Since January, Carrie Rodriguez and her touring partner, Minnesota native and guitarist Luke Jacobs, have covered 14,000 miles in their van, crisscrossing the country in support of her new record, Give Me All You've Got.
"North and south and across the middle, we've done it all," Rodriguez says. "I've seen so many strange corners of this country and been places that I don't think I would ever have seen just as a tourist. It's a special perspective and it definitely feeds the songs."
The daughter of a Texas singer-songwriter who introduced her to Lyle Lovett as a child, Rodriguez was on track to become a professional violinist by her mid-teens. After attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she met songwriter Chip Taylor ("Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning"), who invited her to play with him at Texas' legendary Gruene Hall. Once on stage, Taylor called on Rodriguez to sing with him.
"In college, I took a class called 'Singing for Non-Vocalists' because I thought it would be an easy A, and I made a C on the midterm," Rodriguez says. "When Chip asked me to play, there was no talk of singing. I'm sure I barely whispered a few notes."
But Taylor liked what he heard and continued to invite Rodriguez to join him on stage. Within six months, they were touring Europe together and making their first of several duet records. It was Taylor who eventually encouraged Rodriguez to write and record her own songs, culminating in her debut record, 2006's Seven Angels on a Bicycle. She's followed that up with four more studio albums, including a 2010 duet album with singer Ben Kyle, We Still Love Our Country.
"Chip really had to push me to get out there and be a bandleader," says Rodriguez, emphasizing that the relationship continues today. For Give Me All You've Got, he e-mailed her two songs as a gift, "I Cry For Love" and "Cut Me Now." She recorded them both, as well as two songs she co-wrote with the legendary singer-songwriter, "Devil in Mind" and "Sad Joy."
"I really believe that he's one of the greatest songwriters of all time," says Rodriguez. "I can't imagine what my musical life would look like if I hadn't met Chip."
Since that first encounter in 2001, however, Rodriguez has certainly stood on her own feet. Earlier this year, the city of Austin proclaimed January 17 "Carrie Rodriguez Day," citing her contributions to the city's rich musical culture. It's one thing for a successful musician from a small town in Iowa to have a day declared in their honor, but it's another thing entirely when that distinction is bestowed by the city that dubs itself the Live Musical Capital of the World.
"I think it's amazing that our town celebrates its musicians like they do," she says. "It's something the town's proud of."
After performing a song and receiving a certificate declaring her day, Rodriguez went straight to her grandmother's house around the corner and handed it to her. But despite those roots and the honor, she admits that she doesn't always feel like she has a home. In the first seconds on Give Me All You Got, she sings, "Tell me, baby, what you're gonna do/ You got something in mind, got a little time, for a girl just passing through."
"I feel like my home is all over the place," Rodriguez says. "The more that I do this, I develop relationships all over the country with people. If I'm in a place for a week, I can feel like I live there."
For the cover photo of Give Me All You Got, that meant spending a weekend in New Orleans, where she found a graveyard on the outskirts of town with an open mausoleum overgrown with ferns and surrounded by mossy live oaks.
"We wanted it to feel old, and where we ended up was not one of the tourist cemeteries. It was in a rough part of town, and it was 100 degrees and they were having to towel me off every second," Rodriguez recalls. "It was an adventure."
Rodriguez will take another step into history with this Saturday's gig at another unconventional venue, the Circular Congregational Church. Founded in 1681, the sanctuary where Rodriguez will perform was built in 1890 and is known for its rich acoustics and natural reverb, which she expects will nicely accommodate her show with Jacobs.
"It's not what you might imagine for a singer-songwriter show," she explains. "We have six instruments between us, including electric guitar, lap steel, fiddle tenor, a four-string mandolin, and a four-string tenor guitar."
After a short run in the Southeast, she'll fly to the West Coast for several gigs opening for John Prine, before hopping across the pond for a European tour with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, followed by a more leisurely tour with Jacobs through the U.K.
"I just wish I had a little more time to enjoy Charleston. It's such a magical city," says Rodriguez. "Maybe we'll have to take an extra day after the gig."