outfits to which she belongs. In May, she released her first solo album, “Arkansas Bound.” It’s an independent release funded through Kickstarter. She learned to play claw hammer banjo, her first lesson from her Camptown Ladies bandmate Gina Gallina, for her solo album. On June 20 she will accompany Joe Sundell, Rebecca Patek, and Hot Springs favorite Brian Martin when they perform at Maxine’s Live as Sad Daddy.
Carper began playing music around the age of seven with her family in her home state of Nebraska. The band, the Carper Family, a name she would later recycle into an Independent Music Award-winning act, was composed of her mother, Sheila Carper, her two brothers, Jon and Jason Carper and herself. Her father, Roger Carper, was meticulously involved with the band and served as their manager. The original Carper Family played mostly classic country such as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, two major musical influences for Carper. As Carper evolved as a musician, she began writing songs. One country musician in particular has been a major influence on her as a songwriter. “When I was 20 or so my dad bought me the complete collection of Jimmie Rodgers,” Carper said. “I’d say Jimmie Rodgers is one of my biggest influences, especially influential on my songwriting.”
Carper played guitar in the family band, but in her school orchestra she gravitated toward the stand-up bass. “I wanted to play a big instrument,” Carper said. “There’s something about the wood and the percussive sound. The tone; it’s pretty much a different instrument from the electric bass.”
Bandmate Brian Martin said what struck him about Carper is the way she controlled an instrument that was significantly larger than she is. “I thought she was a little badass bass player,” Martin said. “She was manhandling it. I hadn’t seen anybody do that.”
Carper majored in music performance at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. She studied classical bass under renowned bassist Rusty White. In college Carper also began to pay attention to classic jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. While she’s always been a vocalist, Carper has had a bit of a journey in the transition from rhythm section to solo artist. “I’ve been in a lot of bands that have a front person,” Carper said. “I never thought I had that personality.” Any suspicion about Carper’s abilities as a front person are shattered just a couple minutes into “Arkansas Bound.” Her newly established technique on the claw hammer banjo and her adept vocal stylings present themselves with vigor and fortitude.
The album’s title and first track are inspired by Carper’s feelings about leaving the city and returning to Eureka Springs, Ark., which she did this spring. As a musician with an adventurous spirit Carper has lived in several location in the South and Midwest. She grew up in Nebraska, lived in Topeka, Kan. and had a stint in New Orleans where she met Grayson Klouber, founder of the hillbilly bluegrass crew, Mountain Sprout. Carper got her first taste of Arkansas when she accompanied Mountain Sprout to Eureka Springs after Hurricane Katrina blasted through New Orleans. “I moved to Eureka Springs, Ark. in my mid-20s and started hearing old-time music for the first time in my life,” Carper said. She joined with banjo player Gina Gallina, fiddler Rebecca Patek and guitarist Mike Hopper to form Camptown Ladies.
In the winter of 2009 while living in Austin, Texas, Carper joined Jenn Miori-Hodges and Beth Chrismen to form her family band’s namesake, The Carper Family, which is going strong to this day. The Carper Family won Independent Music Awards Best Country Album for “Back When” in 2011, received the popular vote for Best Country Album for “Old- Fashioned Gal” in 2013 and performed on Prairie Home Companion in November 2013. The band will play a couple festivals this year including the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas.
More locally, Carper’s talents will be on display as the bass player for Sad Daddy on June 20. “What makes Sad Daddy so fun,” Carper said, “is that we have three strong song writers in the band.” Carper, Martin and Sundell are all songwriters, and they have a great time playing each other’s compositions.
Martin said that Carper’s songwriting, musical and vocal contributions are invaluable. “She has an old classic country voice,” he said, “but with a little Leadbelly in it. It’s got emotion in it. It feels real.” Martin said that Carper’s “authentic tongue-in-cheek humor” makes her original compositions and her interpretations of traditional songs original. “It’s an interesting twist and humor she puts on these 100-year-old songs,” Martin said.
Carper said she’s excited about her move back to Arkansas after living in Austin for about six years. “I’m just tired of living in the city,” Carper said, the strain in her voice evident. “I miss the country up here. I lived in Arkansas almost 15 years and I just missed it.”
When she’s not playing music Carper spends her time enjoying and learning about nature. She has taken several wilderness and primitive skills classes. She prides herself on being able to build a debris hut and start a bow drill fire. Carper said she’d like to learn how to live off the land, but, she admitted, “I’m not very good at it.” She’s ambitious about starting a line of herbal products she’d call “Dr. Daddy.”
If readers would like to know more about Carper, her bandmate suggests a simple method: “Anything you need to know about Melissa,” Martin said, “you just need to show up and stand in front of her bass. When she thumps that bass, you’ll find out real quick.