Lake Tahoe based performer, Carolyn Dolan, has been entertaining audiences for over 25 years as both a vocalist and harmonica player. Performing American Roots music, (jazz, blues and country), she has opened for Bruce Springsteen’s sax player Clarence Clemmons; sung alongside country singer Colin Ray; backed up the Gatlin Brothers; and played for the Western Swing Society with many of Bob Will’s musicians. After leading folk and rock’n roll bands for many years, Dolan created the Outpsyders (sic), her original Western Swing, Rockabilly and Bluegrass band. The band released 2 CDs and was voted Best of Tahoe Country Band in 1995 and 1996. In 1995, Dolan was voted Best of Tahoe Female Singer. For her outstanding contributions to preserving and promoting Western Swing Music, in 2015 she was inducted the Western Swing Hall of Fame in her hometown of Sacramento, California.
After twelve years leading and managing the group, Dolan decided to dive deeper into blues and jazz, and created a blues and R & B band, Carolyn Dolan and Big Red in which she sang jazz standards and developed her unique harmonica style. In 2015, Dolan released her debut crossover jazz album, How Deep is the Ocean with members of the Reno Jazz Orchestra and pianist, Peter Supersano. The album is a mix of swing, jump blues, and sultry ballads with a taste of R&B.
In addition to performing, Dolan is an early childhood music educator, and for over fifteen years, has taught toddler,preschool and early elementary music programs throughout the South Lake Tahoe school district.
We caught up with her in South Lake Tahoe, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter.
How old were you when you were exposed to music?
"I grew up in Sacramento with every kind of genre of music in the house. My dad played big band music on the weekends and my parents used to dance in the kitchen. My influence as a kid was the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five – that was the popular music when I was growing up."
And when you were a kid, were you singing?
"I was drawn to music from a young age. I was a dancer from age seven through college. My brother had a clarinet and I tried out for fifth grade band and loved it so much, I told my mom that I wanted to take band in summer school. She about died, because I would never want to go to summer school, except I wanted to play
with a band. The next year my parents got a piano and I started taking piano lessons. That’s when everything opened up musically because then I could read,
understand theory, baselines, chords and harmony -- that really opened the door to singing, writing my own stuff and eventually,even though I was dancing, musical theatre in high school. So I was singing and dancing."
Classical ballet or modern?
Everything: jazz dance, classic ballet,and modern. I was also heading down to the clubs to see what kind of music was happening and that’s where the whole harmonica story began. At 18, I went downtown to see this band called Little Charlie & The Nightcats play and that’s when everything changed...
Were you introduced to Rick Estrin?
"I didn’t know him at the time. I used to just go down and see the band, I was so wowed by the music. That was the first time I’d heard Chicago blues. I wasn’t familiar with that style of music but I was always into music, and that took it to the next level. I got so hooked on the band, even though I wasn’t 21, I’d go down with a fake ID and listen almost every chance I could. Rick and Charlie were already pretty established; the band was probably ten years into their career. And I decided to pick up the harmonica and start playing."
How did this happen?
"I had a friend who played harmonica. I’d go to his house and he played Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee records, which was more mind-opening music. Sonny Terry became another big influence of why I picked up the harmonica. I loved the country blues and this influenced my playing it in folk bands."
Were you playing harmonica in folk bands?
"I started singing in folk bands in Sacramento and hearing the country blues was very
fitting to add harmonica into a lot of that music."
How did you learn the harp?
"I was self-taught. My friend who had the harmonica showed me a few licks and we practiced. Once I got a harmonica (Hohner Special 20), I could understand it because I’d played the piano. I learned to play cross harp, 2nd position, the blues style; you play a fourth above the key that the band is playing in. So, I’d be in my car with a cassette tape of John Lee Hooker, trying to play along and figure out the licks and how to play the instrument. I really learned by listening, and because I had an ear from playing piano, it was easy for me to pick out the notes."
Besides piano and harp, do you play any another instrument?
"I used to play guitar in my teens, and also played rhythm guitar in The Outpsyders.
Music was always natural for me to adapt an instrument to.
Do you consider your voice to be your first instrument and harp the second instrument or vice-versa?
"I’d say I’m a singer that can dive into all kinds of genres but I’ve always had the
harmonica by my side to accompany me on stage.
Your first band played folk rock and roll. So were you the front man?
"We were like the Peter, Paul and Mary folk group. I was more of a harmony singer.
When did you create the Outpsyders and would you please explain the name?
"While I was playing in folk groups, I was also playing in a rock band and a few country players approached me in the late 80s. We decided to put together a country
band: a six-piece western swing group with fiddle, steel, banjo upright bass and drums.
I played acoustic guitar, harmonica, and sang. As we were putting the band together
and forming our personality, we used to play so much “outside” the conventional way of playing traditional Western Swing, Rockabilly and Bluegrass tunes, that we called it the Outpsyders. It grew into a sort of “psycho-delic/western” approach to the music. Our motto became The Continuing Adventures of Texadelic Psycho Western. We didn’t want to infringe on the original Outsiders name, so we changed the spelling and branded it for our group."
Twelve years later, you created Carolyn Dolan and Big Red. How did that affect your particular harmonica playing style?
While I was leading the Outpsyders, some of us in the band also played blues gigs on the side. I picked up a bullet mic and started playing through an amp. I got into more of the blues harmonica style -- that took years. I had to work at the blues. It was a whole different approach."
Did you play with Rick Estrin?
No, we talked about getting together. We talked about my taking lessons, but it never happened because he’s on the road so much. I live in Tahoe. If he was in Sacramento on a regular basis, I might be able to catch him!
You are soon to be the first ever female headliner for the Sun City Roseville Harmonicoots. Why are there so few women harp players?
"That’s the question that everybody asks me and I don’t know why... It has been a male dominated industry for so long. Big Mama Thornton played harmonica! And there are women blues singers who played guitar, but not too many harmonica players. Maybe that will change. And maybe there are a few out there that have been anomalies and just haven’t been recognized as part of the bigger picture. When you’re out front leading the band as a singer AND harmonica player, it raises the bar! People love to see woman playing harmonica!"
Well, there’s you, Annie Raines, Cheryl Arena. Who else is there?
"Indiara Sfair. I think she’s one of the more recognizable harmonica players that I’ve seen out there. Her technique is good and she’s putting out some really nice videos.
What kind of harps do you play?
I play Hohner Golden Melodies (thanks Steve Cohen), Crossovers and a Lee Oskar harp every once in a while. Also, Greg Heumann’s BlowsMeAway harmonica mic with the Heumann element."
Who do you listen to for inspiration?
"Oh, geez. There’s so many. Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Ford, Robin Ford’s brother
- a great harmonica player. Mark Hummel is another great player. They‘re all on the West Coast. James Cotton. Dennis Gruenling; I dig his jump swing approach on chromatic. And then there’s George “Harmonica” Smith and William Clark. As soon as I heard his stuff, I was just knocked out. When I got into playing swing so heavily, I really wanted to understand it and to play more like those guys.
Do you practice scales?
"On the piano...and I think about scales on the harmonica!
What’s your daily harmonica practice regime or isn’t there one?
"I do a little bit of warm up before the show. When I have time (and I am not being a mom), I can sit down, and I’ll think about some licks that I would like to learn, so I’ll work on that and make up some too. I listen to a lot of different harmonica players while I am driving to the gig, because that’s when I have time to really listen to stuff. A lot of my practice time is on stage. I had the opportunity to play with Ronnie Shellist last year at the Hohner Road Show in Carson City. I started checking him out(harmonica123.com) and Adam Gussow and their on-line instructional videos. These guys are taking harmonica instruction to another level. We didn’t have YouTube and instructors from all over the world to grab from back then. I was on my own. But now with these guys online, I‘m starting to rethink a lot of my playing and become more of a technician."
Have you ever had a period when you were uninspired and you felt as though you were playing the same riffs every time?
"Yes, definitely. I think having other musicians/harmonica players to bounce off of is really important. That’s how you get past those blocks."
What’s it like being an opening act?
"Humbling. You know that you are there for the headliner — you are the warm up. So I
appreciate those opening act gigs but then I also take it with a grain of salt because I
know I am there for the support."
When and how did you become an early childhood music educator?
"I dreamed about playing the harmonica and I picked it up. I had a dream about
teaching kindergartners and 10 years later I was teaching them! I wanted to teach music, so I went back to school and got into the early childhood education field. I had the harmonica with me too. Isn’t that interesting? I had separate dreams about those two things and there I was simultaneously doing both. It’s important for me to teach music because some of these kids growing up have never been exposed to music in their home. It’s amazing to me how music can bring such joy and enthusiasim to the classroom and as a part of the social-emotional development of the child. They get a chance to express themselves in a dynamic way through music than they would normally do at school. And adding the harmonica to the curriculum is very exciting for them and something they can approach on their own. It’s so fun to reveal the sounds from the harmonica and the kind of music it can make. I hope they find their voice like I have found mine."
What has music done for you?
"It’s brought me relationships with people from all walks of life. I found that music was always the bridge to everything, a platform for relating to people on all different levels. Everybody comes together to hear a song they can relate to -- it
doesn’t matter what demographic or socioeconomic background you’re from. Music
crosses the barriers in our society. I always thought what a cool thing to be able to
relate to the world in such a dynamic way that brings people together from everywhere."
Margie Goldsmith, an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Harmonica
Happenings can be reached at:email@example.com